ARCHIVED - Chapter 1: The 40th Anniversary of the Official Languages Act

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The year 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. Th is makes it a good time to take stock of what has been achieved and what is required in order to reach the objective of this act: the equal status of both official languages. Canada, where English was predominant, has become a country now characterized by linguistic duality. How has this transformation come to pass, and what were the defining moments and challenges? How has the vision of this linguistic duality evolved? This is the focus of the 40 year overview of the Act. A quotation from Commissioner D’Iberville Fortier aptly describes the progression of language reform: “Th e tide of history is often composed of progress, misunderstanding, reversals and ups and downs. The same holds true for the quiet revolution of official languages in Canada.”1

Many participants have contributed to the reform of the Canadian language regime. Some have even been pioneers or key players in the history of the country’s linguistic duality. In this chapter, the contribution of several of these individuals and associations are highlighted.

In order to assess the road travelled over these past 40 years, the status of English and French in Canada before the first Official Languages Act was adopted in 1969 will be briefly described.

Before the 1969 Official languages Act:
A country on the verge of crisis

Concerned by the status of the French language and Francophones in the country, Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson established the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (the B and B Commission) in 1963. He gave it the mandate of recommending “what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada.”2

In a preliminary report published in 1965, the B and B Commission noted the inequality between the English and French languages and sounded the alarm: “We believe that there is a crisis, in the sense that Canada has come to a time when decisions must be taken and developments must occur leading either to its break-up, or to a new set of conditions for its future existence.”3


The Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson and the Origins of Bilingualism

After a successful career in Canadian and international diplomacy, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957, the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson was Prime Minister of Canada from 1963 to 1968.

Having realized that Francophones were not occupying their rightful place in the federal government, he established the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963. His open-mindedness and sense of equality paved the way for the recognition of English and French as the offi cial languages of Canada.

Lester B. Pearson hoped to be the last unilingual prime minister of Canada. In fact, for his successors, knowledge of English and French would become an unoffi cial criterion for the position of prime minister.

The country’s linguistic duality is recognized by the Constitution Act, 1867, but the language guarantees that the Act provides are limited to the right to use English and French in the Parliament of Canada and in the Quebec legislature, as well as before federal and Quebec courts.

Apart from these guarantees and a few examples that were by and large symbolic (such as the presence of both official languages on postage stamps and bank notes as well as the simultaneous interpretation of parliamentary debates), the predominant language of the Canadian state was English. In 1965, barely 9%4 of positions in the federal administration were defined as “bilingual;” services were only offered in English—even in Quebec, in many cases—and Francophones made up just 21%5 of the workforce in federal institutions, despite representing around 28% of the Canadian population.6 Moreover, very few young people were being taught French as a second language in educational institutions.

To remedy this situation, the B and B Commission recommended, among other things, that English and French be formally declared the official languages of the Parliament of Canada, as well as the federal administration and federal courts. The objective was to give Canadians the possibility of communicating with their government in English or French, to offer them equal opportunities to access positions in the federal administration, to enable them to work in the official language of their choice and to strengthen the vitality of official language communities. The B and B Commission’s vision of linguistic duality was based on the notion of two founding peoples, with a view to ensuring equality across the country.

While the B and B Commission was at work, Quebec society was going through a profound transfor mation. A powerful nationalist movement led to the establishment of a provincial government that called for greater autonomy within Canada. The French language and Francophones increasingly gained prominence and their rightful place in the province.


Father Léger Comeau

Father Léger Comeau devoted his life to Acadian vitality and culture, in particular to his fellow Francophone Nova Scotians.

After holding a number of functions in educational institutions in Quebec and New Brunswick, he returned to his province of origin to work at Université Sainte-Anne in 1973. There, he successively held the positions of Director of Continuing Education and French Immersion and of Vice Rector in charge of external relations until his retirement in 1993. He then took on the responsability of Nova Scotia’s Francophone parishes until his death in 1996.

In addition to exercising his duties at Université Sainte-Anne, he played an important role in the social and economic development of the region, founding the University’s Institut de développement communautaire and the Société du logement cooperative. He was also devoted to the Acadian people, which he introduced to the rest of Canada and to the world by heading the Société Nationale de l’Acadie (SNA) and by also being involved in most nationalist Acadian causes and organizations. In recognition of his work, he received a number of national and international distinctions, and the SNA created the Léger-Comeau medal in his honour in 1988. Father Léger Comeau was one of the main architects of the Acadian revival.

At the same time, a number of Francophone politicians rallying around Pierre Elliott Trudeau (including Gérard Pelletier and Jean Marchand) launched themselves into the federal arena in 1965. The presence of these politicians showed that Franco phones and the French language could occupy an important place in the federal government.

1970-1977 The First Commissioner Keith Spicer
Laying the foundations

“[The Office of the Commissioner] seeks [...] to consider justice in State bilingualism simply as an ideal of human dignity and as one of the much-needed long-term bridges to under standing among Canadians.”7

– Keith Spicer, Commissioner of Official Languages

In the wake of the B and B Commission’s recommendations, and thanks to the leadership of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Parliament of Canada adopted the first Official Languages Act in July 1969, giving English and French the status of official languages of Canada. The Act created the position of Commissioner, whose role was defined by the B and B Commission as “the protector of the Canadian public and the critic of the federal government in matters respecting the official languages.”8

The first commissioner, Keith Spicer, took office in April 1970. He saw institutional bilingualism as an ideal of human dignity that called upon the mutual respect of the two language groups. One of his main tasks was to explain the meaning of the Act, which received a rather lukewarm response from the public.

