Official bilingualism in Canada

The official languages of Canada are English and French,[1] which "have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and Government of Canada," according to Canada's constitution.[2] "Official bilingualism" is the term used in Canada to collectively describe the policies, constitutional provisions, and laws that ensure legal equality of English and French in the Parliament and courts of Canada, protect the linguistic rights of English and French-speaking minorities in different provinces, and ensure a level of government services in both languages across Canada.[3]

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In addition to the symbolic designation of English and French as official languages, official bilingualism is generally understood to include any law or other measure that:

  • mandates that the federal government conduct its business in both official languages and provide government services in both languages;
  • encourages or mandates lower tiers of government (most notably the provinces and territories, but also some municipalities) to conduct themselves in both official languages and to provide services in both English and French rather than in just one or the other;
  • places obligations on private actors in Canadian society to provide access to goods or services in both official languages (such as the requirement that food products be labelled in both English and French);
  • provides support to non-government actors to encourage or promote the use or the status of one or the other of the two official languages. This includes grants and contributions to groups representing the English-speaking minority in Quebec and the French-speaking minorities in the other provinces to assist with the establishment of an infrastructure of cultural supports and services.

At the provincial level, New Brunswick officially recognizes the equal status of French and English. While French has equal legal status in Manitoba restored due to a court ruling that struck down seventy-year-old English-only laws in 1985, in practice, French language services are only provided in some regions of the province.[4] Quebec has declared itself officially unilingual (French only). Alberta and Saskatchewan are also considered unilingual (English only).[5] In practice, all provinces, including Quebec, offer some services in both English and French and some publicly funded education in both official languages up to the high school level (English language postsecondary education institutions are also present in Quebec, as are French language postsecondary institutions in other provinces, in particular in Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick). English and French are official languages in all three territories. In addition, Inuktitut is also an official language in Nunavut, and nine aboriginal languages have official status in the Northwest Territories.


Before confederation

International auxiliary languages

Linguistic diversity existed in northern North America long before the arrival of the French and the English. Due to the widespread trade that occurred between many linguistic communities, indigenous linguistic knowledge across northern North America appears to have consisted of bilingualism in the mother language and a pidgin as a standard. The known Pidgins included:

  • Algonquian–Basque pidgin (spoken among Basque whalers and various Algonquian peoples and last attested in 1710),
  • Broken Slavey (spoken by indigenous and European residents of the Yukon area in the 19th century)
  • Chinook Jargon (spoken by members of indigenous, neighbouring, Hawaiian, Chinese, English, French, and other nations throughout the Pacific Northwest; reaching its peak in around 1900 with an estimated 100,000 speakers; and still spoken today),
  • Eskimo Trade Jargon (spoken by the Mackenzie River Inuit and the Athabaskan peoples to their South until at least 1909),
  • Haida Jargon (spoken mostly by the English and the Haida until the 1830s),
  • Labrador Inuit Pidgin French (spoken between Breton and Basque fishermen and the Inuit of Labrador from the late 17th century to about 1760), and
  • Plains Indian Sign Language (spoken by speakers of 37 oral languages in 12 families spread across an area of 2.6 million square kilometres stretching from what are now northern Mexico to the southern Northwest Territories, and from the Pacific Northwest to the Saint-Laurence Seaway).

French has been a language of government in the part of Canada that is today Quebec, with limited interruptions, since the arrival of the first French settlers in Canada in 1604 (Acadians) and in 1608 in Quebec, and has been entrenched in the Constitution of Canada since 1867. English has been a language of government in each of the provinces since their inception as British colonies.

Institutional bilingualism in various forms therefore predates the Canadian Confederation in 1867. However, for many years English occupied a de facto privileged position, and French was not fully equal. The two languages have gradually achieved a greater level of equality in most of the provinces, and full equality at the federal level. In the 1970s French in Quebec became the province's official language.

Adopting a false ancestry

Vilma Sindona Eichholz wrote in a book published in 1982:

‘The first Europeans after the Vikings came not as settlers but to exploit the country by trade with the Indians. They were both English and French speaking and had wars among themselves to gain access to this trade. The actual settling of the land took place much later. The French were the first settlers in 1617, but as early as 1660 a German was mentioned as a settler in the records of Quebec. The first English settlers came only a hundred years later, and here we discover a great paradox: These first ten ships full of ‘English’ settlers were exclusively German. In 1745 they founded Waldoburg and 8 years later Lunenburg in the province we now know as Nova Scotia. These Protestant Germans were actually recruited in Germany by the British Government to offset the existing French Catholics. Later the governor of Nova Scotia who had already settled in Pennsylvania to move to “Nova Scotia, which will be materially strengthened by the acquisition of these frugal, laborious, and industrious people who will not only improve and enrich their property, but if need be, pertinaciously defend it.” It may surprise us that these first German settlers are “virtually the first English-speaking Canadians” (A.R. Lower). They were English not because of their origin, but because they learned English fast, anglicized their names, and wrote themselves as ‘English’ into the records.

‘It is important to pause here and to investigate why people from a highly civilized country wanted to forget their own language and culture and adopted a false ancestry. It is particularly important, because they were the first but not the last to behave like this. Their reasons for doing so may give us a clue as to why all Caucasian ethnic groups, except the English, behaved likewise including even members from the geographically well-protected French group […].

‘The reason for this strange behaviour is to be found in the ‘almost militant pride’ of the English in their origin. The lost wars against the Americans, who seceded from the English crown, had seriously hurt their pride. Compensating for this, they wanted to create a precise replica of their beloved England in Canada. They displayed an “ultra-British attitude which was heavy with emotion and excluded rational discussion.” They tried to be English to the core in political and social institutions and in their whole life-style. It is here that we find the seeds for the difficulties we face today. This attitude allowed a snobbism to develop, so much resented openly by French-Canadians today and felt by all the other groups too, even if they do not yet feel secure enough to voice their objection. Certain English families demanded special “public favours, power, and office as their birthright.” The desire to have the same privileges for a good start caused the Germans to choose to give up their identity rather than be second class citizens. Today many may say that this was a smart move, especially in light of the fate of another group of German settlers who came later to Ontario.

‘The 64 German families to whom Toronto owes its existence had not made an attempt to anglicize and did not fare as well as their earlier compatriots in Nova Scotia. The Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, found the strategic spot where Canada’s most populous city, Toronto, now stands. Actually this place existed only on paper until 1794 when 180 Germans, under the leadership of the first architect of Upper Canada, Albrecht Ulrich Moll, came, cleared Yonge Street and built the first houses. They accomplished this completely on their own. In return, each family was promised to receive 1000 acres one year later, but the government broke its word to the “suspicious aliens” who “could neither be trusted nor legally hold land before seven years’ residence here as subjects of the Crown. In desperation Moll travelled to the king of England to save his people, who had used up all their reserves during that one year of hard pioneer work. Though the king acknowledged that the settlers had kept their side of the contract and were therefore entitled to the 64 000 acres guaranteed to them, he made it dependent of the approval of the government of Upper Canada, which did not honour the agreement. A disastrous time of famine and death followed for the betrayed group of pioneers.

‘The Germans participated not only in the earlier stages of settlement but came in great numbers to Canada. [...] They also fought in the French and English armies, even in leading positions. For example, in 1755, a Baron von Dieskau from Saxony was appointed Supreme commander of the French troops in North America and General von Riedesel was commander of the German troops fighting under British colours. His wife introduced the first illuminated Christmas tree in Canada in 1781. Of special interest is the Proclamation of Lord Dorchester from July 24, 1788. It created four new districts which had German names and were to become the provinces of Upper Canada, namely Luneburg, Mecklenburg, Nassau and Hesse.

‘The right to have German schools was also granted to the Mennonites who came shortly after Mooll’s unlucky settlers. Many of these reliable industrious farmers left Canada when, after the First World War, this right was rescinded. Learning these facts, one gets the impression that the existence of early German settlers as well as their contributions and loyalty to Canada have been either misrepresented or silenced.’[7]

After confederation

The Canadian Indian residential school system

From 1876 to 1996, the Government of Canada operated the Canadian Indian residential school system which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada described as cultural genocide. This system, combined with education, immigration, and other policies promoting English and French, contributed greatly to the promotion of English and French across Canada.

The forgotten Coolies

Vilma Sindona Eichholz wrote:

‘John Alexander Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada, is credited with creating a nation through the construction of this band of steel [the transcontinental railroad] linking the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean. But in order to transform this dream into reality not only political battles had to be won. Thousands of tough labourers had to be found willing to do the actual work which, particularly in the granite canyons of the Western mountains, was not just hard but outright dangerous. Not many Canadians were willing to work for $1.50 a day, considered low even in those days. It soon became apparent that only by the hiring of 6000 collies from China could the railroad be built. They were even willing to work for $1.00 a day and had to give a percentage from that to the company that brought them over. And they worked well. A white foreman was amazed at their endurance and willingness: “I moved 2000 Chinese with all their belongings on their backs 25 miles and they were working normally the next day. With white workers this would have taken me a week.” Instead of either lowering their own expectations or just accepting the fact that foreigners were willing to work for less and get the railroad built, Canadians changed the virtues of these industrious foreigners into a crime. Anti-Chinese feelings ran high, even in areas where the Chinese were unknown such as Winnipeg, whose ‘Times’ wrote about the ‘immoral children of China’ who had ‘no sense whatever of any principle of morality’ and even dared to add: “it is an established fact that dealings with the Chinese are attended with evil results.” But according to their white foreman, not a single incident of dishonesty was known during all the years the Chinese worked on the railroad.

