Official Bilingualism in Canada: History and Debates

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Jul 1, 2007

Language politics and the issue of official bilingualism have been a factor in Canadian politics since before Confederation. They have impacted not only the operation of federal institutions, but also the cultural and linguistic makeup of Canadian society. This article provides a historical and public policy overview of official bilingualism in Canada. In particular, this article examines the history of bilingual politics in Canada, the nature and scope of modern federal bilingual policy, and current issues relating to this topic in the Canadian context.

History of Bilingual Politics in Canada

From colonization to a Royal Commission

Modern Federal Bilingual Policy

Key government objectives and initiatives on language policy

Issues in Canadian Bilingual Policy

Sources of debate on bilingualism in Canada

Sources and Links for More Information

List of article sources and links for more on this topic

Credits: This article was originally written by Rhonda Lauret Parkinson. It has since been modified by Denise Brennan and Jay Makarenko.


History of Bilingual Politics in Canada

From colonization to a Royal Commission

English and French Colonization of Canada

The notion of Canada as a bilingual country is not a new concept in Canadian politics, but can be traced back to the European colonization of Canada. The territory of modern-day Canada was colonized not by one European ethnicity but by two: the English and the French. Both European groups built strong colonies in Canada alongside pre-existing Aboriginal communities. In eastern and central Canada, the British settled in parts of present-day Newfoundland, while the French developed colonies in parts of present-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec.

By the early 1700s, large populations of both English and French-speaking colonialists were established – colonial groups that differed significantly in their cultural characteristics. Generally speaking, the French colonists spoke French, practiced Catholicism, and followed their own legal and political systems (such as civil law). In contrast, the British colonists spoke English, practiced Protestantism, and followed a legal system based on the common law tradition.

The British eventually consolidated their control over Canada. Through a series of European wars, such as the Queen Anne’s War and the Seven Years War, the British acquired all French territories in the Maritimes and Quebec. While the British controlled these territories politically, these new acquisitions were French-dominated in terms of culture. Their populations were predominately French-speaking and characterized, naturally, by French religious and legal practices.

Legal Recognition of French Culture and Language

In dealing with its new French population, the British adopted several different strategies. In Acadia, the former French colony in the Maritimes, the British adopted a policy of forced relocation, expelling thousands of French Acadians to France or to the American colonies (in particular, present-day Louisiana). Other French settlers fled elsewhere in the Canadian colonies.

In New France, or present-day Quebec, the British adopted a different policy, choosing to legally recognize French culture and language but within the realm of British rule. Initially, the British had enacted the 1763 Royal Proclamation, which forced British law and practices on all of their colonies in North America, including those with large French populations. In 1774, however, the British reversed this practice with the Quebec Act, legislation that set out the principles of governance in the Province of Quebec. Under the Quebec Act, the British guaranteed the practice of the Catholic faith in Quebec while upholding the use of French civil law for private matters. The British system of common law was reserved only for matters relevant to public administration, such as criminal prosecution.

This practice of legally recognizing French culture was continued through Confederation and the uniting of former British colonies into the Dominion of Canada. Under the nation’s first constitution, which was set out in the Constitution Act, 1867, French-speaking citizens were given the right to continue practicing the Catholic religion and French civil law, in addition to significant language rights. Section 133 of the Act, for example, established English and French as the official languages of the new Canadian Parliament, as well as the courts. The section also established both English and French as the official languages of the Quebec provincial legislature and courts. This same constitutional language rights were also extended to the new province of Manitoba when it was established in 1879. At the time, Manitoba had a significant French-speaking population.

The 1960s – Quebec’s Quiet Revolution

The Quiet Revolution refers to the period of social, cultural, and political upheaval that took place in Quebec in the 1960s. Language politics played an important role in these changes. While the French-speaking majority in Quebec had been granted substantial language and cultural rights prior to and following Confederation, francophones still faced several challenges in their home province. Of particular concern was the fact that an anglophone minority controlled most elite positions in Quebec business and industry, and the worry that the French language was losing ground to English in the province.