Moreover, the Supreme Court of Canada confi rmed the constitutionality of the Act in response to an objection raised by the mayor of Moncton, Leonard Jones, in 1974. In the Jones case, the highest court in the country established that the language guarantees set forth in the Constitution represented a minimum protection and did not stop Parliament or the provincial legislatures from adopting more generous language regimes. In doing so, the Court introduced the notion of progression towards the equal status of Canada’s official languages.

From the beginning, the Commissioner favoured a broad interpretation of the Act by supporting, in particular, the idea that it recognized public servants’ right to work in the language of their choice, even if this right was not made explicit in the Act. For its part, the federal government felt it was worth making the scope of this right explicit by adopting a parliamentary resolution in 1973, one which also established the principle of full participation of English-speaking and French-speaking communities in the public service. Th e simultaneous adoption of a series of directives on language of work, the methods for designating and staffi ng bilingual positions and the parameters of language training laid the foundations for the internal framework for bilingualism in the public service.

In 1970, a significant step was taken with the establishment of the Official Languages in Education Program by the Secretary of State (Canadian Heritage), which aims to support both instruction in the language of the minority and second-language teaching. Th is program, still running today, served as a testing ground for two important aspects of linguistic duality: support for official language communities and the learning of both languages by Canadians.

The Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act of 1974, which stipulated that both languages must be used on packaged and labelled goods, gave Canada a bilingual image that would become familiar to the whole country.

These measures, taken soon after the adoption of the Act, demonstrated the clear desire of the government of the day to give real momentum to the Act’s implementation. Unfortunately, the government made few efforts to explain the meaning and scope of the Act, and a segment of the Canadian population had the impression that bilingualism would be required of everyone from coast to coast to coast.

The difficulties in getting Canadians to accept lin guistic duality led Commissioner Spicer to remark, at the end of his term, that improvement could only come if young people learned their second official language. He therefore contributed in 1977 to the creation of Canadian Parents for French, an association that plays an active role in promoting French second-language learning and linguistic duality in Canadian society.

During the same period, official language communities outside Quebec were making better-supported claims, calling for measures to remedy the inequality they had suffered for many years. In 1975, they created the Fédération des francophones hors Québec to develop a common vision and give themselves a voice to affirm their language rights.


Hubert Gauthier, a pioneer of many skills

Hubert Gauthier paved the way in several different areas. Born in St. Boniface, Manitoba, he made his mark at the age of 20 by becoming Chief Executive Director of the brand new Société franco-manitobaine in the early 1970s. Along with his colleagues, he advocated more loudly and more openly for governments to respect the Francophone community’s rights, after several years of closed-door negotiations that were, for the most part, unsuccessful.

In 1975, Hubert Gauthier co-founded the Fédération des communautés francophones hors Québec (known as the Fédération des com munautés francophones et acadienne since 1991).

He then spent a number of years in senior positions within Quebec’s health care system. He brought the experience and knowledge he gained back to Manitoba, where he held the position of Chief Executive Officer of the St. Boniface General Hospital from 1999 to 2005. From 2005 to 2008, he was Chief Executive Officer of the national organization Société Santé en français, and was responsible for overseeing the promotion and delivery of health care services in French through networks all across Canada.


Pat Webster and Jos Craven Scott, pioneers of Canadian Parents for French

Canadian Parents for French (CPF) was created in 1977 by Anglophone parents who wanted the Canadian school system to give their children an opportunity to become bilingual.

Having started a movement with other parents to support French second-language programs for students in Oakville, Ontario, Pat Webster helped found CPF in 1977, and was elected the association’s first president. Using her strong organizational and promotional skills, she worked with others to set up CPF, whose membership increased from 20 initially to 26,000 today. Ms. Webster saw the French-language learning movement in English-language schools as a long-term social change that could transform local communities and the country as a whole.

Jos Craven Scott, another pioneer of the association, was involved from the beginning as a volunteer, and helped set up the fi rst CPF branch in Saskatchewan. In 1979, she continued her work at the association’s national office in Ottawa and became the first executive director of CPF, a position she held for over 15 years. Helping students successfully learn French was especially important to her.

Recognition of the contribution of Jos Craven Scott and Pat Webster to French second-language learning is also a testament to the commitment of many parents who have tirelessly worked and continue to work as volunteers in this association, in order to advance French-language teaching across Canada.

The crisis of the Association des gens de l’air du Québec made the last years of Commissioner Spicer’s term difficult. Francophone members asked for bilingual air communications, which provoked fierce opposition from a large segment of the Anglophone population. Th is crisis severely tested English-French relations in Canada. According to Prime Minister Trudeau, it was the worst crisis that Canada had seen since conscription in 1942. The situation was resolved several years later, after studies showed that the use of French did not threaten air safety.

During his tenure, Commissioner Spicer took up an important challenge in giving visibility to the Act and making Canadians understand that Canada had to change. The country, where English was by far the dominant language, had to become bilingual. Th e government therefore took steps to bring about this transformation. However, the foundations of linguistic duality had a relatively limited scope and essentially boiled down to institutional bilingualism in the federal government.

