A Change in the Course of Language Rights (1963–1969)


Although indigenous peoples had a foothold in North America prior to Europeans, it was the Anglophones and Francophones who gave birth to the Canada we know today. By the 1960s, the two major linguistic communities had still not managed to find common ground, but it had become obvious that it would be in Canada's best interest to acknowledge its linguistic minorities, and that it would take more than occasional concessions to allow all its citizens to live in harmony. The country was ripe for a profound change, as were many others in the world. During the 1960s, in fact, numerous countries witnessed substantial political change on the topic of the protection of languages. Many old British and French colonies became sovereign states and, simultaneously, minority groups were eager to improve their lot and accede to a more desirable and more equitable status. Canada too navigated its way toward national liberation, and toward the acquisition and advancement of language rights. The 1960s also marked a growing involvement by the state in the lives of citizens across the globe. Language would prove no exception.

The coming to power of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson (from 1963 to 1968) signaled a certain will to change on the part of the Canadian government. Wishing to preserve national unity, Pearson devoted particular attention to bilingualism, establishing a royal commission charged with examining the state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada. This was also the era of the rise of the sovereigntist movement in Quebec; of the arrival on the federal political scene of Pierre Elliott Trudeauwho favoured individual rights; and of the passage of the Official Languages Act (1969), which would usher in the era of language laws in Canada, with the federal law followed by another on multiculturalism.

At the same time, in certain provinces, particularly in Ontario and New Brunswick, francophone minorities were demanding substantial, and not merely cosmetic, change. For its part, Quebec was going through an effervescent period known as the Quiet Revolution, a cathartic time characterized notably by the advent of a more modern state, socioeconomic action, the affirmation of a Quebec identity, and linguistic awareness. The courts would later intervene in certain recalcitrant provinces in order to have minority rights respected. The advent of language rights and laws was at hand.

Federal Legislation on the official Languages (1969 and 1988)

In response to the numerous recommendations of the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission, the House of Commons passed the Official Languages Act in 1969. This act conferred co-official status on English and French, but only for bodies and institutions under federal jurisdiction. This was the first true language legislation passed by the federal Parliament. As Canada is a federation, the act had to respect the Canadian Constitution by not intruding on areas of jurisdiction belonging to the provinces. Briefly stated, the act could not dictate provincial language policies. In 1988, the Official Languages Act of 1969 would be repealed with the passage of a new Official Languages Act under then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (1984-1993). The federal legislation grants personal rights to all Canadian citizens to communicate in the language of their choice with the federal government and to have their children educated in a minority language. It does not provide collective rights as defined by certain laws, for example in New Brunswick and in Quebec. The passage of the Official Languages Act, at last, put an end to the era of symbolic bilingualism (stamps, bank notes, etc.) and mere translation of laws and certain administrative documents.

Constitution Act of 1982 and charter of rights and freedoms

In 1982, Canada adopted an additional piece of constitutional legislation: the 1882 Constitution Act. This act did not replace the constitutional texts than in use, including the Constitution Act of 1867, but rather added to them. This new constitution entrenched the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the circumstances under which it was adopted have been perceived by some as somewhat murky. The Constitution was approved by the nine majority-Anglophone provinces and by the federal government, but without the consent of Quebec, the only predominantly Francophone province. And yet, compared to the constitutional text of 1867, the Constitution Act of 1982 was highly innovative in linguistic matters. For instance, it provided a procedure for modifying language legislation depending on whether the change related to a provision affecting some provinces only, all provinces, or the federal government.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms


Desired linguistic equality has not been fully realized. This right to the "language of one's choice" is difficult to achieve everywhere, since, as numbers do not always justify it, active offerings in French (or in English in certain regions of Quebec) are often deficient, if not non-existent. It is easier to extend this right to symbols (eg, bilingual signage for federal buildings, currency, postage stamps) and to real services to the public.There are currently 55 bilingual sovereign States around the world. With the exception of Belgium, none of the 54 other States has successfully implemented an equality bilingualism between languages. The reason is obvious: it is difficult to grant equal rights to numerically unequal groups.


In Canada, the conception of language rights is to promote a symmetrical view of official languages; this vision assumes that Francophones and Anglophones are considered equal groups. On the one hand, there are "French-speaking Canadians, concentrated in Quebec but present in the rest of Canada", on the other hand, "English-speaking Canadians, concentrated in the rest of the country but also present in Quebec". As a result, Canada would have two majorities within which minorities are identified that need to be protected. The application of this principle consists in taking measures to protect only the francophone minorities in the English provinces and the Anglophone minority in Quebec. This concept of the two equal majorities makes it possible to better accept bilingualism in the nine Anglophone provinces. Such a language policy is based on the premise that Quebec's Francophones form a majority that does not need protection and that Anglophones constitute a minority that must be protected. But it is not English that is threatened in Canada, but French, including Quebec. From a legal point of view, according to the interpretation of the Supreme Court of Canada, there are no "Canadian" linguistic minorities, but only "provincial" linguistic minorities over which the federal government exercises very little jurisdiction If not through the Canadian Constitution.