During the Quite Revolution, the provincial Liberals in Quebec enacted several policies to help French-speaking Quebecers become “Maîtres Chez Nous,” or “Masters in Our Own House.” The government created the first provincial department of Cultural Affairs, nationalized private hydroelectric facilities, and opted out of several federal government programs, such as the newly implemented Canada Pension Plan. Not surprisingly, the separatist movement gained momentum during the Quiet Revolution, as Quebecers increasingly questioned Quebec’s role within Confederation.

The Quiet Revolution was significant in that it brought the issue of French cultural and language politics to the forefront of Canadian politics. Political elites and the Canadian public were faced with questions of how to deal with the cultural and language aspirations of French-speakers in Quebec. For those supporting a Canadian federation with Quebec, the issue centred on how to best accommodate this linguistic cultural group within a united Canada.

Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism

This issue of accommodation led the federal government, under Liberal Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, to form the 1963 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (commonly referred to as the “B and B Commission”). Chaired by André Laurendau, editor of Le Devoir (a major Montreal daily newspaper) and University administrator Davidson Dunton, the Commission was charged with investigating and reporting upon “the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada and to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between two founding races.”

In its reports, the Commission highlighted a great crisis in Canadian language politics, stemming from a failure by all levels of government outside of Quebec to respect Canada’s French-speaking minorities. According to the Commission, adequate accommodation of Quebec in Canada required more than simply officially recognizing the French language in the nation’s political institutions. Instead, the Commission recommended the formal recognition of French-speaking Canadians as a distinct and equal society within Canada. Moreover, the Commission rejected the creation of two unilingual regions in Canada, where the primary language in Quebec would have been French, while the rest of the country would have been dominated by English. Instead, the Commission recommended a bilingual strategy that would promote both languages across the nation. This strategy would include the protection of French and English linguistic minorities, as well as promoting bilingualism (use of both languages) amongst Canadians.

The B and B Commission, and its recommendations, are significant to language politics, at least at the federal level. Firstly, it brought forth the notion that governments should be actively involved in language politics. Language was no longer to be a private issue, but a public one in which the federal government had an important role to play. Secondly, the B and B Commission helped to frame language politics and government action in terms of equality and a common community. Both linguistic groups were to be recognized as having equal status in Canada. Moreover, English and French Canadians were not to be separated into separate linguistic communities. Instead, both languages were to be promoted across Canada in an attempt to create a single bilingual community.


Modern Federal Bilingual Policy

Key government objectives and initiatives

Since the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the federal government has pursued a language policy characterized by equality between French and English and the vision of a common bilingual community (although, some would argue that this is no longer the case today – see the Issues in Canadian Bilingual Policy section of this article). This has involved several federal initiatives to promote French and bilingualism in Canada, in addition to protecting linguistic minorities across the country. The following section provides an introduction to several aspects of this federal strategy.

The Official Languages Act

One of the key initiatives undertaken by the federal government in response to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was the introduction of the Official Languages Act in 1969. This legislation declared French and English to be the official languages of Canada while requiring all federal institutions (such as government departments, agencies, and Crown corporations) to provide their services in French or English at the customer’s choice. The Act also created the office of Commissioner of Official Languages to oversee its implementation. The Commission had the power to ensure compliance with the Act and to investigate complaints, and responsibility for submitting annual reports to Parliament on its progress.