1977-1984 Commissioner Maxwell Yalden
Constitutional recognition of the equal status of English and French

“The enshrinement of language rights in a made-in-Canada Constitution was a very substantial landmark in that process. [...] But there it unquestionably is: a set of constitutional guarantees which effectively says that English and French are our two official languages [...].”9

– Maxwell Yalden, Commissioner of Official Languages

Maxwell Yalden took office in a period of social and political turmoil. The Parti Québécois, elected in 1976, enacted the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) in 1977. Th is law established the predominance of the French language in Quebec, while also recognizing certain rights of the Anglophone communities and the contribution of Anglophone institutions to Quebec society. However, the province’s Anglophone communities challenged certain aspects of the law before the courts, on the grounds that it limited their language rights, particularly in terms of education and signage.

As a good portion of both the Anglophone and Francophone population was sceptical about the relevance of linguistic duality to maintaining the country’s cohesion, Commissioner Yalden took a pragmatic approach to the Act. He stated that its application must be realistic and based on common sense, and remarked that it would not be possible to offer all federal services in both languages in all federal institutions everywhere, whether in Red Deer or Rimouski.

Members of official language communities turned to the courts to ensure respect of their rights, namely with the assistance of the Court Challenges Program, which was created in 1978 and which provided financial assistance to the population. In 1979, the Manitoba Act, 1870, which had abolished the French language’s status as a language of the legislature and the courts, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada (the Forest case). The same day, this court overturned the provisions of the Charter of the French Language that provided that only the French text of statutes and court judgments was official (the Blaikie case).

In 1980, the Government of Quebec held its first referendum on the sovereignty-association project. Although the referendum was rejected by the population, the event highlighted two opposing views of linguistic duality: one claiming that the French identity could only reach its full potential in Quebec, and the other claiming it could flourish across Canada.


Jeanne Beaudoin: A Passion for the French Language and Culture in the Yukon

Jeanne Beaudoin arrived in the Yukon in 1982, and has since supported nearly all the causes of Yukon’s French-speaking community. She greatly contributed to the recognition of the community’s needs and rights, as well as its development in the difficult context resulting from its geographic isolation and low number of Francophones. Th ese challenges make her achievements and successes even more remarkable.

Jeanne Beaudoin is involved in most Francophone community organizations. She was President and Executive Director of the Association franco-yukonnaise, President of the Conseil scolaire francophone and President and Co-Founder of the Commission scolaire francophone du Yukon.

Determined and proud of her Francophone identity, Ms. Beaudoin has devoted her time and energy to ensuring that the new generation of Franco-Yukoners can have access to an environment that fosters their vitality in French. She has thus played an important role with regard to implementing the Yukon’s Languages Act, revising the Education Act and helping Francophones obtain the right to manage their own schools. One of her most important achievements was her active participation in setting up the first French-language daycare (La Garderie du Petit Cheval Blanc) and school (École Émilie-Tremblay) in Whitehorse in 1996 .


The Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Architect of Language Rights

In 1965, the arrival on the federal scene of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada from 1968 to 1979 and from 1980 to 1984, strengthened the representation of Quebecers in Ottawa. An essential aspect of his political vision was the equal status of English and French as a foundation of Canadian society.

As soon as he took office as Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau had the Official Languages Act passed, thereby implementing the main recommendation of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.

The other cornerstone of language rights put in place by the Trudeau government was the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enshrined in the Canadian Constitution in 1982. It included many sections confirming the equal status of English and French in Canada, and recognized the right of parents belonging to official language communities to have their children educated in their language and to manage and control their educational institutions.

Despite this political upheaval, Canadians increasingly recognized the importance of young people learning a second language, particularly through French immersion. From modest beginnings in 1965, immersion gained in popularity and saw a significant jump in enrolment between 1980 and 1990, up from a little over 35,000 to nearly 250,000.10

The year 1982 marked an important milestone in language reform. Th anks to the leadership of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Government of Canada repatriated the Constitution, annexing to it the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter), which confirms the equal status of English and French in Canada as well as the right to be served by federal institutions in the official language of one’s choice. It also confirms the status of New Brunswick as an officially bilingual province: the province adopted its first Official Languages Act in 1969 as well as the Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Official Linguistic Communities in New Brunswick (Bill 88) in 1981.

In addition, the Charter recognizes the right of parents from official language communities to have their children educated in their language.

The Charter is a powerful tool for official language communities wishing to assert their language rights. It certainly formed the cornerstone of the legal basis of Canada’s linguistic duality, which now has a greater scope than that provided by the Official Languages Act. Indeed, the Charter goes beyond federal institutional bilingualism and extends to the vital realm of education.

Commissioner Yalden ended his term by speaking of the need to review the 1969 Official Languages Act so as to ensure, in particular, its compliance with the language provisions of the Charter. In doing so, he laid the groundwork for his successor. Confronted with the language tensions that marked several years of his term, he helped mitigate the backlash from a large segment of the population against the Act.

1984-1991 Commissioner D’Iberville Fortier
A more solid framework

“[…] our past, present and future are marked by language, whether we like it or not.”11

– D’Iberville Fortier, Commissioner of Official Languages

In 1984, a new Progressive Conservative government was elected, declaring its support for linguistic duality and expressing a desire to work towards “national reconciliation.” In his first report, Commissioner D’Iberville Fortier responded by calling for a re-launch of the official languages program, based on an in-depth review of the 1969 Act. He also argued that federal institutions should provide better support to official language communities.

