History of Official Languages

In 1867, the year of Confederation, English and French became the languages of the Parliament of Canada. Throughout the first century of our country’s existence, however, the two languages did not enjoy equal recognition.

By the early 1960s, Quebec was starting to demand enhanced status of its language and culture. The country was ready for some soul searching, and so the federal government established the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. This commission spent seven years creating a realistic portrayal of Canadian society and ultimately came up with a damning assessment of the situation: Canada was facing the most serious crisis in its history. To resolve the crisis, the Commission made several recommendations, including declaring English and French to be Canada’s official languages and improving the balance between the two languages within the federal public service.

The First Official Languages Act

Partly in response to the Commission’s recommendations, the Parliament of Canada enacted the first Official Languages Act in July 1969. The Act recognized the equal status of English and French throughout the federal administration. Its primary goal was to ensure that Canadian citizens had access to federal services in the official language of their choice. The Act also established the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, whose role consists of ensuring compliance with the Act, investigating complaints from the public, conducting studies and reporting to Parliament.

Developments Since 1969

Since 1969, numerous events have contributed to fostering the equality of English and French in federal institutions and in Canadian society. The act has undergone several changes over the years that have expanded its substance and scope. A new Official Languages Act was adopted in 1988 and then revised in 2005. For more information on these changes, please see the History of the Official Languages Act. To follow the course of events related to official languages in Canadian society since 1969, please see the timeline.

Other Resources

Former Commissioners of Official Languages
Portraits of the six people who have headed up the Office of the Commissioner since its inception, as well as videos in which the current commissioner and his predecessors tell us about their respective mandates and share their thoughts on their vision.

40th Anniversary of the Official Languages Act
A chapter on the history of the Official Languages Act from the Commissioner’s 2008–2009 annual report.

Déjà Vu: 40 Years of Language and Laughter in Political Cartoons
An overview of the exhibition that showcases 40 years of political cartoons.

Special 40th Anniversary Edition
A special issue of our e-newsletter that includes 40 articles on various topics related to the history of official languages.