Over the years, the Act has been broadened. In 1988, the federal government reformed the Act in the following manner (Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 2003):

  • Expanding the requirements for use of both official languages in federal institutions.
  • Clarifying the roles of the official languages commissioner, the secretary of state (now called the Minister of Canadian Heritage), and the Treasury Board in implementing the Act.
  • Placing major provisions in the Act under executor authority, meaning that an individual or the Commissioner of official languages can seek a court remedy if these provisions are not followed (when certain conditions are met).
  • Requiring the federal government to provide federal services in both official languages in Ottawa, and any region with significant demand. In 1991, the government adopted a series of Official Languages Regulations setting out the conditions where a “significant demand” existed.
  • Committing to providing equal employment opportunities for French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians in federal institutions.
  • Setting out policies to support the development of official language minority communities and to promote the use of both languages in Canadian society.
  • Guaranteeing federal employees the right to work in the language of their choice in prescribed regions (located in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Quebec).
  • Amending the Criminal Code of Canada to allow the use of either official language in criminal cases.

For more information on the Official Languages Act, 1988:

In 2005, the federal government amended Part VII of the Official Languages Act to strengthen the federal government’s commitments. The amendment obligated the government to take “positive measures” to translate the government’s commitment to promoting linguistic duality into action (Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 2007).

Hiring in the Federal Public Service

In addition to the Official Languages Act, the federal government has also undertaken other initiatives to promote a bilingual community in Canada. In the context of public service hiring, the federal government adopted a strategy of increasing the number of French-speaking and bilingual personnel. There were two key reasons for this initiative:1) to ensure that Canadians were able to receive services in either official language, and 2) to increase employment opportunities for French-speaking Canadians in the federal public service.

Prior to the policy change, French-speaking Canadians were at a distinct disadvantage as English was the primary language of business in the public service. French-speaking Canadians seeking federal employment had to be both bilingual and prepared to work almost exclusively in their second language. Not surprisingly, they were under-represented in the public service, particularly at senior management levels.

Bilingualism in Public Education

In addition to addressing bilingualism in the public service, in 1970 the federal government also launched the Official Languages in Education Program. It provides provinces and territories with funding for second language instruction and minority language instruction in both official languages.

In addition to the second language education, federal and provincial/territorial governments have also supported French immersion education. French immersion is a program whereby students receive the majority of their instruction in the French language. The two most common forms of French immersion are early immersion, when students enter at kindergarten or grade one, and late immersion, when students enter at the beginning of junior high school. Normally, French immersion students are English-speaking, although francophone students may enroll if instruction in their language is not otherwise available.

Bilingual Consumer Packaging

Another well-known federal initiative is the Consumer Packaging and Labeling Act, first introduced in 1974. The Act requires the bilingual labelling of most consumer products sold in Canada, including goods and services ranging from cereal boxes to clothing and textiles. The legislation serves to ensure that all consumers, regardless of whether they speak English or French, or their geographical location, are able to read and understand product packaging in Canada.

The Charter and Language Rights

Enacted in 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms constitutionally enshrines several key language rights. Section 16 of the Charter recognizes English and French as the official languages of Canada and of New Brunswick. Moreover, both languages have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in government institutions. Sections 17-22 outline particular language rights in government institutions, such as the right to use either French or English in any proceeding in the Canadian Parliament, the right to use either language in any court established by Parliament, and the right of the general public to communicate and receive services in either language when dealing with government institutions and agencies (at both the federal level and provincial level in New Brunswick).

In addition to these language rights associated with the operation of government, the Charter also provides several minority language education rights. Section 23 of the Charter requires that provincial governments offer education to Canadians in the official language of their choice, even when only a minority speaks that language. In English-dominated areas, this means French-speaking minorities have the right to educate their children in French (and vice versa in French-dominated areas). This section of the Charter does, however, provide several important qualifications. For example, in order to claim minority language education rights for their children, in most cases parents must have the minority language as their first language, or have received their own primary education in the minority language, or have a child who has received, or is receiving, his/her education in the minority language.


Issues in Canadian Bilingual Policy

Sources of debate on bilingualism in Canada

Competing Visions of Language Policies

As discussed in the previous section, over the years the federal government has pursued a language policy largely based on a vision of common bilingual community, characterized by the promotion of both French and English throughout Canada. This vision of language politics, however, can be contrasted with others, particularly, those that equate French Canada with Quebec. This alternative view of language politics involves recognizing Quebec as the heartland of French Canada, and advocates providing that province with special powers to protect French culture and language within English-dominated North America. The goal, then, is not to promote a common bilingual community, but two separate linguistic communities – one based in Quebec and the other residing in the rest of Canada.