As was the case for his two predecessors, Commissioner Fortier’s term was defined by periods of tension and calm. It was marked by a number of court decisions on language issues, based mostly on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which led to changes in nearly every province. In 1984, in a case involving the Charter of the French Language, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Quebec could not limit access to English schools to children whose parents were educated in English in Quebec.12 This decision recognized the right of parents who were educated in English in the rest of Canada to also send their children to English schools.

The courts also decided cases from other provinces where parents and provincial authorities did not agree on the meaning of the expression “where numbers warrant,” nor whether section 23 of the Charter gave official language communities the right to manage and control education in their language. In Alberta in 1990, the Mahé case gave the Supreme Court of Canada the opportunity to rule that section 23 is “designed to correct, on a national scale, the progressive erosion of minority official language groups”13 and that it would also grant parents in these communities the right to manage and control their educational institutions. This was an important advance in achieving linguistic duality: education was at the very heart of the development and self-identification of official language communities. Linguistic duality was, therefore, based on history, but it also carved a path for the future.

Th is decision provided a liberal interpretation of language rights and therefore differed from the three important decisions rendered in 1986. Th ese decisions interpreted section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867 in such a way that the rights established therein were significantly reduced. In these three cases, the Supreme Court of Canada found that a restrictive interpretation of language rights should be upheld because these rights were founded on political compromise.14

The implementation of the Charter also revived the debate on the application of the Official Languages Act in the Canadian territories. After an attempt by the federal government to clarify the issue through an amendment to the Act, a compromise was reached. In 1984, the Government of Canada signed an agreement with the Government of the Northwest Territories, under which the latter committed to implementing a language regime. For its part, the Government of Canada committed to permanently assuming all costs related to both the provision of services in French to the public and the establish ment of French as an official language in the Northwest Territories.15


Marie Bourgeois: An Unwavering Commitment to British Columbia’s Francophone Community

A native Acadian who lived in Quebec, Marie Bourgeois has now lived in British Columbia for 35 years. Through her leadership and exceptional work on various boards of directors for the province’s Francophone organizations, she has helped represent, promote and defend the interests and rights of Francophones in many areas, such as education, health care and community development. She was President and Executive Director of the Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique for several years.

One of her major achievements was her contribution, in 1990, to the creation of Vancouver’s Maison de la francophonie, of which she is currently President. The Maison has served as a model for a number of centres in other parts of the country. As Francophones are scattered throughout Vancouver and are from many different backgrounds, the Maison de la francophonie is a place for Francophones and Francophone associations to come together and strengthen their community’s identity and solidarity.

Following repeated requests from the Commissioner and offi cial language communities, the government tabled a bill in 1987 for a new Official Languages Act. Adopted in 1988 under the leadership of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the new Act had a much greater scope than that of 1969 and obtained a quasiconstitutional status.16 It contained a preamble, officially recognized the right of federal employees to work in the official language of their choice, included the principle of equitable participation and demonstrated the federal government’s commitment to enhancing the development of official language communities and the advancement of English and French in Canadian society. The Act also provided for the possibility of a court remedy. It thus offered considerable possibilities for the renewal of the official languages program. In 1992, the Act would be supplemented by the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations.

In 1988, the adoption of the Multiculturalism Act reflected the growing diversity of the Canadian population. Canada was now an inclusive and multicultural country, coming together around the principles of linguistic duality and the recognition of Aboriginal peoples’ rights—both cornerstones of Canadian society.

In some provinces, the increasing recognition of language rights did not always go over smoothly. In 1988, Saskatchewan and Alberta adopted laws that abrogated the historic rights of their Franco phone communities. In the same year, Quebec used the notwithstanding clause to maintain the validity of Bill 178, which provided for the exclusive use of French on exterior signage. Moreover, in 1990, a number of Ontario munici palities decided to declare themselves unilingual English. In addition to these events, the failure that same year of the Meech Lake Accord, which aimed to integrate Quebec into the Constitution of 1982 by recognizing its distinct character, for a time severely tested English-French relations.

During Commissioner Fortier’s term, the scope of linguistic duality was significantly broadened with the 1988 Official Languages Act. Th e government’s commitment to the development of official language communities laid the grounwork for these communities’ claims.

1991-1999 Commissioner Victor Goldbloom
Linguistic duality at the heart of national unity

“We cannot preserve the unity of Canada if we set aside the historic premise that we have two official languages.”17

– Victor Goldbloom, Commissioner of Official Languages Commissioner

Victor Goldbloom took office in the difficult period of constitutional reform. The Meech Lake Accord had just failed, as would the Charlottetown Accord in 1992. Conscious of the fact that Canada was going through a decisive period in its history, the Commissioner dedicated all his energy to creating a climate conducive to dialogue between official language communities. He wanted to convince Canadians that language policy could help alleviate tensions rather than aggravate them.

Linguistic duality was once again at the heart of the debates on Canada’s future, and the focus was now on its crucial importance in preserving the country’s unity. The Commissioner gave many speeches across the country, not hesitating to forcefully and convin cingly challenge the arguments of those claiming that Canada’s policy of bilingualism was a failure. He attributed great importance to his role as an ombudsman, since he saw himself mainly as a citizens’ protector charged with ensuring that all Canadians were treated with respect and conside ration. In order to illustrate the composition of Canadian society, he had a symbol of linguistic duality designed.

Symbol of Linguistic Duality

Following in the steps of his predecessors, Commissioner Goldbloom insisted that the federal government launch a campaign to ensure that the language policy was understood and to dispel persisting myths. He reminded people that the cost of the bilingualism programs represented less than 0.5% of the federal budget—a modest sum, considering that these programs were aimed at strengthening Canadian unity.

