Understanding your language rights
Your language rights
In 1867, the year of Confederation, English and French became the languages that could be used in the debates of the Parliament of Canada, as well as in any court of Canada established under the Constitution Act and any court of Quebec (section 133). The first Official Languages Act, enacted in 1969, recognized the equal status of English and French throughout the federal administration. Its primary goal was to ensure that Canadian citizens had access to federal services in the official language of their choice. As a federal act, the Official Languages Act is only applicable to federal institutions and cannot be applied to provincial or municipal governments or to private businesses. However, certain provinces and territories have adopted their own policies and legislation to protect languages.
English and French are a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian identity, and the importance of language rights is clearly recognized in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, part of the Constitution Act of 1982. Official languages are addressed specifically in sections 16 to 23 of the Charter. Section 16, for instance, establishes that English and French both have equal status, rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and government of Canada. Section 23 confirms minority language educational rights for English-speaking children in the province of Quebec and French- speaking children in the rest of Canada.
The Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations, adopted in 1991, set out the circumstances in which federal institutions are required to provide services in both official languages. These regulations were adopted pursuant to section 32 of the Official Languages Act, following a major consultation process.
Since 1969, numerous events have contributed to fostering the equality of English and French in federal institutions and in Canadian society. The Official Languages Act has undergone several changes over the years that have expanded its substance and scope. A new Official Languages Act was adopted in 1988 and then revised in 2005.
The purpose of the Official Languages Act is to:
- ensure respect for English and French and ensure equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in federal institutions;
- support the development of English and French linguistic minority communities; and
- advance the equal status and use of English and French.
Official Languages Act
Target institutions (Section 3 of the Official Languages Act)
The Official Languages Act applies to federal institutions, including the Parliament of Canada, Crown corporations (such as VIA Rail and Canada Post) and federal departments. It also applies to certain organizations, such as Air Canada, CN and NAV CANADA, that retained their language obligations after they were privatized.
Parliamentary proceedings (Part I, section 4 of the Official Languages Act)
Parliamentarians and the public have the right to use either English or French in Parliament. Parliament is required to provide simultaneous interpretation of its debates and other proceedings, as well as translations of its official reports.
Legislative papers (Part II, sections 5 to 13 of the Official Languages Act)
All acts of Parliament must be enacted, printed and published in both official languages. Also, federal institutions that are required by law to publish public notices must do so in both English- and French-language publications.
Justice (Part III, sections 14 to 20 of the Official Languages Act)
In civil proceedings before federal courts other than the Supreme Court of Canada, you have the right to be heard by a judge who understands the official language chosen for the proceedings without the assistance of an interpreter.
Federal courts include the Tax Court of Canada, the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal, as well as other federally administered adjudicative bodies, including the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, the Social Security Tribunal and the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
Communications with and services to the public (Part IV, sections 21 to 33 of the Official Languages Act)
The purpose of the Official Languages Act is not to make every Canadian to speak both official languages. On the contrary, the Official Languages Act aims to ensure that the federal government of Canada is able to provide services to English- and French-speaking Canadians in the language of their choice. Federal institutions must provide services in the official language of your choice without delay, and the services must be of equal quality, regardless of the language you choose.
You have the right to communicate with and get services from the head or central office of a federal institution in the official language of your choice. Other offices and facilities of federal institutions are also required to provide services in both languages if:
- they are located in the National Capital Region or in a region where there is significant demand for a given language; or
- it is reasonable to do so because of the nature of the office.
Institutions are required to actively offer services in both languages, which means they must tell you that services are available in both official languages. This includes greeting people in person in English and French, answering the telephone in both languages and posting bilingual signs.
How is it determined that an office is required to provide services in both official languages?
To determine whether there is significant demand for service in the minority official language, the size of the linguistic minority population in the region is taken into account, as well as the proportion of that population to the total population of that region. An office may also be required to provide services in both official languages if its mandate is related to public health or safety, or if it is deemed reasonable for it to do so because of its location or its national or international mandate.
The Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations set out the rules for determining which offices must provide services in both official languages. Approximately one third of federal institutions’ offices must provide services in both official languages. To find out where you can get services from a federal institution in the official language of your choice, please refer to the Burolis directory.