This “two communities” vision has often been reflected in the Government of Quebec’s approach to language politics. Since the 1930s, a series of Quebec provincial governments, of different political stripes, have pursued language policies that have sought to promote the French language over English. Underlying these policies has been the belief that Quebec is the heartland of the French language in Canada, and that it is the responsibility of the Government of Quebec to promote a unique French society within the province.

In 1974, for example, the Quebec Liberal government passed the provincial Official Languages Act, making French the province’s official language. In addition, the Act required Quebec businesses to give themselves French names, advertise primarily in French in Quebec, and to acquire a certificate of ‘francization’ (which could only be obtained when the business proved to the government that it could function in French and address its employees in French). Another example is the 1977 Charter of the French Language, passed by the Parti Québécois government, declaring French to be the only language allowed on commercial signs in the province, with some limited exceptions. The Charter also required that children of new immigrants to Quebec, attending public schools, study in French until the post-secondary level. Finally, the separatist movement in Quebec, which has been supported over the years by Parti Québécois governments, is often grounded in the “two communities” vision of language politics. The notion is that Quebec should seek political independence from Canada in order to fully promote French culture and language in English-dominated North America.

Conflict over the federal government’s pursuit of a single bilingual community can also be found in parts of the country outside of Quebec, particularly in regions that have very small French-speaking populations. The concern here is often with the forced ‘bilingualization’ of regions that are predominately English-speaking. Moreover, this concern is associated with a rejection of government action in what is considered to be a private issue (language), or with federal intrusion into provincial politics. One example of this sort of criticism could be found with the Reform Party of Canada, a federal political party founded in the 1980s. A largely western-based political party, the Reform Party strongly opposed the policy of official bilingualism and government action in the realm of language.

While strong opposition to the federal government’s bilingual strategy does exist, this is not to suggest there is also a lack of support for bilingualism. The vision of a common bilingual community in Canada does have its supporters in all parts of the country, and in particular, in areas where there are large minority language communities – be it either English minorities in French-dominated areas or vice versa.

Bilingual Policy in Public Service

Another issue in language politics focuses not on the basic principles of federal bilingual policy, but on its ability to actually achieve its ends. In the context of the public service, for example, the evidence is somewhat mixed on this account.

On the one hand, participation rates by French Canadians in the public service has improved greatly between the 1970s and the early years of the 21st century. Beginning in 1974, all public service positions were reclassified as English-speaking, French-speaking, or bilingual. The revised system benefited French-speaking Canadians, many of whom already spoke both official languages. In 1978, French-speaking Canadians accounted for 25 percent of the total federal public service and 18 percent of public service management positions. By 2002 that figure had increased to 31 percent of the total public service and 28 percent of management positions (Government of Canada, 2003).

Improved participation rates by French Canadians, however, does not necessarily mean the public service has become more bilingual. In 2003, a federal government report on official bilingualism found that there continues to be an imbalance in the use of the two languages in the public service. English remains the preferred language of work by public servants, to the detriment of French, except in Montreal (Government of Canada, 2003). The same report also found that the offer of services in either language by the federal public service remains inadequate, except in Quebec. This is due, in large part, to a shortage of sufficiently bilingual public servants to meet demand (Government of Canada, 2003).

Bilingual Policy in Education

As in the case of the public service, the success of federal bilingual policies in the area of education has also been mixed.

On the one hand, participation in bilingual-based educational programs has increased significantly since the 1970s. Enrolment in second language programs, for example, has increased from approximately 40 percent of all students in 1978, to 50 percent in 1999 (Government of Canada, 2003). Enrolment in French immersion programs in English Canada has also grown since the 1970s: from 0.5 percent of total English language enrolment in 1978 to 6.8 percent in 1999 (Government of Canada, 2003).