Meanwhile, official language communities were growing impatient with the lack of progress in language reform, especially regarding the federal government’s commitment to supporting their development—a commitment that was articulated in the 1988 Act. Commissioner Goldbloom carried out two comprehensive studies in 1993–1994: one concerned the availability of services in both official languages at designated bilingual offices; the other, the implementation of Part VII of the Act. The first study showed that, outside Quebec, services were still not available in French in nearly 30% of cases, a proportion that reached 50% in certain Western provinces. Institutional bilingualism still had a long way to go. The other study, entitled A Blueprint for Action, revealed that the government had done little to implement section 41 of Part VII of the 1988 Act, which requires the government’s commitment to enhancing the vitality of official language communities and promoting the recognition and use of English and French in Canadian society. This study suggested a number of possible courses of action to jumpstart the application of section 41, such as assigning the role of coordinator of the entire language policy to the Privy Council Office.


Gretta Chambers, an anglophone with strong roots in Quebec society

Gretta Chambers has been involved in a number of causes in both the Anglophone and Francophone communities of Quebec. As a respected journalist who has worked in both print and television for some 40 years, most notably at The Gazette, she is recognized as an expert on Quebec politics and society. She has worked in numerous organizations and institutions in the Anglophone and Francophone communities, namely as Chancellor of McGill University (1991–1999).

Gretta Chambers has played an important role in the field of English-language education in Quebec. She chaired the working group on the English-language school network, whose report, submitted in 1992, sounded the alarm on the decline of the English-language school system. Th e working group’s report produced positive results, and raised awareness in the Anglophone communities about the importance of community involvement in this issue. Also in 1992, a committee was created to advise the Minister of Education. This committee has been headed since its inception by Gretta Chambers, and plays an important role in the management of the English-language school network.

The desired revitalization of both linguistic duality within the federal government and the support of the official language communities did not materialize. Instead, in the mid-1990s, the Govern ment of Canada carried out a cost-cutting exercise to reduce the deficit, which resulted in a number of setbacks, such as a reduction in support for official language communities, a more limited role for the Treasury Board and a lack of progress in implementing Part VII of the Act. The Commissioner concluded that these transformations had contributed to “a subtle but cumulative erosion of language rights.”18

Nevertheless, progress was being made in the provinces as a result of the decisions of the courts or of greater openness towards official languages. For example, in compliance with the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision, Quebec modified the Charter of the French Language in 1993 so as to allow the use of languages other than French on exterior commercial signage, as long as the French was still predominant.

Encouragingly, the proportion of Canadians supporting linguistic duality continued to rise, reaching 64% in 1993.19

The very close results of the 1995 referendum on Quebec’s future showed that the question of the province’s place within Canada was far from being resolved.

At the end of the decade, the Supreme Court of Canada issued its ruling in the Beaulac case20 in what was to become a turning point in the inter pretation of language rights. In fact, the highest court in the country, in a decision written by Justice Bastarache, categorically rejected the argument that language rights stemmed from political compromise, and that they should therefore be interpreted in a restrictive way. The decision confirmed that language rights should always be interpreted in light of their purpose and in a manner compatible with the maintenance and development of official language communities in Canada. The Court also held that the principle of substantive equality requires the government to take positive measures to ensure implementation of language rights.


The Honourable Michel Bastarache and the recognition of language rights

The Honourable Michel Bastarache had a brilliant career in the judiciary after a varied and successful career path as a lawyer, law professor, senior federal public servant and chief executive officer of the Moncton insurance company Assumption Life. He became a judge in the Court of Appeal of New Brunswick in 1995 and, two years later, was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, where he held his position until the summer of 2008.

Justice Bastarache revitalized language rights in Canada. He participated in three key decisions (the Secession Reference, the Beaulac case and the Arsenault-Cameron case) and had a hand in writing the Court’s reasons for judgment in these last two cases. He established the key principles of language rights in these cases, especially regarding the broad and liberal interpretation of rights, substantive equality, the unwritten principle of protection for official language communities and the remedial purpose of language rights. He also oversaw the publication, in 2004, of the second edition of Language Rights in Canada, as well as that of The Law of Bilingual Interpretation in 2008. His vision has led to considerable advances in language rights.

In a time of political, social and economic difficulty, Commissioner Goldbloom relentlessly defended the importance of linguistic duality as a central component of national unity and social cohesion. However, the fight against the deficit effectively put the official languages program on the backburner, a setback that would not be overcome until the introduction of the Action Plan for Official Languages in 2003.

1999-2006 Commissioner Dyane Adam
A revival founded on communities, duality and diversity

“Last year will be remembered as a turning point for official languages in Canada. The amendments brought to the Official Languages Act in November 2005 do indeed point to the new course the Government of Canada must follow to ensure the vitality of both official language communities and promote our country’s linguistic duality.”21

– Dyane Adam, Commissioner of Official Languages

Commissioner Dyane Adam’s term was quiet on the constitutional front. However, this period of political calm and the struggle with the deficit had the effect of reducing the importance of official languages as a government priority. Commissioner Adam felt that, were the situation to persist, it would risk compro mising the pursuit of language reform for a long time to come. It was urgent to revitalize the official languages program on all fronts: within the federal government, through the support of official language communities and through the advancement of English and French in Canadian society. The Commissioner believed that change comes through the mobilization of the political and administrative leadership, as well as through the use of all the powers conferred by the Act (ombudsman, promotion, audits and court remedy), allowing her to serve as an agent of change. Dyane Adam was also able to count on the support of political leaders to revitalize language reform.