‘It had been the intention of these coolies to go back to their homeland after having earned a few hundred dollars in Canada. But for very few indeed this dream came true. Many had died either in accidents on the job or from scurvy because of bad food. [...] No records were kept about Chinese deaths and let alone any inquiries held. Only a few survivors could save enough to pay their trip back. Most Chinese eventually died separated from their loved ones, rejected by the hostile land they served so well. But some did manage to get their wives over here. They settled mostly in British Columbia.’[11]

Constitutional provisions on official languages

Constitution Act, 1867 (section 133)

English and French have had limited constitutional protection since 1867. Section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867 guarantees that both languages may be used in the Parliament of Canada, in its journals and records, and in court proceedings in any court established by the Parliament of Canada. The section also mandates that all Acts of the Parliament of Canada be printed and published in both languages. Guarantees for the equal status of the two official languages are provided in sections 16–23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which became law in 1982. Sections 16–19 guarantee the equal status of both languages in Parliament, in all federal government institutions, and in federal courts. These sections also mandate that all statutes, records and journals of Parliament be published in both languages, with the English and French versions both holding equal status before the courts. Section 20 guarantees the right of the Canadian public to communicate in English and French with any central government office or with regional offices where there is "a significant demand for communication with and services from that office". Significant demand is not defined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One of the purposes of the Official Languages Act of 1988 was to remedy this omission.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes similar constitutional obligations making New Brunswick the only officially bilingual province in Canada.[12]

Section 21 ensured that the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms would be read as supplementing, rather than replacing any rights of the English and French languages, which had been constitutionalized prior to 1982. Section 22 ensured that the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms would not be interpreted by the courts as placing any new restrictions on non-official languages.

Education Rights (section 23 of the Charter and section 59 of the Constitution Act, 1982)

Section 23 provides a limited right to receive publicly funded primary and secondary-schooling in the two official languages when they are "in a minority situation"—in other words, to English-language schooling in Quebec, and to French-language schooling in the rest of the country.

Asymmetrical application of education rights in Quebec versus elsewhere in Canada

The right applies asymmetrically because section 59 of the Constitution Act, 1982, provides that not all of the language rights listed in section 23 will apply in Quebec. Specifically:

  • In Quebec, a child may receive free public education in English only if at least one parent or a sibling was educated in Canada in English.
  • In the rest of Canada, a child may receive free public education in French if at least one parent or a sibling was educated in Canada in French, or if at least one parent has French as his or her mother tongue (defined in section 23 as "first language learned and still understood").

None of these education language rights precludes parents from placing their children in a private school (which they pay for) in the language of their choice; it applies only to subsidized public education.

One practical consequence of this asymmetry is that all migrants who arrive in Quebec from foreign countries only have access to French-language public schools for their children. This includes immigrants whose mother tongue is English and immigrants who received their schooling in English. On the other hand, Section 23 provides a nearly universal right to English-language schooling for the children of Canadian-born anglophones living in Quebec.

Section 23 also provides, subject only to the "where numbers warrant" restriction, a right to French-language schooling for the children of all francophones living outside Quebec, including immigrants from French-speaking countries who settle outside Quebec, and who are Canadian citizens.

However, admission to French-language schools outside Quebec remains restricted in some ways it is not in Quebec. In particular, rights holder parents who choose to enroll their child in English school may thereby deprive that child's descendants of the right to attend French school.[13] In Quebec, under article 76.1 of the Charter of the French Language, rights holders do not deprive their descendants of the right to an English-language education by choosing to enroll their children in French school. (This applies if certain administrative steps are taken at each generation. Otherwise, the right may still be transmitted to grandchildren under article 76.)

Another element of asymmetry between Quebec and most anglophone provinces is that while Quebec provides public English-language primary and secondary education throughout the province, most other provinces provide French-language education only "where numbers warrant".

Additional restrictions on education rights

There are some further restrictions on minority-language education rights:

  1. The rights attach to the parent, not the child, and non-citizens residing in Canada do not have access to this right (even if their children are born in Canada).
  2. If the parents' English-language or French-language education took place outside Canada, this does not entitle the child to be educated in that language.
  3. The right to receive public funding can only be exercised in localities where "...the number of children of citizens who have such a right is sufficient to warrant the provision to them out of public funds...."[14]

Ambiguous definition of entitlement to education rights

The phrase, "where numbers ... warrant" is not defined in Section 23. Education is under provincial jurisdiction, which means that it has not been possible for Parliament to enact a single nationwide definition of the term, as the 1988 Official Languages Act did for the constitutional obligation to provide federal services where “there is a sufficient demand.” As a result, disputes over the extent of the right to a publicly funded minority-language education have been the source of much litigation.

The defining case was Mahe v. Alberta (1990), in which the Supreme Court of Canada declared that section 23 guaranteed a "sliding scale". In certain circumstances, the children whose parents could exercise the right might be so few that literally no minority language education may be provided by the government. With a greater number of children, some schools might be required to provide classrooms in which the children could receive minority language education. An even greater number would require the construction of new schools dedicated solely to minority language education. More recent cases, which have significantly extended these rights, include Arsenault-Cameron v. Prince Edward Island (2000) and Doucet-Boudreau v. Nova Scotia (Minister of Education) (2003).

Language of the official text of the Constitution

Many of the documents in Canada's Constitution do not have an official French-language version; for legal purposes only the English-language version is official and any French translations are unofficial. In particular, the Constitution Act, 1867 (which created Canada as a legal entity and still contains the most important provisions of governmental powers) has no official French-language version, because it was enacted by the United Kingdom Parliament, which functions in the English language exclusively. Similarly, all other parts of the Constitution that were enacted by the United Kingdom (with the important exception of the Canada Act 1982) have no official French-language version.

Sections 55–57 of the Constitution Act, 1982 set out a framework for changing this situation. Section 55 calls for French versions of all parts of the Constitution that exist only in English to be prepared as quickly as possible. Section 56 provided that, following adoption of the French versions, both the English-language and French-language versions would be equally authoritative. To avoid the situation where an inaccurately translated French version would have a weight equal to the English original, Section 55 requires that the French-language versions be approved using the same process under which actual constitutional amendments are adopted.

Pursuant to section 55, a French Constitutional Drafting Committee produced French-language versions of all the British North America Acts in the decade following 1982. However, these versions were never ratified under the Constitution’s amendment procedure, and therefore have never been officially adopted.[15]

Section 57 states that the “English and French versions of this Act [ie. the Constitution Act, 1982] are equally authoritative.” The purpose of this provision is to clear up any ambiguity that might have existed about the equal status of the two versions as a result of the novel way in which this part of Canada's supreme law came into force. Had the Constitution Act, 1982 been enacted as most preceding amendments to Canada's constitution had been, as a statute of the British parliament, it would, like any other British statute, have been an English-only document. Instead, the British parliament enacted a very concise law, (the Canada Act 1982), written in English only. The operative clauses of the Canada Act, 1982 simply state that an appendix to the Act (the appendix is formally referred to as a "schedule") is to be integrated into the Canadian constitution. The schedule contains the complete text of the Constitution Act, 1982, in both English and French.[16]

Federal legislation on official languages

Official Languages Act

Canada adopted its first Official Languages Act in 1969,[17] in response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. The current Official Languages Act was adopted in 1988 to improve the 1969 law's efforts to address two basic policy objectives: (1) to specify the powers, duties and functions of federal institutions relevant to official languages; (2) to support the development of linguistic minority communities. As well, following the adoption in 1982 of the Charter of Rights, it was necessary to create a legislative framework within which the Government of Canada could respect its new constitutional obligations regarding the official languages.[18]

In addition to formalizing Charter provisions in Parts I through IV, the Act adopts several specific measures to achieve these objectives.[19] For example, Part V specifies that the work environment in federal institutions in the National Capital Region and other prescribed bilingual regions be conducive to accommodating the use of French and English at work.[20] Part VI mandates that English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Canadians not be discriminated against based on ethnic origin or first language learned when it comes to employment opportunities and advancement.[21]

Finally, the Act establishes a Commissioner of Official Languages[22] and specifies their duties to hear and investigate complaints, make recommendations to Parliament, and delegate authority in matters pertaining to official languages in Canada.[23] Canada's current Commissioner of Official Languages is Raymond Théberge.

