Canada's language policy includes a set of principles, laws, programs and measures to manage languages in the country. It serves to enhance the status of certain languages, such as French, English and certain Aboriginal languages, and to promote their use at both the federal and provincial levels.

It should be remembered that the Canadian language regime is historically based on a representation of language as a compromise. However, in the name of this compromise, Canadian language policy has not always been characterized by positive language measures. Up to the beginning of the 20th centuries, legislations were adopted by most provincial governments to prohibit the French language, but also Indigenous and other languages such as Gaelic and German. All were considered both inferior languages as well as a threat to the English language.

Beginning in the 1960s, largely for political reasons related to the special situation of Quebec within the federation and because it has, for historical reasons, a majority Francophone population, French and English became the official languages of the country. In 1982, the principle of equality between French and English was enshrined in the country's constitution, thus enabling the representation of the language in the country to be broadened as a compromise to include that of language as a right. For example, since 1982, Canadians have language rights and the ability to use the courts to enforce them. Canadian population is entitled to expect services in French and English from the federal government.

Language management in Canada reflects the gradual progression of the equality of French and English within the Canadian language regime. Canada's language policy also includes Aboriginal languages and non-official languages. Thus, it is made up of at least three formal areas of intervention:

  1. A language policy at the federal level,
  2. Language policies in the provinces, and
  3. A set of policies and initiatives, primarily in the provinces, to promote Aboriginal and non-official languages.

There is no uniform approach to language policy in Canada. Because of Canadian federalism, these policies vary from province to province. All provinces use diverse principles and tools

This section presents the main concepts and principles guiding language policy in Canada. It also gives examples of tools that have been put in place by the public authorities in order to develop languages within Canadian federalism [1].

[1] For a more complete presentation of the tools in the area of official languages policy, see the section on Governance in this website.

Linguistic Intervention

Whatever the language regime, languages interact with one another [1]. These interactions are not neutral. They lead to different types of language intervention, including formal and informal interventions. This section focuses on formal interventions, but any language regime also includes informal interventions.

Informal intervention: Contacts between languages produce two types of informal intervention. Initially, the contact between languages can give rise to new languages or dialects such as pidgins or Creoles. In a second phase, situations of contact between languages also create phenomena of diglossia, alternation between codes and may lead to linguistic assimilation.

Formal intervention: Informal intervention between languages may also justify a formal intervention on the part of the State because of unequal relations between them. For example, in the 1960s, the Government of Quebec considered it important to intervene formally in order to counter the phenomena of alternation of codes and created the Office québécois de la langue française. At the time, its mandate was to translate the words and avoid the use of English expressions.

Formal intervention may take other forms, including the granting of official or national language status.

Official language: A language is official when used in government. In Canada, French and English are the official languages of the country and of the province of New Brunswick. French is the official language of Quebec.

Provinces and TerritoriesOfficial Languages
AlbertaEnglish (de jure)
British ColumbiaEnglish (de jure)
Prince Edward IslandEnglish (de facto)
ManitobaEnglish (de jure)
New BrunswickEnglish and French (de jure)
Nova ScotiaEnglish (de facto)
OntarioEnglish (de facto)
QuébecFrench (de jure)
SaskatchewanEnglish (de jure)
NewfoundlandEnglish (de facto)
NunavutEnglish, French (de jure), inuktitut and inuinnaqtun (de facto)
Northwest TerritoriesEnglish, French and 10 Indigenous languages (de jure)
YukonEnglish and French (de jure)

National language: The status of a national language is a form of recognition which obliges the state to communicate in the national language of the population concerned. However, the state may operate in another language. In Quebec, Aboriginal languages are considered national languages.

Formal intervention may also seek to alter the status and use of a language without official recognition. For example, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Ontario provide services in French but do not recognize French as an official or national language. The status of a language is therefore not always an indication of the availability of services. In addition, while French and English are official languages in the country, Francophones across the country do not always have access to federal services in their language.

Finally, it is not only threatened languages that receive official or national status. English has official language status in Canada and New Brunswick as well as in Alberta, although it is not an endangered language.

[1] This section presents concepts from Linda Cardinal, « Les enjeux de la diversité linguistique au Canada et au Québec ». In Jacques Palard et al. (eds.), La diversité des identités au Canada et dans l’Europe des régions, Québec and Bruxelles, Les Presses de l’Université Laval and P.I.E.-Peter Lang, 2006, p. 93-118.