A first step in promoting this revitalization was taken in 2001, through the appointment of the first minister responsible for official languages, who set about to prepare an action plan. Launched in 2003 for a period of five years, the Action Plan 2003–2008 initially provided an additional $751.3 million for official languages. As a new project, this governmental plan took into account the main issues tackled by the official languages program: education for members of official language communities in their language, the teaching of English or French as a second language, community development and the public service. As well as setting objectives, this plan included the Accountability and Coordination Framework, which established the responsibilities of the main federal organizations and entrusted the Privy Council Office with its general coordination. With the Action Plan for Official Languages, the government, for the first time, set out a comprehensive vision of Canada’s linguistic duality and a consistent mode of governance.

Commissioner Adam attached great importance to the development of official language communities and aimed to ensure that their environment fostered their vitality. These communities should be able to rely on institutions that reflect their culture. Besides having access to education in their own language, they should be able to receive public services, such as health care, justice, support for early childhood and support for economic development, in their own language. Moreover, Francophone communities should further benefit from the contribution of Francophone immigration in order to ensure their vitality. As a step in this direction, the government recognized this need by including in the 2002 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act a provision stating that immigration should promote the development of official language communities.

Still, court remedies22 remained an important tool in ensuring the recognition of language rights of official language communities. In 2002, the mobilization of Francophones and the intervention of the courts halted an attempt to close the Montfort Hospital in Ottawa and to then reduce the services it offered. Th e outcome was a victory for Francophones.

In addition, progress was made within the public service: in 2004, the Treasury Board revised official languages policies and directives. One of these policies now requires imperative staffing for bilingual positions.

A major step forward was also taken in 2005 when Parliament adopted Bill S-3, thanks to the ongoing interventions of official language communities and the Commissioner, and most notably the unflagging work of Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier. This bill, which clarified the scope of Part VII of the Official Languages Act, not merely commits but requires federal institutions to take positive measures to enhance the development of these communities and promote linguistic duality in Canadian society. Th is change consolidated the legal bases of Canadian duality. The challenge now was to proceed with the implementation of the Act.

Throughout her term, Commissioner Adam paid particular attention to the changing composition of Canada’s linguistic landscape. As she saw the country become increasingly cosmopolitan and mul tilingual (nearly 20% of the population was of neither British nor French descent), she believed that this new reality should transform our vision of linguistic duality. “Duality and diversity are far from being contradictory. In fact, it is the very dualist tradition at the root of our society which has made us particularly open to diversity. In turn, it is now Canada’s diversity that can and should contribute to our linguistic duality.”23

The government therefore had to find a fair balance between linguistic duality and the diversity of the population, two founding principles of Canadian society. Sociologist Will Kymlicka puts it well in his description of this new Canada: “[…] Canada is a world leader in three of the most important areas of ethnocultural relations: immigration, indigenous peoples, and the accommodation of minority nationalisms.”24


The Honourable Jean-Robert Gauthier, advocate for franco-ontarians and the Canadian francophonie

Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier has dedicated more than 40 years of his life to advocating for the rights of Franco-Ontarians and official language communities in Canada. He initially carried out this role as a school commissioner (1961–1971), then as a member of Parliament (1972–1993) and a senator (1993–2004). He played an important role in many areas: funding and self-management of French-language schools, the constitutional renewal and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the fight against the closure of Montfort Hospital and the application of the Official Languages Act. He was a committed member of the Standing Joint Committee on Official Languages, and later the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages.

The Senator’s achievements include his contribution to part of the wording of subsection 23(3) in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which concerns the right to an education in the language of the minority. His accepted suggestion to replace “educational facilities” with “minority language educational facilities” led to recognition of offi cial language communities’ right to manage and control their own schools. Senator Gauthier also left a lasting legacy in language rights, as the force behind the bill to amend the Official Languages Act in 2005. In this last case, Senator Gauthier’s unrelenting efforts helped strengthen Part VII of the Official Languages Act, thereby giving official language communities an essential tool for their development.

Commissioner Adam ended her term by noting the enormous advances that had been made in establish ing linguistic duality as a part of Canada’s core values, while also underlining that more progress was crucial. “Like cultural diversity, we must see linguistic duality as a source of social reinforcement,”25 she stressed. This linguistic duality, expressed for a long time through the concept of two founding peoples, has been enriched through the contribution of diversity and of the Aboriginal peoples.

2006 to the present Commissioner Graham Fraser
Linguistic duality, a fundamental part of Canadian identity

“[…] I want English and French to be fully appreciated, not as foreign languages, but as Canadian languages: central elements of Canadian identity that are critical to the national discourse.”26

– Graham Fraser, Commissioner of Official Languages

The sixth commissioner began his term following the arrival on the political scene of a new Conservative government.

Commissioner Graham Fraser has set out his vision of linguistic duality, one that places it right at the heart of Canadian identity. He feels that this duality takes on even greater significance as cultural diversity increases: learning a second language, and the open-mindedness that this encourages, allows people to be more accepting of other cultures.

The Commissioner has expressed his expectation that these entirely appropriate language policy principles and the significant sums invested over the years by successive governments will produce more concrete results. The Commissioner has also pointed out certain inconsistencies in the official languages program—for example, the unrecognized importance of the knowledge of both languages in universities, compared with the energy and resources invested in this area at the primary and secondary levels. In fact, the public service, which is in the midst of a renewal process, is in need of a high number of bilingual graduates.