Section 32 of the Official Languages Act authorizes the Governor in Council (i.e., the federal cabinet) to issue regulations that define the geographic regions where the federal government offers services in the relevant minority language (English in Quebec and French elsewhere).[24]

This provides a legal definition for the otherwise vague requirement that services be provided in the minority official languages wherever there is "significant demand." The definition used in the regulations is complex, but basically an area of the country is served in both languages if at least 5,000 persons in that area, or 5% of the local population (whichever is smaller), belongs to that province's English or French linguistic minority population.[25]

Regulations were first promulgated in 1991.[26]

US influence on the status of English and French in Canada

Book I Chapter 1.C of the report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, published on 8 October 1967, acknowledges the international influence on Canadian language policy:

Compared to other bilingual states-among them Finland, South Africa, and Belgium, which we shall discuss later-Canada is fortunate that her official languages both have international status…

In Canada, however, one of the two language groups begins with a considerable advantage. As the national language of the United States, one of the most powerful countries of the world, English has a massive preponderance in North America. Thus the English-language group in this country draws much of its strength from the English-speaking population of our neighbour. The French-language group is, on the other hand, a minority on the North American continent and suffers from its isolation not only from France but from the other French speaking peoples of the world.[27]

Official bilingualism in the public service

The issue of proportional hiring and promotion of speakers of both official languages has been an issue in Canadian politics since before Confederation. Members of each linguistic group have complained of injustice when their group have been represented, in public service hiring and promotion, in numbers less than would be justified by their proportion of the national population. For the greater part of Canada’s history, French-speakers were underrepresented, and English-speakers were overrepresented in the ranks of the public service, and the disproportion became more pronounced in the more senior ranks of public servants. However, this trend has reversed itself in recent decades.

The first high-profile complaint of preferential hiring took place in 1834. One of the Ninety-Two Resolutions of the Lower Canadian House of Assembly drew attention to the fact that French Canadians, who at the time were 88% of the colony's population, held only 30% of the posts in the 157-member colonial civil service. Moreover, the resolution stated, French Canadians were, "for the most part, appointed to the inferior and less lucrative offices, and most frequently only obtaining even them, by becoming the dependent of those [British immigrants] who hold the higher and the more lucrative offices...."[28]

With the advent of responsible government in the 1840s, the power to make civil service appointments was transferred to elected politicians, who had a strong incentive to ensure that French Canadian voters did not feel that they were being frozen out of hiring and promotions. Although no formal reform of the hiring and promotion process was ever undertaken, the patronage-driven hiring process seems to have produced a more equitable representation of the two language groups. In the period between 1867 and the turn of the Twentieth Century, French-Canadians made up about one-third of the Canadian population, and seem also to have represented about one-third of civil service appointments at junior levels, although they had only about half that much representation at the most senior level.[29]

Language policies of Canada's provinces and territories

Canada's thirteen provinces and territories have adopted widely diverging policies with regard to minority-language services for their respective linguistic minorities. Given the wide range of services, such as policing, health care and education, that fall under provincial jurisdiction, these divergences have considerable importance.

New Brunswick

Of Canada's ten provinces, only one (New Brunswick) has voluntarily chosen to become officially bilingual. New Brunswick's bilingual status is constitutionally entrenched under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Sections 16–20 of the Charter include parallel sections guaranteeing the same rights at the federal level and at the provincial level (New Brunswick only).

  • Section 16(2) is a largely symbolic statement that "English and French are the official languages of New Brunswick" with "equality of status".
  • Section 17(2) guarantees the right to use English or French in the New Brunswick legislature
  • Section 18(2) states that New Brunswick's laws will be bilingual, with both texts equally authoritative, and that official publications will be bilingual.
  • Section 19(2) guarantees the right to use either official language in all New Brunswick court proceedings.
  • Section 20(2) guarantees the right to receive provincial government services in either official language.


Manitoba is the only province that was officially bilingual at the time of its establishment. Following the Red River Rebellion led by the Francophone Métis Louis Riel, the Manitoba Act was passed, creating the province and mandating the equal status of English and French in all legislative bodies, legislative records, laws and court proceedings.[30] At this time, Manitoba had a majority Francophone population, but within 20 years mass immigration from Ontario and non-Francophone countries had reduced the Francophone proportion of the population to less than 10%.[31] In 1890, the provincial government of Thomas Greenway stripped funding from the French school system and revoked the equal status of French, a controversial move that caused tension between French and English speakers throughout Canada.[32]

Despite the protests of Franco-Manitobans that the Manitoba Act had been violated, Manitoba remained monolingual in practice until the early 1980s, when legal challenges created a crisis that threatened to invalidate almost all laws passed in Manitoba since 1890, on the grounds that these statutes were not published in French as required by the Manitoba Act.[33] The provincial government under Howard Pawley tried and failed to address the crisis, with the opposition refusing to attend legislative sessions.[33] In 1985 the Supreme Court ruled that the Manitoba Act had been violated and that all provincial legislation must be published in both French and English, restoring the legal equality of the languages that had existed when the province was created.[34] While this restoration of legal equality faced overwhelming public opposition at the time,[33] polls taken in 2003 showed a majority of Manitobans supported provincial bilingualism.[35]

Due to Manitoba's unique history, it has a complex bilingual profile combining that of a province with a "small official-language minority and one with constitutional protection of said minority".[36] Currently, the French Language Services Policy guarantees access to provincial government services in French, though in practice French language services are available only in some areas.[4] Public primary and secondary education is provided in both French and English, and parents are free to choose instruction in either language.[37] Post-secondary Francophone education is provided by the Université de Saint-Boniface, the oldest university in Western Canada.[38]


French has been the only official language in Quebec since 1974, when the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa enacted The Official Language Act (better-known as "Bill 22"). However, the province's language law does provide for limited services in English. As well, the province is obliged, under Section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867, to allow the provincial legislature to operate in both French and English, and to allow all Quebec courts to operate in both languages. Section 23 of the Charter applies to Quebec, but to a more limited degree than in other provinces. Quebec is required to provide an education in English to all children whose Canadian citizen parents were educated in English in Canada, while all other provinces are required to provide an education in French to the children of Canadian citizen parents who either received their education in French in Canada or whose native tongue is French.

In 1977, the Parti Québécois government of René Lévesque introduced the Charter of the French Language (better known as "Bill 101") to promote and preserve the French language in the province, indirectly disputing the federal bilingualism policy. Initially, Bill 101 banned the use of all languages but French on most commercial signs in the province (except for companies with four employees or fewer), but those limitations were later loosened by allowing other languages on signs, as long as the French version is predominant. Bill 101 also requires that children of most immigrants residing in Quebec attend French-language public schools; the children of Canadian citizens who have received their education in Canada in English may attend English-language public schools, which are operated by English-language school boards throughout the province. The controversy over this part of Quebec's language legislation has lessened in recent years as these laws became more entrenched and the public use of French increased.[39]

Quebec's language laws have been the subject of a number of legal rulings. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the case of Ford v. Quebec (A.G.) that the commercial sign law provisions of Bill 101, which banned the use of the English language on outdoor signs, were unconstitutional. In 1989, the Quebec National Assembly invoked the "Notwithstanding Clause" of the Charter of Rights to set aside enforcement of the court ruling for five years. A UN appeal of the 'McIntyre Case' resulted in a condemnation of Quebec's sign law — regardless of the legality of the notwithstanding clause under Canadian law. In response, in 1993 Quebec enacted amendments to the sign law, availing itself of the suggestions proposed in the losing 1988 Supreme Court ruling by allowing other languages on commercial signs, subject to French being markedly predominant .

On March 31, 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that the interpretation made by the provincial administration of the "major part" criterion in Quebec's language of instruction provisions violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This criterion allows students who have completed the "major part" of their primary education in English in Canada to continue their studies in English in Quebec. The Court did not strike down the law but, as it had done in its 1988 ruling on sign laws, presented the province with a set of criteria for interpreting the law in conformity with the Charter of Rights, broadening the interpretation of the phrase "major part".


French and English are official languages in Canada's three federal territories: Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories. Nunavut and the Northwest Territories also accord official language status to several indigenous languages. Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun are official languages in Nunavut because of the territory's Inuit population. The Northwest Territories accords official status to nine aboriginal languages (Chipewyan, Cree, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey and Tłįchǫ/Dogrib). NWT residents have the right to use any of the territory's eleven official languages in a territorial court and in debates and proceedings of the legislature. However, laws are legally binding only in their French and English versions, and the government publishes laws and other documents in the territory's other official languages only when asked by the legislature. Furthermore, access to services in any language is limited to institutions and circumstances where there is significant demand for that language or where it is reasonable to expect it given the nature of the services requested. In practice, this means that only English language services are universally available, and there is no guarantee that any particular government service will use other languages except the courts. Following a 2006 territorial supreme court ruling, Fédération Franco-Ténoise v. Canada (Attorney General), universal French-language services are also mandatory.

This is despite the fact that the proportion of native French-speakers in the territories is negligible, and they are vastly outnumbered by speakers of indigenous languages. At the 2016 census, there were 1,455 "mother-tongue" speakers of French in Yukon (4.3%), 1,175 in the Northwest Territories (2.9%), and 595 in Nunavut (1.7%).[40]

Elsewhere in Canada

Although no Canadian province has officially adopted English as its sole official language, English is the de facto language of government services and internal government operations in Canada's seven remaining provinces. Service levels in French vary greatly from one province to another (and sometimes within different parts of the same province).

