The Official Languages Act requires all federal institutions to communicate with the public in both official languages (for example, on their websites, on their social media platforms and on the Government of Canada’s Open Government portal.
Federal institutions must also ensure that communications are published simultaneously in both official languages and are of equal quality in English and French.
Under the Act, you have the right to communicate and receive services in the official language of your choice at certain offices of federal institutions if they meet one of the following criteria:
- The office is a head or central office.
- The office is located in the National Capital Region.
- The office belongs to a federal institution that reports directly to Parliament.
- The office is located in an area where there is significant demand, either in Canada or elsewhere, for services and communications in both official languages, including services and communications for the travelling public.
- The nature of the office justifies the use of both official languages for communications with and services to the public (for example, a mandate related to public health or safety).
To find out where you can receive services from a federal institution in the official language of your choice, visit the Burolis directory.
Note: Offices of federal institutions that are not required under the Act to provide bilingual services, both in Canada and elsewhere, still have an obligation to inform you of where you can obtain services in both official languages.
Active offer of bilingual services
If the office of a federal institution has an obligation to provide bilingual services, it must take measures to make it clear to the public that its services are available in both official languages. This is called an “active offer.”
Examples of measures
- Bilingual greeting such as “Hello! Bonjour!”
- Signs and materials in both official languages
- Active offer symbol or other signage in the reception area indicating that services are available in both official languages
Active offer symbol
Active offer symbol elsewhere in Canada
- Bilingual greeting such as “Hello! Bonjour!”
- Bilingual voicemail message
- Domain name in each official language if the federal institution’s name is not bilingual (for example, www.securitepublique.gc.ca and www.publicsafety.gc.ca)
- Bilingual domain name and a choice of language on the home page of the website if the name of the federal institution is bilingual (for example, www.justice.gc.ca).
An active offer must be made as soon as you come into contact with a federal institution. If the institution interacts with you without giving you the choice of communicating in either official language, it is not meeting its obligation.
Furthermore, a federal institution cannot assume the language in which you want to be served simply because you say “Hello” or “Bonjour,” for example. It can, however, use only one official language if you have previously made your preference known to the institution. For example:
- If you communicate with a federal institution on an ongoing basis for a particular service, it does not have to ask you for your official language preference each time. However, if you communicate with the institution for another service, it must make an active offer of services in both official languages.
- A federal institution may have asked you to complete a form on which you indicated the official language in which you want to receive future communications. The institution must, however, give you the opportunity to change your choice.
Third parties acting on behalf of a federal institution
You also have language rights when a person or organization acts on behalf of a federal institution (a third party).
When a private-sector organization acts on behalf of a federal institution, it is required to provide services in both official languages if the following three conditions are met:
- There is a strong link between the services provided by the third party and the mandate or activities of the federal institution.
- The federal institution has control over how the third party’s services are provided.
- Services would have to be provided in both official languages if the federal institution were the one providing them.
When another level of government acts on behalf of a federal institution, your right to receive services in the official language of your choice depends on which level of government is responsible for the services.
There are three possibilities:
- When the federal government is fully responsible for the services (for example, services related to criminal law and procedure), you have the same language rights as if the federal government were the one providing the services.
- When the federal government shares responsibility for services with another level of government (for example, some services related to health and the environment), you have the right to receive services in the official language of your choice from the other level of government if both of the following conditions are met:
- The federal institution has control over how services are provided.
- The services would have to be provided in both official languages if the federal institution were the one providing them.
- When the federal government is not responsible for the services (for example, services related to education at the elementary or high school level), the Official Languages Act does not apply, and you do not have language rights under the Act.
Note: If you file a complaint, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada’s investigation will focus only on the federal institution responsible for the services, and not the third party acting on its behalf. The responsibility for ensuring that services are provided in both languages always rests with the federal institution.
Principle of substantive equality
When a federal institution or a third party acting on its behalf is required to provide services or communications in both official languages, it must ensure that they are of equal quality in English and French.
Substantive equality takes into account the differences between the majority and minority official language groups. To ensure that the quality of the services or communications is equal for to both groups, the federal institution must adapt the services or communications to the needs and characteristics of each group.
Formal equality is when a federal institution provides identical services or communications to both official language groups without considering the differences between them.
Criteria for substantive equality
To determine whether the services or communications provided by a federal institution or by a third party acting on its behalf are substantively equal in English and French, four criteria must be assessed:
- Equal status: English and French have the same status. One language is not more important than the other, even if more people use it in a particular region. Neither language group should ever feel inferior to the other. That’s why, for example, the signs on the buildings of federal institutions have the same size letters in both languages.
- Equal use: When a person has the right to communicate with or receive services from a federal institution in the official language of their choice, the institution cannot force the person to communicate with it or receive services from it in a certain language just because the person understands that language or uses it every day.
- Equal access: For individuals to have a meaningful right to use the official language of their choice, services or communications must be equally accessible and attractive in either official language. For example, the wait time for service must not be longer in one language than in the other.
- Equal quality: There is no substantive equality if the quality of services or communications is better in one language than in the other. The principle of substantive equality does not, however, impose a specific standard of quality.