The Commissioner has placed great importance on the development of official language communities. He has urged that the new Part VII of the 2005 Official Languages Act be implemented and that an initiative succeed the Action Plan 2003–2008.

At the same time, in the fall of 2006, the government completed its expenditure review. The official languages program suffered some cutbacks, including the elimination of the Court Challenges Program that had, since 1994, enabled important cases on the rights of official language communities to be brought before the courts. The communities strongly protested and presented their case in Federal Court. The Commissioner investigated the matter and concluded, in the fall of 2007, that, in eliminating the Court Challenges Program, the government had not respected its obligations under Part VII of the Act. Reinforced by the Commissioner’s intervention, the communities’ mobilization was successful: in June 2008, the government announced a new language rights support program to financially support court remedies.

Within the public service, budget cutbacks have also had repercussions: the Canada Public Service Agency abolished the Official Languages Innovation Fund and reduced its monitoring program. Furthermore, a new management model for language training has meant that this responsibility falls entirely on the departments, which have not received any additional resources. Finally, in 2009, the government announced the abolition of the Canada Public Service Agency. The Agency’s responsibilities now fall to the new Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer, which reports to the Treasury Board Secretariat, a change which, while potentially positive, has continued to foster a climate of instability in the area of human resources.

The systemic problems revealed by the complaints and the report cards of some 30 institutions indicate that progress has been minimal with regard to official languages, and there has even been a decline regarding language of work. Commissioner Fraser has clearly expressed his concerns: the goodwill expressed in government statements has not been translated into action on the ground and has not produced convincing results. The Commissioner has therefore encouraged political and administrative authorities to exercise better leadership in order to incorporate official languages into organizational culture. “Linguistic duality is not only a requirement—it’s a value and an essential characteristic of public sector leadership.”27

Moreover, to help reverse this plateau in the Act’s implementation, the Commissioner has decided to renew his role as ombudsman, in order to obtain better results when dealing with complaints. He wants complaints to be addressed in a more lasting and efficient manner, and problems to be prevented at their source, through closer collaboration with institutions so that they adopt preventive strategies.

Meanwhile, official language communities called loud and clear for the renewal of the Action Plan 2003–2008, which was scheduled to expire in March 2008. In June of the same year, the Government of Canada announced the Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality 2008–2013: Acting for the Future, which provided for an investment of $1.1 billion to promote both linguistic duality among Canadians and support for official language communities in five sectors: health, justice, immigration, economic development, and arts and culture. While, overall, the Roadmap 2008–2013 seems to adequately address the communities’ needs, it does not contain any ambitious vision for the implementation of the official languages program in federal institutions, which were in need of fresh ideas. What is more, unlike the Action Plan 2003–2008, the Roadmap 2008–2013 does not include an accountability and coordination framework.

However, new energy may come from the recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Desrochers case,28 which scored an important victory for linguistic equality. This decision marked the end of a hard-fought battle, thanks to the tenacity of the linguistic minority of Ontario’s Georgian Bay area as well as the Commissioner, who showed his support and solidarity through court interventions all the way to the highest court in the country.

Armed with a unanimous decision from the Supreme Court of Canada clarifying the government’s obligations regarding linguistic equality, Commissioner Fraser is beginning the third year of his term determined to keep up the pressure on the government. In a difficult economic climate, linguistic duality—which constitutes the cornerstone of Canadian identity, according to Prime Minister Stephen Harper—must remain a national priority achieved through concrete government action.


This overview of the road that has been travelled shows that the status of official languages has seen immense progress since the adoption of the Official Languages Act in 1969. As has been seen, this evolution is the result of advances and setbacks, of periods of questioning and of calm. Nevertheless, thanks to the efforts of a great many people (political leaders, representatives from both the majority and minority communities, educators, federal employees, etc.) and to the investment of resources, significant progress has been made.

Each in their own way, the six commissioners have contributed to shaping a society that better reflects Canada’s linguistic duality. With the support of the courts, they have continually expanded the notion of linguistic duality. While this notion was initially limited to institutional bilingualism, it now extends to a number of areas in Canadian society.

Linguistic duality is, without a doubt, a characteristic of Canadian society. It was at the very heart of this country’s foundation and is a part of our national history. It has encouraged respect for differences and the acceptance of diversity. If tolerance and a sense of accommodation are engraved in Canadian values, it is in large part thanks to our duality, which has taught us to respect each other.

Enormous progress has been made since 1969, at which time our goal was the institutional bilingualism of the State. Over time, and despite many upheavals and setbacks, Canada’s language policy has broadened its scope to many sectors of society.

That said, there are still important challenges ahead. While the progress in achieving the legal recognition of language rights has been considerable thus far, results are mixed when it comes to implementing the Official Languages Act. After 40 years, institutional bilingualism should be a given. However, little progress has been made in the past few years. Federal services are not always automatically offered in both languages everywhere in the designated bilingual offices, and the situation regarding language of work is stagnating. What is more, the problem of chronic under-representation of Anglophones in the federal public service in Quebec persists. All-too-frequent cutbacks and a continuing lack of leadership are causes for concern. The principles of the Act are adopted, but there is too large a gap between what is being said and what is being done.