For example, under the terms of Ontario's 1986 French Language Services Act, Francophones in 25 designated areas across the province—but not in other parts of the province—are guaranteed access to provincial government services in French. Similarly, since 2005, the City of Ottawa has been officially required under Ontario law,[42] to set a municipal policy on English and French.

In Alberta, the Alberta School Act protects the right of French-speaking people to receive school instruction in the French language in the province.

There is considerable variation across Canada concerning the right to use English and French in legislatures and courts (federal, provincial and territorial).[43] Rights under federal law are consistent throughout Canada, but different provinces and territories have different approaches to language rights. Three provinces (Manitoba, New Brunswick and Quebec) have constitutional guarantees for bilingualism and language rights. Three other provinces (Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan) have statutory provisions relating to bilingualism in the legal system, as do each of the three territories (Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon). Four provinces (British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) are unilingual English.

Language rights in the legal system are summarized in the following table:

Jurisdiction Right to use English and French in Parliament/Legislature Laws are Bilingual Right to use English or French in the courts
AlbertaYes.[51]No: English only.[52]Yes, but only in oral submissions, not written.[53]
British ColumbiaNo: English only.[54]No: English only.[54]No: English only.[55]
New BrunswickYes.[57][58]Yes.[59][60]Yes.[61][62]
Newfoundland and LabradorNo: English only.[54]No: English only.[54]No: English only.[54]
Nova ScotiaNo: English only.[54]No: English only.[54][63]No: English only.[54]
Prince Edward IslandNo: English only.[54]No: English only.[54][67]No: English only.[54]
SaskatchewanYes.[69]Laws and regulations can be in English only, or in both English and French.[70]Yes.[71]
Northwest TerritoriesYes, as well as any of the other nine official territorial languages.[72]Yes.[73]Yes. A party can also use one of the other nine official languages for oral submissions.[74]
NunavutYes, and also the Inuit language.[75]Yes.[76]Yes, and also the Inuit language.[77]
YukonYes, and also Yukon aboriginal languages.[78]Yes.[79]Yes.[80]

Personal bilingualism in Canada

Official bilingualism should not be confused with personal bilingualism, which is the capacity of a person to speak two languages. This distinction was articulated in the 1967 report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which stated:

Nonetheless, the promotion of personal bilingualism in English and French is an important objective of official bilingualism in Canada.

At least 35% of Canadians speak more than one language. Moreover, fewer than 2% of Canadians cannot speak at least one of the two official languages.[82] However, of these multilingual Canadians, somewhat less than one fifth of the population (5,448,850 persons, or 17.4% of the Canadian population) are able to maintain a conversation in both of the official languages according to a self-assessment.[83] However, in Canada the terms "bilingual" and "unilingual" are normally used to refer to bilingualism in English and French. In this sense, nearly 83% of Canadians are unilingual.

Knowledge of the two official languages is largely determined by geography. Nearly 95% of Quebecers can speak French, but only 40.6% speak English. In the rest of the country, 97.6% of the population is capable of speaking English, but only 7.5% can speak French.[84] Personal bilingualism is most concentrated in southern Quebec and a swath of territory sometimes referred to as the bilingual belt, which stretches east from Quebec through northern and eastern New Brunswick and west through Ottawa and that part of Ontario lying to the east of Ottawa, as well as north-eastern Ontario. There is also a large French-speaking population in Manitoba. In all, 55% of bilingual Canadians are Quebecers,[85] and a high percentage of the bilingual population in the rest of Canada resides in Ontario and New Brunswick. Statistics Canada collects much of its language data from self-assessments.

Second-language education

Canada’s thirteen provincial and territorial education systems place a high priority on boosting the number of bilingual high school graduates. For example, in 2008 New Brunswick's provincial government reconfirmed its goal of boosting the percentage of bilingualism among graduates from its current rate of 34% to 70% rate by 2012.[86] In 2003, the federal government announced a ten-year plan of subsidies to provincial education ministries with the goal of boosting bilingualism among all Canadian graduates from its then-current level of 24% to 50% by 2013.[87]

French second-language education (FSL)

Three methods of providing French second-language education (known as "FSL") exist side-by-side in each of the provinces (including Quebec, where extensive French-language education opportunities are available for the province’s large population of non-Francophone children):

  • Core French
  • French Immersion
  • Extended French
  • Intensive French

Core French

Non-Francophone students learn French by taking courses on the French language as part of an education that is otherwise conducted in English. In Quebec and New Brunswick, French classes begin in Grade 1. In the other provinces, French classes typically start in Grade 4 or 5. Students normally receive about 600 hours of French-language classes by the time of graduation.[88] The goal of “Core French” programs is not to produce fully bilingual graduates, but rather "to provide students with the ability to communicate adequately in the second language, and to provide students with linguistic tools to continue their second-language studies by building on a solid communicative base".[89] There are no mandatory core French class in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and second-language courses are mandatory only in BC.

One result of this is that comprehension levels are often lower than parents would prefer. A scholar who interviewed a former New Brunswick premier, as well as the province's deputy ministers of education and health and the chairman of its Board of Management and Official Languages Branch reports: "[A]ll expressed reservations about the effectiveness of the Core program in promoting individual bilingualism and believed the program must be improved if anglophone students are to obtain a level of proficiency in the French language."[90]

French immersion

Non-Francophone students with no previous French-language training learn French by being taught all subjects in the French language, rather than by taking courses on the French language as part of an education otherwise conducted in English.[91] In early immersion, students are placed in French-language classes starting in kindergarten or Grade 1.

In late immersion, children are placed in French-language classes in a later grade. Currently, 7% of eligible students outside of Quebec are enrolled in French immersion programs.[92]

Extended French program

Some schools in Ontario offer a third method of FSL education: the Extended French program. Students enter into this program as early as Grade 4—the starting grade is set by each region's school board—and may continue the program through to graduation.[93] The program can also be entered when beginning secondary school; however, as there is a prerequisite number of previous instruction hours, usually only students previously enrolled in the Extended French or French Immersion programs can enter. In this program, at least 25% of all instruction must be in French. From Grades 4 through 8, this means that at least one course per year other than "French as a Second Language" must be taught solely in French. From Grades 9 through 12, along with taking the Extended French language course every year, students must complete their mandatory Grade 9 Geography and Grade 10 Canadian History credits in French. Students who complete these required courses and take one extra credit taught in French receive a certificate upon graduation in addition to their diploma.

Intensive French

Intensive French is a method of FSL education that originated in Newfoundland. In 2004, Intensive French began in some schools in British Columbia. Intensive French is a choice program (in offering schools) during the grade 6 year. For the first five months of the school year students spend 80% of their time learning French, with the other 20% being for math. The rest of the core curriculum (Social Studies, Science, and Language Arts in English) is condensed for the second half of the year, comprising 80% of the time, with one hour for French. In the grade 7 year students continue to have one hour of core French per day. This results in 600 hours of French instruction over the two years.[94]

English second-language education (ESL)

New Brunswick, being an officially bilingual province, has both anglophone and francophone school districts.

  • The francophone districts have Core English programs teaching ESL.[95]

Quebec's educations system provides ESL on a more restricted basis to the children of immigrants and to students who are members of the province's Francophone majority.

  • Core English: Most non-anglophone students are required to enrol in French-language schools. English is taught to all students, starting in Grade 1, in a program that is essentially identical to the "Core French" taught to English-speaking students in the other provinces.
  • Most high schools offer advanced-level ESL programs where students complete the K–11 program in Secondary 3 (Grade 9) and follow with first-language level in Grade 10 and 11 (literature class).
  • Programs of English immersion have existed for French-speaking students in Quebec but these programs are often in conflict with the official language policies of the Quebec government.[96]

Educational, linguistic, economic, and other challenges of official bilingualism

English and French orthography

Page 5 of a Report of the OECD-CERI Learning Sciences and Brain Research titled Shallow vs. Non-shallow Orthographies and Learning to Read Workshop, published in 2005, states: ‘A comparative study by Seymour et al., undertaken in 2003 […], shows that after one year of instruction, English children show the lowest percentage of correct word reading on a scale in comparison to other European countries, with only 30-40% correct words compared to German, Greek and Finnish, with close to 100%.’[97]

The same report ranks French orthography among the more difficult European ones to learn too.

