Objectively Establishing a Position’s Language Requirements

A serious issue in the federal public service

The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages regularly processes complaints about breaches of section 91 of the Official Languages Act. These accounted for 31% of all complaints received by the Office of the Commissioner in 2019–‍2020.

What is the purpose of section 91?

Section 91 of the Act requires federal institutions to establish language requirements objectively during staffing actions in order to ensure that:

  • communications and services are provided to the public in both official languages; and
  • the language-of-work rights of federal public servants are respected.

Why does this matter?

  • Where the Act applies, which means in the designated bilingual offices of federal institutions, clients have the right to be served in the official language of their choice.
  • In designated bilingual regions, federal public servants have the right to work in the official language of their choice, which means:
    • being supervised and having access to training in their choice of English or French;
    • writing documents in their choice of either English or French;
    • speaking in either English or French during meetings; and
    • working in an environment that is conducive to the use of both official languages.

How does this issue affect public servants?

Many public servants find themselves in situations where their language-of-work rights are not respected because the people they’re dealing with do not have the essential language skills they need to be able to perform their duties properly. Here are two fictional examples.


Mr. Sabourin is a French-speaking CS-02 database administrator in Ottawa. His supervisor wants to conducts his performance review in English, because she is not fluent enough in French. Because English is his second language, Mr. Sabourin is reluctant to openly and honestly discuss his review with his team leader.


Ms. Larsen works as an administrative assistant in a federal office in Montréal. She works in English. One morning, an error message appears on her computer. When she contacts the help desk, however, she can’t explain the problem clearly enough to the technical advisor because he doesn’t understand English very well.

How does this issue affect Canadians?

The next two fictional examples illustrate situations in which Canadians can end up receiving inadequate service in their preferred official language because the public servants who are serving them do not have the essential language skills:


Mr. Arseneau wants to contact the Canada Revenue Agency because he has questions about the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. However, he has to wait on hold much longer than expected because very few call centre employees speak French.


Ms. Kirby’s passport was damaged during a boat tour while she was on vacation in Guadeloupe. When she went to the consulate to replace it, no one at reception was able to speak to her in English.

What does the Office of the Commissioner think should be done about this recurring issue?

The Office of the Commissioner’s report on section 91 of the Act found that some federal institutions had put measures in place to rectify the situation. However, there are still many ongoing issues in the public service that are preventing the language requirements of positions from always being established objectively. The Commissioner of Official Languages has made recommendations to all federal institutions and to the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat to address this systemic issue.

The Office of the Commissioner has also developed its Tool for the Linguistic Identification of Positions to assist hiring managers with the following tasks:

  • Determining the language requirement of the position (English Essential, French Essential, English or French Essential [“either/or”], or Bilingual)
  • Determining the linguistic profile (combination of levels B and/or C) of Bilingual positions.

Objectively establishing the key language skills that job applicants need to have will help public service managers to ensure that the successful candidate is the one who best meets the needs of both the federal institution and the public it serves.

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