The results of these programs were evident by the early 1990s. Among anglophones aged 15-24 living outside Quebec, the percentage that considered themselves to be bilingual doubled between 1971 and 2001, rising from seven percent to 14 percent. Bilingualism in Quebec also increased; between 1971 and 2001, the number of bilingual 15-24-year-old francophones living inside Quebec rose from 31 percent to 42 percent (Government of Canada, 2003).

There have, however, been some key concerns in the area of bilingual education. While realizing strong increases in the 1970s and 1980s, enrolment in second language and French immersion programs has stalled in the 1990s and in the early years of the new millennium. This is due, in part, to several structural problems in bilingual education in Canada, such as inadequate teaching materials, a lack of qualified teachers, and high dropout rates among students in secondary school language programs – often because of the perception they will not be able to obtain post-secondary education in French (Government of Canada, 2003).

Language Minority Communities

Another issue in language politics centres on the health of minority language communities in Canada, be it English-speaking minorities in Quebec or French-speaking minorities in the rest of Canada. Both the anglophone population in Quebec and the francophone population outside of Quebec have declined in recent years. For anglophone Quebecers, this is due largely to relocation outside of the province. Francophones living outside of Quebec, however, face a real problem with assimilation. Most live in areas where less than five percent of the population speaks French. It is difficult for these families to pass along the French language to their children where the environment and culture are predominantly English.

Federal Commitment to Official Bilingualism

Finally, there is the issue of whether the federal government remains committed to the ideal of a single bilingual community in Canada. In 2003, the federal Liberal government, helmed by Jean Chrétien, released an action plan on bilingualism titled The Next Act: New Momentum for Canada’s Linguistic Duality. In that plan, the federal government reaffirmed its commitment to a common bilingual community in Canada, and to promoting bilingualism and equality between French and English in the public service, education, and minority language communities. The federal government also committed more than $750 million over five years in support of the action plan and its initiatives.

For more information on the 2003 Action Plan on bilingualism:

The commitment to a single bilingual community was further evidenced in 2005, when the federal government amended Part VII of the Official Languages Act. Under the amendment, federal institutions became obligated to take “positive measures” to translate the government’s commitment to promoting linguistic duality into action. More specifically, the 2005 amendment committed the federal government to “enhancing the vitality of the English and French linguistic minority communities in Canada and supporting and assisting their development,” while imposing the duty of “fostering the full recognition and use of both English and French in Canadian society” (Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, 2007). The amendment was supported by both major political parties in the House of Commons, the Liberal Party of Canada and the Conservative Party of Canada.

Nevertheless, there have been some criticisms of the federal government’s commitment to the ideal of a common bilingual community in Canada. Following the Liberal federal government’s release of its 2003 action plan on bilingualism, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages criticized the government’s implementation of the strategy. In particular, the Commissioner noted the lack of cohesion and coordination at the leadership level, the government’s failure to measure progress on a regular basis, and its failure to inform Canadians of the results achieved.

For more information on the Commissioner’s assessment:

In 2007, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages released a stronger criticism of the federal government, helmed at the time by the Conservative Party of Canada and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. According to the Commissioner, the Conservative government’s actions cast doubt on its genuine commitment to implementing the Official Languages Act and pursuing a policy of a common linguistic community in Canada. Of particular concern to the Commissioner were budget cuts undertaken by the Harper government eliminating key bilingual initiatives, including: the Court Challenges Program (which provided funding to minority groups to challenge government policies, such as those dealing with language, in court); the Innovation Fund (used to increase bilingualism in the public service); and other cuts within federal government departments which reduced the capacity of federal institutions to fully implement the 2003 Action Plan. Moreover, with the 2003 Action Plan set to expire in March 2008, the Commissioner expressed concern over the apparent lack of a federal vision for bilingual language initiatives beyond that date.

For more information on Commissioner’s 2007 assessments:


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