Overall language rules

Orthographic, grammatical, lexical, and other rules and exceptions to and redundancies in them determine a language’s ease of learning. On page 81 of L’enseignement des langues étrangères comme politique publique, produced at the request of the Haut Conseil de l’évaluation de l’école (in France) in 2005, François Grin quotes a study from the Department of Pedagogical Cybernetics of the University of Paderborn that reveals how a French-speaker can reach the same level after 150 hours of Esperanto as he can after more than 1,000 of Italian and 1,500 of English.[98]

Functional literacy in an official language

According to the Literacy Foundation:

‘19% of Quebecers are illiterate (literacy levels −1 and 1), and 34.3% have serious reading difficulties, often placing on literacy level 2. The latter will often be described as functionally illiterate. These figures are not invented, they are quite real. Illiteracy affects all countries, whether they are industrialized or not. Quebec is no exception to the rule.’[99]

According to the Conference Board of Canada, referencing functional literacy in an official language in 2011: ‘Forty-eight per cent of Canadian adults have inadequate literacy skills—a significant increase from a decade ago.’[100]

Success rates in second-language instruction

In Parlez-vous francais? The advantages of bilingualism in Canada, published by the Canadian Council on Learning, page 6 states:

‘Although most Canadian school children are taught English or French as a second language in school, these lessons often fail to yield functional bilingualism. For example, New Brunswick’s French Second Language Commission recently reported that fewer than 1% of the students who enrolled in “core French” in 1994 had met the provincial minimum goal by 2007. And fewer than 10% of students who enrolled in early-French immersion in 1995 had attained the provincial goal by 2007.’ [101]

The state of French-Language Education Programs in Canada: Report of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, published in 2014, presents the following quote from the Peel District School Board’s Committee from 2011-2012:

‘The review committee found that although principals were finding it very difficult to hire teachers who are qualified to teach French immersion, qualifications alone were not enough to ensure a quality program. ‘The review committee heard repeatedly from different stakeholders regarding instances where a teacher had the requisite paper qualifications but was not fluent in French. Furthermore, the review committee heard that qualified and fluent teachers sometimes chose to leave the French immersion program to teach in the English program. The review committee heard that although it is very difficult for principals to find French immersion teachers for permanent contract teaching assignments, it is even more problematic for them to find FI teachers for long-term occasional assignments.’[102]

Section 4.6 of L’amélioration de l’enseignement de l’anglais, langue seconde, au primaire : un équilibre à trouver, published by the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation (in Quebec) in 2014 reveals a struggle to recruit enough qualified second-language teachers for public schools in Quebec too.[103]

Federal party leaders often master the official languages poorly themselves[104] and even Senate translators might fail to master their languages of work well enough to provide trustworthy translations[105]

According to an article in the Globe and Mail published on 13 February 2019:

‘Growing demand from parents for French immersion has created a shortage of teachers in many parts of the country, with some school boards settling for educators who can speak French only slightly better than their students, according to a new report.’[106]

Dependence on translation in the Government of Canada

Jean Delisle stated in an article tilted Fifty Years of Parliamentary Interpretation:

‘Interpretation is a good barometer of government activity. In the 1960s, a decade that interpreter Ronald Després called the “golden age of simultaneous interpretation,” it was not unusual for interpreters to put in 80-hour weeks. Marguerite Ouimet said that she spent more time in a booth than at home, as did many of her colleagues. From the mid-1970s onward, technician Jean-Pierre Dulude, whose outstanding skill was widely recognized in interpretation circles, supervised the installation of some 60 interpreters’ booths on Parliament Hill, and in federal departments and buildings across the country. He took great care to ensure that the booths met national standards.’[107]

The article goes on to state:

‘The House cannot sit without interpreters and it has adjourned when the interpretation system experienced technical difficulties.’

A report of the Advisory Working Group on the Parliamentary Translation Services of the Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration revealed on 15 March 2018:

‘Many of the respondents cited inconsistency and quality control as major issues when it came to translation. The quality of the service varies greatly from one translator to another and there are often errors in the translations even when a request for a secondary review is made. Some respondents noted that the two language versions of committee reports often do not convey the same meaning and that, in some cases, the translation is simply erroneous. Much time is reportedly spent by senators and staff reviewing the documents in question and ensuring that the translation is accurate. Other respondents reported that longer documents that had been translated by more than one individual were disjointed and difficult to read because a common style had not been used. Recommendations ranged from the need to hire specialized translators to facilitate the translation of committee reports on technical matters, to ensuring proper revision of translations before their delivery, and to the need to provide for a feedback mechanism that could be used to alert the Translation Bureau when errors were detected.

‘Issues related to the quality of interpretation were also raised. Some senators reported hearing literal translations that did not convey the true meaning of what the speaker had said. Others noted that regional expressions were not properly interpreted. Many respondents asked if it would be possible to have the same interpreters covering the Chamber and specific committees as this would ensure continuity. The need to upgrade the Senate's technological equipment was raised as devices in some committee rooms did not work properly. Some committee clerks noted that a more modern way for clerks to provide material to the interpreters was needed. Such technological upgrades could make communication of information quicker and more efficient.’[105]

Direct monetary cost of official bilingualism

In Official Language Policies of the Canadian Provinces: Costs and Benefits in 2006, published by the Fraser Institute in 2012, we read on page xii:

‘In our previous study, Official Language Policies at the Federal Level in Canada: Costs and Benefits in 2006, we estimated that the total cost of federal bilingualism at $1.8 billion. Since these expenditures include transfers to provinces that are spent by them on official language programs (Vaillancourt and Coche, 2009: 25, table 1), aggregating federal, provincial, and local spending must net out these transfers to avoid double counting. Once transfers are netted out, we have $1.5 billion at the federal level and $868 million at the local and provincial level for a total rounded of $2.4 billion or $85 per capita for 2006/07.’[108]

Distribution of wealth between official and Deaf, indigenous, and other unofficial linguistic communities

In MAKING THE MOST OF THE ACTION PLAN FOR OFFICIAL LANGUAGES 2018-2023: INVESTING IN OUR FUTURE, the standing Committee on Official languages states: ‘CPF British Columbia and Yukon has already identified three strategies: recruiting from other provinces and territories and from abroad; supporting post-secondary institutions so they can train more teachers; and supporting teachers.’[109]

The linguistic provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Official Languages Act, the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act,[110] the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, and other laws obligate a greater demand for English and French speakers (even foreign ones if necessary) than a freer linguistic market would require. This, combined with English and French being more difficult to learn than some languages due to their orthographic (especially for the Deaf, dyslexics, and Deaf-dyslexics), grammatical, and lexical particularities, accentuates the wealth gap between official and Deaf, indigenous, and other unofficial language communities by limiting market supply and blocking equal access to Federal and federally-regulated employment ranging from the packaging and labelling industries all the way up to appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada for unofficial language communities. Perry Bellegarde and Romeo Sagansh have addressed this concern as it applies to indigenous peoples.[111][112]

In Parlez-vous francais? The advantages of bilingualism in Canada, published by the Canadian Council on Learning, page 4 states:

‘The bilingual advantage appears to extend to individual income. According to the 2001 Canadian census, people who speak both official languages had a median income ($24,974) that was nearly 10% higher than that of those who speak English only ($22,987) and 40% higher than that of those who speak French only ($17,659). Similar gaps remain after controlling for individual characteristics such as educational attainment and work experience.’[101]

In an Article in the National Post of 10 November 2017, Member of Parliament Romeo Saganash stated in reference to requiring Supreme-Court judges to speak English and French:

“All Indigenous people in Canada speak one official language or the other, English or French,” Saganash argued. “To exclude that part of the population from the possibility of sitting on the Supreme Court has always seemed unacceptable to me.”[112]

Senator Murray Sinclair has opposed requiring Supreme Court judges to know both official languages too.[113]

While the inherent difficulties of English and French can prevent some from learning them well, their international spread can greatly benefit those who have the means to learn them well.[114]

The perception of official bilingualism as an exclusively bi-ethnocentric policy

The mandate of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was to

inquire into and report 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 the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada and the measures that should be taken to safeguard that contribution.[115]

The same report clarifies the status of Canada’s indigenous peoples relative to ‘the two founding races’ in its Book I, General Introduction, Paragraph 21:

We should point out here that the Commission will not examine the question of the Indians and the Eskimos. Our terms of reference contain no allusion to Canada's native populations. They speak of "two founding races," namely Canadians of British and French origin, and "other ethnic groups," but mention neither the Indians nor the Eskimos. Since it is obvious that these two groups do not form part of the "founding races," as the phrase is used in the terms of reference, it would logically be necessary to include them under the heading "other ethnic groups." Yet it is clear that the term "other ethnic groups" means those peoples of diverse origins who came to Canada during or after the founding of the Canadian state and that it does not include the first inhabitants of this country.[27]

Chapter I, Paragraph 19 states:

Still, as we have pointed out earlier, there is such a thing as a French culture and a British culture. Of course, the differences between them are not as great as they would be if either were compared to one of the many Asian or African cultures. In Canada, the Anglophones and the Francophones wear the same sort of clothing, live in the same sort of houses, and use the same tools . They are very similar in their social behaviour, belong to religions which are not exclusive, and share the same general knowledge. To a greater or lesser extent, they share a North American way of living.[27]

Book II, Chapter V.E.1, Paragraph 325 indicates that the government's policy with reference to indigenous Canadians was ‘to integrate these students as completely as possible into the existing provincial school systems.’[116]

Commissioner J. B. Rudnyckyj wrote a separate statement challenging his colleagues’ proposals for an exclusively Anglo-French language policy. Esperanto Services, Ottawa; the Indian-Eskimo Association of Canada, Toronto; and other organizations representing different indigenous and other unofficial-language communities likewise presented briefs that presented alternative notions to that of 'two founding races.'[117]

Unofficial use of an international auxiliary language between English and French Canadians

English and French Canadians of the Pacific Northwest sometimes used Chinook Jargon (also known as Chinuk Wawa) to interact not only with the local indigenous, Chinese, and other populations but even with one another up until at least 1900 after which it began to decline as a result of the Spanish flu, World War I, and the Canadian Indian residential school system. Some English and French Canadians have turned to Esperanto since at least 1901 in Quebec when A. P. Beauchemin founded the Esperanto group La Lumo (published from 1902 to 1904 and read by 1710 readers).