Formal linguistic intervention is based on two main principles: the principles of personality and those of territoriality. To simplify, the principle of personality is based on the idea of freedom or choice of use of the language. The principle of territoriality aims at strengthening a language on its territory. It is based on the recognition that a language needs a territory to flourish.

Canada's language policy deserves special attention because of its differentiated application of these two principles from one region of the country to another and by the various levels of government. At the federal level, the development of English and French has been based on the principle of personality since the enactment of the first Official Languages Act in 1969. This law, in the same vein that the new Official Languages Act of 1988, confers the right of Canadians to receive federal services in the official language of their choice. This right is granted to individuals and relates only to public uses. The Official Languages Act does not apply to private sphere.

In contrast, the Quebec Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) is a typical case of territorial policy, since its aims is to reinforce the language on a given territory. Moreover, the principle of territoriality applied in Quebec is not limited to public uses, but also to private practices. French is the official language of the province, but also in the workplace.

In short, Canada’s language policy seeks to deterritorialize the language by privileging the principle of personality, whereas federalism permits the adoption of principles with contradictory appearances, such as in Quebec. This situation creates tensions and has given rise to several conflicts in the past. Among other things, in Quebec, some members of the Anglophone minority have repeatedly criticized Bill 101 because of its territorial principle, which gives a preponderance to French, particularly with regards to signage.

In the rest of Canada, the personality principle is not sufficient to guide the development of Francophone minorities. Moreover, while the principle of personality confers freedom of choice under the Official Languages Regulations (Communications with and Services to the Public), this freedom can only be exercised in Canada if the demand is significant. In official language minority communities this requirement is a major obstacle to the provision of government services in the official language of choice.

In addition, a policy of free choice cannot compensate for a genuine development policy. In 1988 the new Official Languages Act attempted to meet this requirement and recognized the obligation of the Canadian government to foster the enhancement and development of its official language minorities. However, in order to give greater meaning to this commitment, in 2003 the Canadian government adopted complementary tools, including the Action Plan on Official Languages.

Finally, until 1988, the principle of personality applied only to the free choice of services. After 1988, the new Act also gave employees the right to work in the official language of their choice.

In the other provinces, these principles are also applied in a distinct way. For example, in New Brunswick, the Official Languages Act recognizes the equality of both languages before the provincial legislature and courts, as well as the right to separate educational and cultural institutions. As for the Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Official Language Communities in New Brunswick (Bill 88), it is based on the recognition of the equality of the communities. The notion of community equality has particularities that recall the territorial principle. Its aim is the autonomous management of the main institutions of the province's two major Francophone and Anglophone communities.

In Ontario, the right to services in French in designated areas also combines the principle of personality with an administrative use of the principle of territoriality, which is based on the criterion of numbers. In this sense, the right to services in French does not confer collective rights to the Francophone minority.

Other areas of language policy in Canada, such as the development of Aboriginal and non-official languages, are guided by the principle of personality in the case of official Aboriginal languages. In most cases, initiatives are symbolic in nature. For example, the federal government has established funding programs to promote the use of non-official languages, including the Aboriginal Languages Initiative (ALI) component of the Aboriginal Peoples Program administered by Canadian Heritage. The provinces and territories have also developed initiatives for Aboriginal and non-official languages. In Nova Scotia, a Department of Gaelic Affairs promotes Gaelic language and culture. British Columbia adopted the First Peoples Heritage, Language and Culture Act in 1996 and established the First Peoples' Cultural Council (FPCC), which promotes Indigenous languages, art and culture in this province. In 2010, Manitoba recognized the presence of Indigenous languages in the province by enacting the Aboriginal Languages Recognition Act.

The Public Administration of Canada’s Language Policy

Recognizing the equality of English and French in the Canadian Constitution created requirements that constrain the federal government to develop its own infrastructure in the area of official languages. There are also obligations under the Official Languages Act. In both cases, the Act confers obligations on governmental departments, in particular, Canadian Heritage, Justice and the Treasury Board, as well as all other federal institutions with official language obligations.

Within the main departments with official language obligations, there are programs and tools in place to enable public servants to see the implementation of the language policy within the federal government. A few examples of programs and tools are given below to illustrate the extent of Canada's language policy. A separate section presents all the components of the official languages policy in Canada and in the provinces and territories.