Official languages in Canada: Fact or myth?

Must all Canadian citizens be bilingual? Does linguistic duality create division? Can a unilingual employee get a job with the federal government?

At the heart of Canada’s identity and culture, official languages are surrounded by sometimes contradictory observations and preconceived ideas. These myths undermine the objective of the Official Languages Act and mutual understanding between the country’s English-speaking and French-speaking communities.

For English and French to be equal and respected in Canada, we must dispel the myths about official languages and begin shedding light on the realities. Here are some of the common myths—and the facts—about official languages.

Myth

The Official Languages Act requires all Canadian citizens to be bilingual.

Fact

The Official Languages Act requires the federal government and its institutions to provide service in English and French. Therefore, under the Act, the federal government is responsible for serving and communicating with Canadian citizens in the official language of their choice. Obviously, this means that some federal government jobs are held by employees who are able to provide service in both official languages.

Myth

Private businesses and national, provincial and local not-for-profit organizations must comply with the Official Languages Act.

Fact

Not-for-profit organizations and Canadian businesses are not subject to the Official Languages Act and are therefore not required to meet the language obligations under the Act unless they are providing services on behalf of the Government of Canada. In addition, some organizations, such as Air Canada, CN and NAV CANADA, have retained language obligations following their privatization.

Myth

You must be bilingual to hold a position in the federal public service.

Fact

In order to provide service in both official languages, the federal public service must have a certain number of bilingual and unilingual employees. According to the Treasury Board’s Annual Report on Official Languages for Fiscal Year 2017 to 2018:

  • 42.9% of positions are bilingual;
  • 49.7% of positions are English essential;
  • 3.5% of positions are French essential; and
  • 3.9% of positions are English or French essential.

Hiring practices rest on a merit-based system, particularly with respect to language skills. Staffing procedures are based on an assessment of the candidate’s language proficiency rather than his or her language background. Under the Public Service Employment Act, the Public Service Commission of Canada has the authority to make appointments to and within the public service.

Myth

Linguistic duality creates division between English-speaking and French-speaking communities.

Fact

Although Canada has two official languages groups, one English-speaking and one French-speaking, this does not mean there is a divide between them. On the contrary, tolerance and accommodation are deeply ingrained Canadian values, in large part thanks to our linguistic duality, which has taught us to coexist and respect one another. In fact, the Official Languages Act encourages those who are interested in doing so to learn the second official language.

Myth

Canadians are not interested in bilingualism and do not recognize the importance of linguistic duality.

Fact

According to the 2016 survey on official languages and bilingualism, 84% of Canadians support bilingualism in Canada as a whole, while 88% support the objectives of the Official Languages Act. In addition, 8 out of 10 Canadians recognize that the existence of two official languages contributes positively to Canada’s international image, and the same proportion of Canadians agree that more needs to be done to enable young people to become bilingual.

Myth

With such cultural diversity, there are more speakers of non-official languages in Canada than there are French speakers.

Fact

Canada greatly benefits from its linguistic diversity—a growing diversity that includes the official languages (English and French), first languages (Indigenous languages, such as Cree, Ojibwa and Inuktut) and the heritage languages spoken by various groups of immigrants and subsequent generations (Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, Arabic, Italian, German and Greek, for example).

According to the most recent census, in 2016:

  • nearly 10.4 million Canadians, or 29.7% of the population, could speak French, which is more people than ever in Canadian history;
  • nearly 8.2 million Canadians, or 23.4% of the population, spoke French at least regularly at home; and
  • the most common language at home after English and French was Mandarin, spoken at least regularly by nearly 650,000 people, or 1.8% of the population.

Myth

Only Francophones can become bilingual, which is why they are over-represented in the federal public service.

Fact

All Canadians who wish to do so should have access to opportunities to become bilingual. This learning is important for the functioning of the Government, not only to meet obligations related to communication with the public, the delivery of services and language of work, but also because the principle of equitable participation of English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians is protected by the Official Languages Act (Part VI).

In general, the public service is becoming increasingly bilingual. In fact, according to the Treasury Board’s Annual Report on Official Languages for Fiscal Year 2017 to 2018, nearly 95% of federal employees who hold bilingual positions meet the language requirements of their position.

However, this does not mean that, according to the figures, English speakers or French speakers are necessarily favoured. In fact, according to the latest Treasury Board report, for all institutions subject to the Act, 74% of employees had English as their first official language and 25.9% had French as their first official language; this participation rate closely reflects that of the entire Canadian population.

Myth

Federal institutions in Quebec are not required to provide services in both official languages.

Fact

The Official Languages Act applies to all federal institutions, regardless of their location in Canada’s provinces and territories.

Myth

Bilingualism is bad for the economy.

Fact

Bilingualism actually has many economic benefits. Knowledge of Canada’s two official languages promotes access to jobs and individual mobility, and could therefore stimulate economic growth through better communication and more harmonious intergroup relations. In the context of globalization, bilingualism is increasingly perceived as a competitive advantage and added value.

Myth

In New Brunswick, all of the province’s language obligations fall under Canada’s Official Languages Act.

Fact

Some Canadian provinces and territories have adopted their own policies and legislation to protect official languages. This is the case in New Brunswick, which has its own Official Languages Act requiring provincial government institutions (departments, Crown corporations, hospitals, police services, etc.) to serve members of the public in the official language of their choice.

Date modified:
2020-09-18