Both Esperanto and Chinook Jargon (possibly fed in part by a combination of the low rate of success in official-second-language instruction in Canada's public schools, a growing belief in the need for reconciliation, the comparative ease of learning of these languages, the comparative grammatical precision of Esperanto conferring on it an advantage as a source language for translation and machine translation, the relative decline of English in an increasingly international world economy,[118] and the advantages of direct communication in a standard language over translation and broken language) have experienced revivals since the 2000s leading to the publication of a self-instruction book for Chinuk Wawa in Esperanto in 2018.[119]

People have made use of the mobile application Amikumu to network with one another in Esperanto since 22 April 2017 and in other languages since the LangFest in Montreal on 25 August 2017. It has since spread to 130 countries speaking 525 languages.

Proposed alternatives to official bilingualism based on the personality principle

Official bi-unilingualism based on the territoriality principle

In Lament for a Notion, Scott Reid proposes maintaining the present official languages but deregulating them, limiting them mostly to the official sphere, and applying the territoriality principle except where numbers warrant it.[120]

Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest had called on the Federal Government to apply the Charter of the French Language to all federally-regulated institutions operating in the province of Quebec.[121]

Up until its reaction to the Government of Ontario's decision to eliminate the Office of the Commissioner of Francophone services in October 2018, Quebec had tended to oppose calls on the part of French-speakers to broaden French-language rights outside of that province such as when it opposed the Commission scolaire francophone du Yukon’s call to gain the ability to admit more students to its French-language schools at the Supreme Court of Canada fearing that a victory for the French-language school board in the Yukon could have negatively affected the promotion of French in Quebec.[122][123]

Official indigenous multilingualism based on the personality principle

In an article written by Gloria Galloway and published in the Globe and Mail on 8 July 2015, Galloway writes about how the Assembly of First Nations wants to make all of Canada’s indigenous languages official. She writes:

‘The head of the Assembly of First Nations is calling for the nearly 60 indigenous languages spoken in Canada to be declared official along with English and French, an expensive proposition but one that he says is becoming more urgent as the mother tongues of aboriginal peoples disappear. ‘Perry Bellegarde, who was elected National Chief of the AFN last fall, agrees it would not be easy to require translations of all indigenous languages to be printed on the sides of cereal boxes and milk cartons.

‘"That would be the ultimate goal," Mr. Bellegarde said in an interview on Wednesday at the three-day annual general meeting of the AFN, Canada's largest indigenous organization. "But let's do small steps to get there."’[111] Romeo Saganash has expressed the belief that Members of Parliament have a constitutional right to speak any of Canada’s indigenous languages in Parliament.[124]

Official indigenous multi-unilingualism based on the territoriality principle

Given the logistic and economic challenges of official multilingualism based on the personality principle, some proponents of an equal right to the indigenous language have proposed a policy of official indigenous unilingualism based on the territoriality principle whereby a local or regional government would have an obligation to provide services only in the local indigenous languages but not in any other of Canada’s indigenous languages. Some First Nations already apply this principle on territory under their jurisdiction.

Official multilingualism or multi-unilingualism including one or more official sign languages whether according to the personality or territoriality principle

Some have proposed that Canada adopt ‘sign language’ as one of its official languages.[125]

Official interlingualism through an international auxiliary language

In Esperanto in the Modern World, compiled by Rüdiger and Vilma Sindona Eicholz in 1982, Vilma Sindona Eicholz writes in her essay A Fair Bilingualism for Canada, in the section subtitled Steps for a Better Canada, on pages 381-382:

‘For every child the same amount of money should be allotted for education. Parents should have the right to send their children to a school which teaches in the language of their choice. Education standards in all non-linguistic fields should be the same, but in all schools the first language, after the language of instruction, should be Esperanto. It should be taught for one year only on a daily basis. After this year, one subject, possibly geography, should be taught in Esperanto in order to keep the language skills alive.

‘In some areas there will probably not be enough children in certain languages to pay for teachers and schools. It should be up to the parents to choose the most suitable of many alternatives. Here are a few possibilities: A. Raising the necessary additional money among themselves and/or negotiating a lower salary for the teacher. B. Bussing the student to a school which teaches in the desired language. The parents would have to pay the additional expense. C. Boarding the students close to such a school. D. Putting children from a multitude of language backgrounds into one school, where the language of instruction in all subjects is Esperanto, except for lessons in the mother tongue, which would be taught separately for Croatians, Estonians, Vietnamese and Chileans for example. If there are enough students, subjects taught in the mother tongue could be enlarged. E. Let the children visit the school of another language group, but give them separate instruction in their mother tongue. F. Teach the students at home, possibly with help from cable TV or videorecorders. ‘The only groups which I believe need and deserve our special care with respect to language rights are the Indians and the Inuit, on whose former land we live. [...] If students want to continue formal education in trade schools, high schools or universities, they might have to switch over to Esperanto as the language of instruction, because they might have to join the natives or other Canadians speaking other languages. But never should a native be instructed in the language of another ethnic group.’[126]

Such a policy would conform to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Section 26 (3): ‘Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.’[127]

Support and opposition

Poll data

Polls show that Canadians consistently and strongly support two key aspects of Canadian official languages policy:

  • bilingual federal government services,
  • the right of official-language minorities to receive an education in their maternal language.

However, among English-speaking Canadians there is only limited support for broadening the scope of official bilingualism, and reservations exist among Anglophones as to the intrusiveness and/or fairness of the policy. Among Francophones, polls have revealed no such reservations.

Among Anglophones, support for providing federal French-language services to French-speakers living outside Quebec has remained consistently high over a quarter-century period—79% in 1977 and 76% in 2002.[128] Over the same period, support among English-speakers for the "right to French language education outside Quebec where numbers make costs reasonable" has ranged from 79% to 91%.[129] Among French-speaking Canadians, support for these policies was even higher.

The national consensus has, at times, broken down when other aspects of official bilingualism are examined. However, a significant shift in anglophone opinion has occurred since the mid-2000s, in favour of bilingualism.[130]

According to a review of three decades' worth of poll results published in 2004 by Andre Turcotte and Andrew Parkin, "Francophones in Quebec are almost unanimous in their support of the official languages policy" but "there is a much wider variation in opinion among Anglophones ..."[131]

This variation can be seen, for example, in responses to the question, "Are you, personally, in favour of bilingualism for all of Canada?" Between 1988 and 2003, support for this statement among Francophones ranged between 79% and 91%, but among Anglophones support was never higher than 48%, and fell as low as 32% in the early 1990s.[132] The ebb in support for bilingualism among anglophones can likely be attributed to political developments in the late 1980s and 1990s, including the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, and the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence.[130]

By 2006, affirmative responses to the question "Are you personally in favour of bilingualism for all of Canada?" had increased considerably, with 72% of Canadians (and 64% of anglophones) agreeing. 70% of Canadians, and 64% of anglophones were "in favour of bilingualism for [their] province".[130] Support for bilingualism is thought likely to continue to increase, as young anglophones are more favourable to it than their elders.[130]

According to Turcotte and Parkin, other poll data reveal that "in contrast to Francophones, Anglophones, in general, have resisted putting more government effort and resources into promoting bilingualism ... What is revealing, however, is that only 11% of those outside Quebec said they disagreed with bilingualism in any form. Opposition seems to be directed to the actions of the federal government, rather than to bilingualism itself ... [T]his distinction is key to understanding public opinion on the issue."[133] This helps to explain results that would otherwise seem contradictory, such as a 1994 poll in which 56% of Canadians outside Quebec indicated that they either strongly or moderately supported official bilingualism, but 50% agreed with a statement that "the current official bilingualism policy should be scrapped because it's expensive and inefficient."[134]

In English Canada, there is some regional variation in attitudes towards federal bilingualism policy, but it is relatively modest when compared to the divergence between the views expressed by Quebecers and those expressed in the rest of the country. For example, in a poll conducted in 2000, only 22% of Quebecers agreed with the statement, “We have gone too far in pushing bilingualism,” while positive response rates in English Canada ranged from a low of 50% in the Atlantic to a high of 65% in the Prairies.[135]

Both French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians tend to regard the capacity to speak the other official language as having cultural and economic value,[136] and both groups have indicated that they regard bilingualism as an integral element of the Canadian national identity. Once again, however, there is a marked divergence between the responses of French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians. In a 2003 poll, 75% of Francophones indicated that "having two official languages, English and French" made them proud to be Canadian. Among English-speakers, 55% said that bilingualism made them proud, but far higher percentages (86% and 94%, respectively) indicated that multiculturalism and the Charter of Rights made them feel proud.[137]

Findings of Public Hearings

From time to time, boards or panels are commissioned, either by the federal government or the government of one of the provinces, to conduct hearings into the public’s views on matters of policy. Some of these hearings have dealt largely, or even primarily, with official languages policy, and the responses that they have collected provide snapshots into the state of public opinion at particular points in time.