Language of work (Part V, sections 34 to 38 of the Official Languages Act)
Employees of federal institutions, regardless of whether their position is bilingual, have the right to work in the official language of their choice in the following designated bilingual regions:
- New Brunswick
- Greater Montréal region
- Parts of the Eastern Townships, the Gaspé Peninsula and western Quebec
- National Capital Region
- Parts of eastern and northern Ontario
Having the right to work in the official language of your choice includes:
- having work tools (such as reference books, manuals, keyboards, computer software and telephone systems) in your choice of English or French;
- being supervised in your choice of English or French;
- being able to write in English or French;
- being able to speak in English or French during meetings; and
- having access to training in your choice of English or French.
In addition to making sure that these rights are respected, federal institutions must also ensure that the work environment is truly conducive to the use of both official languages.
Signs of a truly bilingual workplace
- Employees participate fully in their professional life and work together in the official language of their choice.
- Senior management and supervisors lead the way by frequently using both official languages.
- The workplace culture fully reflects the equal status of both official languages.
- Employees are proud to work in an environment where using both official languages is valued and encouraged.
- Managers and staff know their language rights and obligations. For more information, check out our study on Leadership Behaviours for Managers or fill out our Leadership Competencies Profile.
Participation of both language groups (Part VI, sections 39 and 40 of the Official Languages Act)
Under the Official Languages Act, the Government of Canada is committed to ensuring that English- and French-speaking Canadians have equal opportunities for employment and advancement in federal institutions. The government also ensures that the federal workforce reflects the linguistic composition of the Canadian population as much as possible. However, there may be exceptions due to:
- the nature of a given federal institution,
- its mandate,
- the public it serves, and
- its location.
In general, the current linguistic composition of the workforce at federal institutions reflects that of the Canadian population: approximately one quarter French and three quarters English. The linguistic composition of certain institutions may differ from that of the Canadian population. For example, some institutions have offices in only one province or provide services to the population of only one part of Canada.
Advancement of English and French (Part VII, sections 41 to 45 of the Official Languages Act)
Under the Official Languages Act, the Government of Canada is committed to supporting and assisting the development of official language minority communities. The intention is to enable these communities to thrive and to enjoy the same benefits as the rest of the population.
The federal government is also committed to fostering the full recognition and use of English and French in Canadian society.
The Official Languages Act sets out the duty of all federal institutions to take positive measures in order to fulfill these commitments.
What is a positive measure?
A positive measure is an action taken by a federal institution that has a real and positive effect on:
- the vitality of official language minority communities;
- progress towards the equal status of English and French in Canadian society; or
- the future of linguistic duality in Canada.
Each institution must determine the kind of positive measures to take, based on its mandate.
The term “official language minority communities” refers to English-speaking communities in Quebec and French-speaking communities in the rest of Canada. More than two million Canadians belong to an official language minority community.
Role of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (Part VIII, sections 46 to 48 of the Official Languages Act)
The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat is responsible for the direction and coordination of the federal policies and programs relating to the implementation of Parts IV, V and VI of the Official Languages Act. It ensures that federal institutions comply with the principles, directives and regulations relating to official languages.
Role of the Commissioner of Official Languages (Part IX, sections 49 to 75 of the Official Languages Act)
The Official Languages Act sets out the status, duties and powers of the Commissioner of Official Languages. The Commissioner is required to take all actions and measures within his or her authority to ensure the full recognition of both official languages as well as compliance with the Official Languages Act.
If you believe that your language rights have been violated, you can file a complaint with the Commissioner.
Court remedy (Part X, sections 76 to 81 of the Official Languages Act)
You have the right to apply to the Federal Court for a court remedy if you have filed a complaint with the Commissioner of Official Languages under one of the following parts of the Official Languages Act:
- Part I, section 4 of the Official Languages Act
- Part II, sections 5 to 7 of the Official Languages Act or 10 to 13 of the Official Languages Act
- Parts IV, sections 21 to 33 of the Official Languages Act, V, sections 34 to 38 of the Official Languages Act or VII, sections 41 to 45 of the Official Languages Act
- Part XI, section 91 of the Official Languages Act
General staffing measures (Section 91 of the Official Languages Act)
In the federal public service, some positions are designated as bilingual and others are designated as unilingual. The Official Languages Act sets out the need for objectivity when determining the language requirements of positions. These requirements must be based on the duties to be carried out to serve members of the public in the official language of their choice or to fulfill language-of-work obligations.