A defining moment: The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism
In the years leading up to the adoption of the Official Languages Act in 1969, Canada had difficulty managing its "two solitudes,” a term popularized by Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 novel of the same name, which describes the tensions of English-French relations in Quebec at the time.
The Commission at a glance
- The Commission consisted of 10 commissioners, all of whom were bilingual.
- For six years, the commissioners travelled across the country to consult provincial premiers, researchers and citizens.
- They received over 400 briefs.
- The Commission’s final report was published in six volumes, and discussed official languages, education, the work world, the cultural contribution of other ethnic groups, the federal capital and volunteer organizations.
Many Francophones, who constituted the majority population in Quebec but a minority elsewhere in Canada, felt that their language was ebbing away. During the 1960s, English was largely predominant in Canada. In 1965, barely 9% of positions in the federal public service were designated bilingual; services were only offered in English; and Francophones made up just 21% of the workforce in federal institutions, despite representing around 28% of the Canadian population.
Concerned by this situation, the Prime Minister at the time, 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.”
The commissioners, led by A. Davidson Dunton and André Laurendeau, travelled across the country to investigate how Canada’s unique linguistic duality could be preserved, and to find ways for the two solitudes to protect each other and come together.
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.”
To remedy this situation, the B and B Commission recommended that English and French be declared the official languages of the Parliament of Canada, as well as the federal administration and federal courts. In a sense, it sought to establish a new partnership between Anglophones and Francophones.
Without a doubt, one of the B and B Commission’s most important legacies was the Official Languages Act, which would be adopted in 1969. The Commission also helped foster a new vision of Canada, a country that values respect and equality and that is firmly committed to granting equal rights and opportunities to everyone.