Findings of the public hearings into the Poirier-Bastarache Report (1985)

The Advisory Committee on the Official Languages of New Brunswick was commissioned by the provincial legislature as a way of determining the response of the population to the 1982 Poirier-Bastarache Report, which had recommended a considerable expansion of French-language services.[138] Public hearings were conducted in twelve cities and towns across the province in 1985, and a report was submitted by the committee in 1986.[139]

The briefs submitted to the Advisory Committee were subsequently summarized in an academic study of the hearings in the following terms:

Findings of the Spicer Commission (1990)

In late 1990, a six-man Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future was established by the federal government with a mandate to engage in "a dialogue and discussion with and among Canadians ... to discuss the values and characteristics fundamental to the well-being of Canada". The Forum, which was headed by former Commissioner of Official Languages Keith Spicer, published a report in June 1991, which included a detailed discussion of Canadians’ reactions to a variety of issues, including federal official languages policy.

These comments, which probably represent the most extensive consultation ever with Canadians on the subject of official bilingualism, were compiled statistically by the Spicer Commission, and tend to reinforce the findings of pollsters, that Canadians are favourable towards bilingual services, but frustrated with the implementation of official languages policy. Thus, for example, nearly 80% of group discussions sponsored by the Commission produced favourable comments from participants on what the Commission's report refers to as "bilingualism generally", but nearly 80% of these discussions produced negative comments on "official languages policy".[141]

These results prompted Spicer to write,

Advocacy groups

Advocacy in support of expanding / extending official bilingualism exclusively of other language communities

A number of groups exist, which, as part of their mandate, seek to promote official bilingualism or to extend the scope of the policy (although advocacy is not always the sole, or even the primary activity, of the groups). Among these groups:

  • Alliance Quebec (defunct)
  • L'Association des municipalités francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick
  • Canadian Parents for French, established with the assistance of the Commissioner of Official Languages in 1977, promotes French second-language education for children whose mother tongue is English;
  • Commission nationale des parents francophones
  • Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada serves as an umbrella for 22 groups representing French-speaking minorities in different provinces and territories;
  • Fédération des jeunes francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick
  • Fédération nationale des conseils scolaires francophones
  • Francophone Association of Municipalities of Ontario seeks to oversee the maintenance and development of municipal government services in French, in Ontario municipalities with French-speaking populations.
  • Impératif français seeks to promote the use of French within Quebec, and to challenge inequalities between the languages that may arise within areas of federal administration.
  • Quebec Community Groups Network serves as an umbrella for 38 English language community organizations across Quebec for the purposes of supporting and assisting the development and enhancing the vitality of the English-speaking minority communities;
  • Société des Acadiens et Acadiennes du Nouveau-Brunswick
Advocacy in favour of restraining or abolishing official bilingualism

A number of groups have existed, since the first Official Languages Act was proclaimed in 1969, which sought to end official bilingualism or to reduce the scope of the policy. Among these groups:

In the first decade or so following the 1969 adoption of the Act, opposition to the new policy sometimes took a radical form that has subsequently nearly disappeared. Books such as Jock V. Andrew's Bilingual Today, French Tomorrow, advocated either the repeal of the Official Languages Act or an end to the policy of official bilingualism. Leonard Jones, the mayor of Moncton, New Brunswick, was an aggressive opponent of bilingualism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jones challenged the validity of the Official Languages Act in court, arguing that the subject matter was outside the jurisdiction of the federal government. In 1974, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Jones, and found the law constitutional. In 1991, a local resurgence in anti-bilingualism sentiments allowed the Confederation of Regions Party to win 21.2% of the vote in New Brunswick's provincial election and to briefly form the official opposition with eight seats in the provincial legislature.

Some organizations or individuals within certain movements also propose introducing a more inclusive language policy either via official multilingualism, or an official unilingual language policy in an auxiliary language so as to intrude minimally into the first-language choice of residents. Such ideas are sometimes inspired by Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights relating to discrimination on the basis of language, and Article 26(3) of the same Declaration so as to give parents the freedom “to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” Others can be inspired by religious or other beliefs.

Assembly of First Nations: National First Nations Language Strategy, presented by the Assembly of First Nations on 5 July 2007, inspired by previous statements including the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples presented in 1996, rejects official bilingualism in favour of linguistic equality for speakers of indigenous languages:

“First Nations seek legislated protection via a First Nations Languages Act that would be consistent with First Nations and Government of Canada laws dealing with languages.”

The French Nation of Canada (FRENCA): The NAFRAC favours a more interlingual approach to language policy that promotes the local sign language, the local indigenous language, Esperanto or another international auxiliary language, and more linguistic freedom in unofficial domains.[145]

Positions of the federal political parties

Language issues currently dividing the parties

The issues on which Canada’s political parties have most recently shown divergent voting patterns are two private members’ bills.

The first, An Act to amend the Official Languages Act (Charter of the French Language) (Bill C-482), was introduced by Bloc MP Pauline Picard. If adopted, it would have had the effect of amending the Official Languages Act, the Canada Labour Code, and the Canada Business Corporations Act, to cause them to conform to the Charter of the French Language, “effectively making the federal government French-only in the province,” according to Maclean’s.[146] This bill was defeated on May 2008, with Bloc and NDP MPs voting in favour and Conservative and Liberal MPs opposed.[147]

The second private member’s bill is NDP MP Yvon Godin’s Act to amend the Supreme Court Act (understanding the official languages) (Bill C-232). If adopted, this bill will have the effect of blocking any candidate who is not already sufficiently bilingual to understand oral arguments in both official languages from being appointed to the Supreme Court. This bill was passed at third reading on March 31, with all NDP, Liberal and Bloc members in support and all Conservative MPs opposed.[148] but did not pass the Senate.

Conservative Party of Canada and its predecessors

The Conservative Party of Canada was created in 2003 by the merger of the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Canadian Alliance. The new party adopted the principles of the old Progressive Conservatives as its founding principles, with only a handful of changes. One of these was the addition of the following founding principle, which is lifted almost verbatim from Section 16(1) of the Charter of Rights:

"A belief 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."

At its founding convention in 2005, the new party added the following policy to its Policy Declaration (the official compilation of the policies that it had adopted at the convention):

"The Conservative Party believes that Canada’s official languages constitute a unique and significant social and economic advantage that benefit all Canadians.
"i) A Conservative Government will support the Official Languages Act ensuring 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.
"ii) The Conservative Party will work with the provinces and territories to enhance opportunities for Canadians to learn both official languages."[149]

Prior to this, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Reform Party of Canada had advocated the policy's repeal. However, the party's position moderated with time. By 1999, the Blue Book (the party's declaration of its then-current policies) stated that "The Reform Party supports official bilingualism in key federal institutions, such as Parliament and the Supreme Court, and in critical federal services in parts of the country where need is sufficient to warrant services on a cost-effective basis."[150] By 2002, the policy declaration of the Reform Party's political successor, the Canadian Alliance, had been moderated further, and stated that it was "the federal government's responsibility to uphold minority rights" by providing services in both languages in any "rural township or city neighbourhood where at least ten percent of the local population uses either English or French in its daily life".[151]

Liberal Party of Canada

The Liberal Party sees itself as the party of official bilingualism, as it was a Liberal prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, who enacted the first Official Languages Act in 1969 and who entrenched detailed protections for the two official languages in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

The depth of the party’s commitment to official bilingualism is demonstrated by the fact that the constitution of the Liberal Party contains provisions modelled almost word-for-word on Section 16(1) of the Charter of Rights: "English and French are the official languages of the Party and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all federal institutions of the Party. In pursuing its fundamental purposes and in all its activities, the Party must preserve and promote the status, rights and privileges of English and French."[152]

New Democratic Party

New Democrat MPs voted in favour of the 1969 Official Languages Act, the 1988 Official Languages Act, and the protections for the two official languages contained in the Charter of Rights. More recently, the party has edged towards supporting an asymmetrical version of bilingualism. Early in 2008, the party’s languages critic, Yvon Godin, stated that its MPs would vote in favour of a bill, sponsored by the Bloc Québécois, which would cause federal institutions to operate on a French-preferred or French-only basis in Quebec.[153]

In 2017, NDP MP Romeo Saganash spoke forcefully against making Anglo-French bilingualism a requirement for Supreme-Court judges in addition to criticizing official bilingualism generally due to the linguistic barriers it imposes on indigenous candidates.[112]