The development of official language communities is improving, but remains fragile. The provincial and territorial governments must facilitate access to education in French and improve student retention, as only 49% of eligible students29 are enrolled in a French-language school. Education is also an important issue for the Anglophone communities in Quebec. In some regions, the mass exodus of Anglophones and the aging of the population are reducing the number of eligible students, which threatens the survival of English-language schools. Moreover, young Anglophones are enrolling in French-language schools so that they can master the French language, making the continued existence of English-language schools even more precarious. It is important to support English-language schools so that they are able to offer quality French secondlanguage programs. Official language communities all too often have to turn to the courts to assert their rights, which are nevertheless clearly part of the legal bases of the Canadian language regime.

With regard to second-language learning, progress has been slow. According to the 2006 census data, only 22.3% of Canadians aged 15 to 19 are bilingual (a decline of approximately 2% since the 2001 census). This proportion is disappointing, particularly when the Action Plan 2003–2008 aimed to raise it to 50% by 2013.

The government needs to use public service renewal to further advance true linguistic duality in federal institutions. There must not be any interruption, and the difficult economic situation cannot be used as a pretext for slowing down. On the contrary, a crisis always provides an opportunity. As shown by the evolution of the status of official languages, a period of stoppage or setbacks has lingering effects that last nearly a decade. Québec City’s 400th anniversary celebrations, the 40th anniversary of the Official Languages Act and the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games should all serve as springboards for a new leap forward, so that linguistic duality can be firmly established as a Canadian value.

Key progress in language reform over the past 40 years has coincided with periods of strong leadership. The stage is set for such strong leadership now.


1. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 1990 Annual Report, Ottawa, 1991, p. xxvii.

2. André Laurendeau and A. Davidson Dunton (co-chairs), Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, “Book I: General Introduction – The Official Languages,” Ottawa, Queen’s Printer, 1967, p. xxi.

3. André Laurendeau and A. Davidson Dunton (co-chairs), Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, “Preliminary Report,” Ottawa, Queen’s Printer, February 1965, p. 133.

4. Jean-Louis Gagnon and A. Davidson Dunton (co-chairs), Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, “Book III: The Work World,” Ottawa, Queen’s Printer, 1969, p. 357.

5. Ibid., p. 210.

6. Louise Marmen and Jean-Pierre Corbeil, “The French Language,” New Canadian Perspectives: Languages in Canada, 2001 Census, Heritage Canada and Statistics Canada, Ottawa, 2004, p. 23.

7. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 1970–1971 Annual Report, Ottawa, 1971, p. 4.

8. André Laurendeau and A. Davidson Dunton (co-chairs), Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, “Book I: General Introduction – The Official Languages,” Ottawa, Queen’s Printer, 1967, p. 141.

9. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 1982 Annual Report, Ottawa, 1983, p. 2.

10. Canadian Heritage, Official Languages: Annual Report 2003–2004, Ottawa, 2004, p. 31.

11. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 1990 Annual Report, Ottawa, 1991, p. xxx.

12. Quebec (A.G.) v. Quebec Protestant School Boards, [1984] 2 S.C.R. 66.

13. Mahé v. Alberta, [1990] 1 S.C.R. 342.

14. Société des Acadiens du Nouveau-Brunswick Inc. v. Association of Parents for Fairness in Education, [1986] 1 S.C.R. 549; MacDonald v. Montreal (City of), [1986] 1 S.C.R. 460; Bilodeau v. Manitoba (A.G.), [1986] 1 S.C.R. 449.

15. The Supreme Court of Canada is expected to rule soon on the Government of Canada’s constitutional responsibility regarding the Northwest Territories’ Francophone community.

16. Canada (A.G.) v. Viola (1990), [1991] 1 F.C. 373 (C.A.).

17. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 1991 Annual Report, Ottawa, 1992, preface.

18. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, Government Transformations: Th e Impact on Canada’s Official Languages Program, Ottawa, 1998, p. i.

19. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 1994 Annual Report, Ottawa, 1994, p. 3.

20. R. v. Beaulac, [1999] 1 S.C.R. 768.

21. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 2005–2006 Annual Report, Ottawa, 2006, forward.

22. In 2000, in Arsenault-Cameron v. Prince Edward Island, [2000] 1 S.C.R. 3, the Supreme Court of Canada consolidated the principle of school management by the communities. In Doucet-Boudreau v. Nova Scotia (Minister of Education), [2003] 3 S.C.R. 3, the same court affirmed that the courts must issue remedies based on the purpose of the right, and that they can retain their jurisdiction until the remedy has been implemented.

23. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 2002–2003 Annual Report, Ottawa, 2003, p. 9.

24. Will Kymlicka, Finding Our Way: Rethinking Ethnocultural Relations in Canada, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 2-3.

25. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 2005–2006 Annual Report, Ottawa, 2006, p. i.

26. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 2006–2007 Annual Report, Ottawa, 2007, p. v.

27. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 2007–2008 Annual Report, Ottawa, 2008, p. v.

28. Desrochers v. Canada (Industry), 2009 SCC 8. The judgment was rendered on February 5, 2009.

29. Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out the three categories of parents whose children are eligible to receive instruction in the minority language of a province or territory. The term “eligible student” refers to a child whose parent is a citizen of Canada and (i) whose first language learned and still understood is that of the linguistic minority population, or (ii) who has received his or her primary school instruction in a province where the language in which he or she received that instruction is the language of the linguistic minority population, or (iii) of whom any child has received or is receiving primary or secondary school instruction in Canada in the language of the minority.

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