2. Language rights

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The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects our linguistic duality, or, in other words, the language rights of Canadians.

Highlights of the history of language rights in Canada

1867  The Constitution Act, 1867 permits the use of English and French in Parliament and in the courts. The laws of Parliament and the legislature of Quebec are published in both official languages.
1927 Stamps become bilingual.
1936 Bank notes become bilingual.
1959 Simultaneous interpretation in Parliament begins.
1963 The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism begins.
1969 Parliament enacts the Official Languages Act. The same year, New Brunswick officially becomes a bilingual province.
1970 The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages is created.
1982 The Constitution Act, 1982, which incorporates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is adopted. Language rights are strengthened.
1988 Canada’s new Official Languages Act is adopted.
2005 The Official Languages Act is amended.

 

2.1 Is Canada officially bilingual? What does the Charter say about this?

The following provision of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedomsconfirms the importance of linguistic duality and the equal status of Canada’s two official languages.

English and French are the official languages of Canada and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and governmentof Canada.[subsection 16(1)]

Sections 16 to 20 guarantee the right of every individual to use the official language of his or her choice in Parliament, in some communications with the federal public service and in federal courts. Archives, legislation, reports and minutes of meetings are printed in both official languages and each version has equal force of law. The public also has the right to use English or French to communicate with the federal government in some situations.

Briefly put, sections 16 to 20 of the Charter officially establish the bilingual nature of institutions. That right existed prior to the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but since it did not have the force of law, Parliament could amend it more easily.

2.2 What Canadian provinces are officially bilingual?

The Charter recognizes the bilingual nature of only one province: New Brunswick.

English and French are the official languages of New Brunswick and have equality of status andequal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the legislature and government of New Brunswick. [subsection 16(2)]

The Canadian Constitution protects the language rights of New Brunswickers. As a result, every resident of that province has the right to use English or French in the province’s legislative assembly. New Brunswickers also have the right to receive services from the provincial government in the official language of their choice.

2.3 Are language rights protected in the other provinces?

Language rights vary greatly from one province and territory to the next. At the time of Confederation, Quebec and Manitoba recognized some language rights. New Brunswick was the first province to encourage linguistic duality by passing the very first Official Languages Act in 1969.

In 1977, the Quebec government enacted the Charter of the French Language (often referred to as Bill 101). This legislation makes French the official language of the province; however, it also recognizes some rights of the Anglophone minority, such as the right to use either English or French before the courts of Quebec, and obligates the province to print and publish its laws in both official languages.

Today, all provinces except British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador have passed legislation or adopted language policies that promote the recognition of official languages or the provision of services in French.

The following Web pages contain more information on provincial policies:

2.4 Do the language rights in the Charter have an impact on Canadian society?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has reinforced language rights in Canada and created a new dynamic with regard to respecting the language rights of Canada’s Anglophones and Francophones. Bilingualism is making headway and young Canadians benefit from this linguistic duality in their day-to-day lives. A sense of pride has spread across the country. Learning both official languages helps to break down cultural barriers and fosters openness to others, understanding and mutual respect.

2.5 What is the role of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages?

The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages was created in 1969 with the adoption of the first Official Languages Act. Its mission is to protect the language rights of Canadians. The Act proclaims that English and French have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and government of Canada. A new Official Languages Act was passed in 1988, and the Act was amended in 2005 to remind federal institutions of their duty to take positive measures to ensure the development of official language communities and to foster full recognition and use of both English and French.

In 2006, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, nominated Graham Fraser for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages. He has been appointed for a seven-year term and reports directly to Parliament. Graham Fraser has been interested in linguistic duality all of his life. Before becoming Commissioner, he worked as a journalist for the Toronto Star, Maclean’s, the Montreal Gazette and the Globe and Mail. He has often been asked to speak on various matters related to official languages across the country.

The Commissioner’s mandate is to enforce the Official Languages Act. This law confers on him two major roles: protection and promotion.

In his protection role, the Commissioner investigates complaints filed by citizens who feel their language rights have been violated. He also works preventively by monitoring the extent to which federal institutions are complying with the Official Languages Act. In addition, he occasionally intervenes before the courts in cases that deal with the status and use of English or French.

In his promotion role, the Commissioner works to forge links between federal institutions, official language communities and the different levels of government in order to help them better understand the needs of official language communities, emphasize the importance of bilingualism and highlight the value of respecting Canada’s linguistic duality. In concrete terms, the Commissioner fulfills his promotion role by conducting research, studies and public awareness activities as well as by intervening with senior officials to ensure that their decisions have a positive effect in the area of official languages.

The Web site of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, contains more information on the role of the Commissioner.

2.6 Do students have the right to attend school in either official language anywhere in Canada?

The question of the language of instruction of children, whether in English or in French, has always been a matter of concern in Canada. Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms obligates the provincial governments to provide instruction in the minority language of that province where numbers warrant.

In all provinces (except Quebec) and territories, parents can have their children educated in French if they meet any of the following criteria:

  • Their mother tongue of one of the parents is French;
  • One of the parents received his or her own primary school instruction in Canada in French;
  • One of the parents has a child who has received or is receiving his or her instruction in Canada in French.

In Quebec, parents have the right to have their children educated in English:

  • if one of the parents received his or her own primary school instruction in Canada in English;
  • if one of the parents has a child who has received or is receiving his or her instruction in Canada in English.

2.7 Is bilingualism spreading?

In this era of globalization, Canada is giving bilingualism a new face. English and French are anchored in the Canadian identity, an identity that is further enhanced by Canadian multiculturalism. Canadian society is becoming more diverse, which is fostering openness. New Canadians can therefore become members of our bilingual society while sharing their own cultures.

“Today, we have two official languages that are spoken, taught and learned from coast to coast to coast. Canadian society is increasingly diverse as both official language communities welcome among their midst new Canadians who choose to become members of one or both of these communities.”

Graham Fraser, Commissioner of Official Languages
Speech delivered on August 14, 2007, at the Canadian
Bar Association’s Canadian Legal Conference

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