Broad-based language policy in the provinces: New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec

Provincial autonomy being what it is, the various language policies of the provinces may seem like an ill-coordinated jumble. Canadian provinces are distinct legal entities whose policies may differ from each other’s. It’s as if there were one federal language policy (including federal territories) and ten provincial language policies.

Flags of New Brunswick Ontario Quebec

Provincial autonomy being what it is, the various language policies of the provinces may seem like an ill-coordinated jumble. Canadian provinces are distinct legal entities whose policies may differ from each other’s. It’s as if there were one federal language policy (including federal territories) and ten provincial language policies.

Map of Canada showing the Broad-Based Provinces : New Brunswick, Ontario, Quebec

Nevertheless, although the language policies adopted in Canada by different governments are distinct and autonomous, they are still subject to certain provisions of the Canadian Constitution. Not only must the federal government and the provincial governments submit to the Canadian Constitution, but so must citizens and public and private concerns. This means that in language matters all provinces must submit to the provisions of the Constitution Act of 1982 with regard to school rights, that is to say, section 23. Furthermore, certain clauses concern only the federal government, while others deal only with the New Brunswick government (at its request).

Among the ten Canadian provinces, one can distinguish three different approaches:

1.Broad-based language policies dealing in principle with all aspects of society: legislation, justice, public services, education, etc.

2.Sector-based language policies dealing with education or law, for example

3.Non-interventionist policies whereby a Canadian province merely complies with constitutional constraints or decisions of the courts

A policy is considered broad-based when it concerns the principal spheres of social life. Moreover, this policy must be supported by interventionist measures, generally laws or regulations. In short, such a policy requires that a government anticipate difficulties and plan its interventions. Only three provinces fulfill these criteria: New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec.

Ontario and Quebec are officially unilingual, but this in no way prevents these provinces from granting extensive rights to their linguistic minority in almost all major walks of life. In fact, some sectors are officially bilingual, such as the legislature, the courts, government services or education. This is all to the credit of the provinces, but in practice, the rights of the linguistic minority are no more widespread in one (Ontario) than in the other (Quebec). Roughly speaking, one might say that the linguistic minorities of these three provinces enjoy relatively similar rights. Of course, there are differences, but the similarities are striking.

Sector-Based language policy in the provinces: Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Manitoba

Provinces that have developed sector-based languages policies generally focus on a single aspect of the language in question, or no more than two or three. More specifically, this approach consists of adopting relatively detailed legislative measures in one, two, or three sectors as they relate to the use of minority languages. Education appears to be a popular sector in this regard, but certain policies address other areas such as legislation, justice, or government services.

flags of Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island

As a rule, the provinces that adopt this approach have regulated problems as they have arisen, particularly in the wake of court rulings. Three provinces stand out in this regard: Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

map showing the Sector-Based Provinces

Linguistic policies of Non-Intervention: Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland

A policy of non-intervention consists of adopting a laissez-faire approach, ignoring any problems that arise and allowing language situations to work themselves out according to the forces at play. Such policies are deliberate, planned choices that generally work to the benefit of the dominant or official language.

flags of  Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland

In principle, a non-interventionist policy is unwritten and unofficial, although the government can decide to state its intent, further its actions through administrative means, or even enact regulations, Orders in Council, or vague constitutional or legislative provisions. However, a non-interventionist government refrains from acting as arbitrator and is careful not to adopt specific legislative provisions. The principles of freedom of choice, tolerance, and the acceptance of differences are often invoked to justify such policies.

In practice, the term "non-interventionist policy" can be misleading, because a state or province may practice both intervention and non-intervention simultaneously, for example, by taking no action with regard to the official language but protecting minority languages, or, conversely, by promoting the official language while making no provision for minority languages.

In the Canadian context, non-interventionist policies generally consist of abiding by constitutional obligations and court rulings or orders. Instead of imposing a ban, as has been done in the past, a province merely has to grant the rights recognized by the Canadian Constitution or enforced by the court, generally a Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court of Canada. Technically, this amounts to non-intervention on the part of the province.

map of Canada showing the provinces that adapted the  Linguistic Policies of Non-Intervention