Bloc Québécois

Although the main objective of the Bloc Québécois is to assist in the secession of Quebec, the party’s parliamentary caucus has maintained an active interest in issues relating to official languages policy (for example, sending MPs to participate in the standing Commons committee on official languages). The party seeks to alter federal language policy, as it applies within Quebec, so as to eliminate the statutory equality of English that is guaranteed under the Official Languages Act and other federal legislation. In recent years, this has included introducing a private member's bill titled An Act to amend the Official Languages Act (Charter of the French Language) (better known as Bill C-482), intended to supersede the Official Languages Act with the Charter of the French Language for all federally regulated corporations within Quebec, this principle uses an asymmetrical conception of federalism in Canada.[154]

See also


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  2. "Subsection 16(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982". (See Section Sixteen of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.)
  3. "Official Languages Act – 1985, c. 31 (4th Supp.)". Act current to July 11th, 2010. Department of Justice. Retrieved 2010-08-15. The purpose of this Act is to (a) ensure respect for English and French as the official languages of Canada and ensure equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all federal institutions, in particular with respect to their use in parliamentary proceedings, in legislative and other instruments, in the administration of justice, in communicating with or providing services to the public and in carrying out the work of federal institutions; (b) support the development of English and French linguistic minority communities and generally advance the equality of status and use of the English and French languages within Canadian society; and (c) set out the powers, duties and functions of federal institutions with respect to the official languages of Canada.
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  11. Esperanto in the Modern World, compiled by Rüdiger and Vilma Sindona Eiholz, Esperanto Press, Bailieboro, Ontario, K0L 1B0, 1982, ISBN 0-919186-18-1, Universal Decimal Classification 800.892, pages 368-369
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  16. Schedule 'A' of the Canada Act is a French version of the operative clauses of the Canada Act. Schedule 'B' contains the text of the Constitution Act, 1982, in both English and French.
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  27. "Information archivée dans le Web" (PDF).
  28. Resolution 75. Resolved, That the number of the Inhabitants of the country being about 600,000, those of French origin are about 525,000, and those of British or other origin 75,000; and that the establishment of the civil government of Lower Canada, for the year 1832, accordingly to the yearly returns made by the Provincial Administration, for the information of the British Parliament, contained the names of 157 officers and others receiving salaries, who are apparently of British or foreign origin and the names of 47 who are, apparently, natives of the country, of French origin; that this statement does not exhibit the whole disproportion which exists in the distribution of the public money and power, the latter class being, for the most part, appointed to the inferior and less lucrative offices, and most frequently only obtaining even them, by becoming the dependent of those who hold the higher and the more lucrative offices; that the accumulation of many of the best paid and most influential, and at the same time incompatible, offices in the same person, which is forbidden by the laws and by sound policy, exists especially for the benefit of the former class; and that two-thirds of the persons included in the last commission of the peace issued in the province, are apparently of British or foreign origin, and one-third only of French origin.
  29. Eugene Forsey writes: “In the Dominion Civil Service, Côté’s ‘’Political Appointments’’, 1867–1895, shows that, over that period, eliminating duplications, the French Canadians had rather over a third of the official of the House and of the two Dominion Courts; rather less than a third of other officials of the rank of Deputy Minister and, of the officials from Chief Clerk up to Deputy Minister rather less than one-seventh.” Source—Eugene Forsey, ‘’Freedom and Order: Collected Essays.’’ Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1974, p. 243.
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  44. Constitution Act, 1867, s 133.
  45. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, ss 16(1), 17(1).
  46. Official Languages Act, RSC 1985, c 31 (4th Supp), s 4.
  47. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s 18(1).
  48. Official Languages Act (Canada), Part II.
  49. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s 19(1).
  50. Official Languages Act, (Canada), Part III.
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  52. Languages Act (Alberta), s 3. The only exception is the Languages Act itself, which is bilingual.
  53. Languages Act (Alberta), s 4.
  54. De facto; no legislative provision deals with this issue.
  55. Supreme Court Civil Rules, B.C. Reg. 168/2009, rr. 1‑1, 1‑3, 22‑3(2), (3); Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique v. British Columbia, 2013 SCC 42, [2013] 2 SCR 774.
  56. Manitoba Act, 1870, s 23.
  57. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, ss 16(2), 17(2).
  58. Official Languages Act, SNB 2002, c O-0.5, ss 6, 7, 8.
  59. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s 18(2).
  60. Official Languages Act (New Brunswick), ss 9 to 13.
  61. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s 19(2).
  62. Official Languages Act (New Brunswick), ss 16 to 21.
  63. The only exception is the bilingual French-language Services Act, SNS 2004, c 26.
  64. French Language Services Act, RSO 1990, c F.32, s 3(1).
  65. French Language Services Act (Ontario), ss 3(2), 4.
  66. Courts of Justice Act, RSO 1990, c C.43, ss 125, 126.
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  68. Charter of the French Language, CQLR, c C-11, s 7.
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  71. The Language Act, s 11.
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  74. Official Languages Act (Northwest Territories), s 9.
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  77. Official Languages Act (Nunavut), s 8.
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  79. Languages Act (Yukon), s 4.
  80. Languages Act (Yukon), s 5.
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  83. Statistics Canada, 2006 Census Profile of Federal Electoral Districts (2003 Representation Order): Language, Mobility and Migration and Immigration and Citizenship. Ottawa, 2007, pp. 2, 6. Statistics Canada collects data on mother tongue, on "first official language spoken", and on bilingualism in French and English. However, the agency does not collect data on bilingualism in non-official languages (either persons who speak more than one non-official language, or who have an official language as their mother tongue and afterwards learn a non-official language). Thus, it is possible only to determine that 6,147,840 Canadians have a non-official language as their mother tongue (see p. 2, line 5), and that 520,385 Canadians do not speak either official language (see p. 6, line 108). Since all persons who speak neither official language must have a non-official language as their mother tongue, simple subtraction shows that 5,627,455 Canadians, or 18.0% of the population, are bilingual in a non-official language plus an official language.
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  115., page 173
  116., page 128
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  128. Andrew Parkin and Andre Turcotte, Bilingualism: Part of Our Past or Part of Our Future?. CRIC Paper #13. Ottawa: Centre for Research and Information on Canada. March 2004, p. 6.
  129. Parkin and Turcotte, p. 9. This is the wording used in the 2002 poll. In the 1977 poll, respondents were asked whether they supported "the provinces providing opportunities and facilities for education in French wherever practicable".
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  131. Parkin and Turcotte, p. 2.
  132. Parkin and Turcotte, p. 8. A parallel question, "Are you in favour of bilingualism for your province?" also received a much more favourable response from Francophone respondents (most of whom were located in Quebec) than from Anglophone respondents, indicating that Francophones were consistently more supportive than Anglophones of a fully bilingual Quebec within a fully bilingual Canada, whereas Anglophones were consistently more supportive than Francophones of a unilingual French Quebec within a Canada where the other provinces are for the most part unilingual English.
  133. Parkin and Turcotte, p. 10. The specific reference is to a 1977 poll in which 54% of non-Quebecers but only 34% of Quebecers identified with the statement, "I generally agree with or support the principle of bilingualism but I disagree with the form bilingualism has taken under the present federal government."
  134. Angus Reid Group, "The National Angus Reid/Southam News Poll: Canadians' Views on Official Bilingualism". Release date: April 29, 1994.
  135. Parkin and Turcotte, p. 11.
  136. Parkin and Turcotte, pp. 20–21.
  137. Parkin and Turcotte, p. 13.
  138. New Brunswick. Official Languages Branch (Bernard Poirier and Michel Bastarache). Towards Equality of Official Languages in New Brunswick. 1982.
  139. New Brunswick (Irene Grant-Guerette and Lloyd B. Smith). Report of the Advisory Committee on Official Languages of New Brunswick. 1986.
  140. Catherine Steele, Can Bilingualism Work? Attitudes Towards Language Policy in New Brunswick: The 1985 Public Hearings on the Poirier-Bastarache Report. Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1990, p. 89.
  141. Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future, Report to the People and Government of Canada. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1991, p. 161.
  142. Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future, Report, pp. 125–126.
  143. "Alliance for the Preservation of English in Canada: Change of name and relocation of head office". Canada Gazette. 2000-02-26. Archived from the original on 2012-02-04.
  144. "Supplementary letters patent (name change)" (PDF). Canada Gazette Part I, p. 3872. 2001-10-06. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-03-21.
  145. "Accueil | La nation française du Canada (NAFRAC)". La nation française.
  146. Martin Patriquin, “Are you still here?” Maclean’s, February 25, 2008, p. 23.
  147. "Official Report * Table of Contents * Number 095 (Official Version)". Retrieved 2015-10-29.
  148. "Official Report * Table of Contents * Number 021 (Official Version)". Retrieved 2015-10-29.
  149. Conservative Party of Canada Policy Declaration, March 2005, p. 32 (Policy #91).
  150. The 'Blue Book': Principles and Policy of the Reform Party of Canada – 1999, p. 40.
  151. Canadian Alliance Declaration of Policy, April 2002, pp. 12–13.
  152. Liberal Party of Canada, “Constitution”, as adopted and amended at the biennial convention, November 30 – December 1, 2006, Section 2(3).
  153. Yvon Godin, “Commons Debates” (Hansard), February 6, 2008, p. 2691.)
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