Political and Institutional Foundations of Language Management in Canada


Federalism serves to share authority between different entities and to create orders of government [1]. Every federal state must abide by the principle of non-subordination of the orders of government in their areas of jurisdiction by virtue of the division of powers in the country's constitution.

A country that espouses federalism must also ensure representation of constituent units within federal institutions so that they can participate in decisions concerning the federation as a whole. The existence of an independent tribunal is also required in order to uphold the spirit of federalism.

[1] This section borrows its definition of federalism from Linda Cardinal, « Fédéralisme et langue. L’incidence du fédéralisme d’ouverture sur les régimes linguistiques canadien et québécois ». In Michel Seymour and Guy Laforest (eds.), Le fédéralisme multinational. Un modèle viable?, Bruxelles, P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2011, p. 249-250.

Federalism and Language

Every federal state operates in one or more languages. However, a distinction must be made between multilingual, multi-national and multicultural states. It is quite possible for a federal state to recognize more than one language without it being considered a multinational state. For example, India is a multilingual state. The Swiss constitute a multilingual people even though the country has national languages. Spain has another approach. Despite its linguistic diversity, language is not viewed as a unifying principle for the country as a whole. Scotland, where historically Gaelic is also spoken, does not take great account of the language in its demand for more autonomy. Finally, a multicultural state is not necessarily a multilingual state. Federalism can advocate cultural diversity, but taking linguistic diversity into account is not part of the multicultural approach. Indeed, in the United States, multiculturalism is subordinated to the English language, whereas in Canada it is of a bilingual framework [1].

Federalism provides a space for the self-government of internal nations and peoples over defined territories, even if such an arrangement can cause significant tensions between the constituent units and the federal authority. This is also the case for minorities or linguistic communities that do not have enough territory to form an order of government, as is the case for Francophone minority communities in Canada. Not all linguistic minorities within the constituent units benefit from measures favorable to their fulfillment and development.

In summary, federalism can be an interesting solution for nations and peoples within a given country, but this is not enough to make multilingualism a collective ideal.

[1] William Safran, 2010. Political Science and Politics. In Language & Ethnic Identity Volume 1, Disciplinary & Regional Perspectives, Joshua A. Fishman and Ofelia García (eds.), p. 49-69. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Linda Cardinal et Selma Sonntag, « Traditions étatiques et régimes linguistiques : Comment et pourquoi s’opèrent les choix de politiques linguistiques? », Revue internationale de politique comparée, vol. 22, no 1, 2016, p. 115-133.

Canadian Federalism

Federalism is an important state tradition in Canada. It reflects the historic compromise between Francophones and Anglophones in Canada to allow Quebec and other constituent units to strengthen their presence in a given territory. Thus, Quebec, thanks to federalism can govern itself in many fields of expertise while contributing to a greater whole.

Canada has 10 provinces and three territories. There is the federal Parliament consisting of the House of Commons and the Senate. Each constituent unit or province and the territories have their legislatures. The provinces have legislative assemblies. In 1968, Quebec changed the name of its assembly from legislature to National Assembly. The territories are federal entities that do not have the same status as the provinces. On the one hand, they were created by the federal government. On the other hand, the power of the territories is delegated by the federal government, unlike the provinces that have constitutional powers by rights.

The newest territory, Nunavut, was created in 1999 to consolidate the Inuit population of the country living in the Northwest Territories and give them more control of their lands, as well as a self-governing power.

For more information, please refer to ''A Federal State'' section of this website.

Federal and provincial powers and language

Partial List of Federal Powers

Partial List of Provincial Powers

List of Shared Powers

Public debt and propetry

Provincial taxes


Traffic and trade regulations

Public lands, woods, and forests therein


Unemployment insurance

Prisons and rehabilitation institutions



Hospitals, asylums, institutions and charitable hospices


Postal Service

Municipal Institutions


Census and statistics

Provincial Justice


Military service and national defence






Water crossings between provinces and territories









First Nations people and their reserved lands



Criminal law, with the exception of provincial courts







In Canada, the principle of division of powers has resulted in a division of powers between different orders of government. The federal government and governments in the provinces and territories have exclusive jurisdictions in certain areas of public policy including language. Sections 91 to 95 of the Canadian Constitution establish jurisdictional division.

The division of powers is based on a certain understanding of the principle of subsidiarity. In 1867, the constituents gave the federal government the power to intervene in areas of general and national interest while provincial governments were given responsibility for regional or local issues. Thus, because of federalism, each level of government can adopt the language policies that best suit their needs.

Canada is also a constitutional monarchy. Because of this reality, the federal government has spending powers including in the jurisdictions of the provinces. The federal spending power refers to the power of the federal government to contribute to programs under provincial jurisdiction over which it does not normally have the power to legislate. However, using its spending power, the federal government has provoked several conflicts and debates over federal jurisdiction in the country's history. In particular, Quebec has always opposed the spending power of the federal government, since it is perceived as a way of interfering in the affairs of the provinces.

The federal government also has the prerogative with respect to "residual powers;" powers in areas not provided for in the Constitution. In other countries, as in the United States, the residual power belongs to the states. For their part, Canadian provinces may have residual powers in their jurisdictions.

The division of powers has also resulted in areas of shared jurisdiction such as agriculture, immigration or language. This means that both levels of government can intervene in the same area while avoiding conflict. In conflicts between two statutes, the principle of federal paramountcy will prevail over provincial or territorial legislations.

More specifically, language is considered to be an area of ancillary jurisdiction in Canada. An ancillary sphere of expertise is a so-called ancillary sphere which relates to the spheres of competence enumerated in the Constitution. In other words, in all areas of jurisdiction, the federal or provincial governments can legislate on language. For example, in addition to the language policies they can adopt, all provinces can legislate on language in their jurisdictions, whether to specify the use of languages in the field of signage, health or labor relations.

Canadian Federalism and Political Representation

In addition to having two orders of government, constituent units must be represented in federal institutions. Historically, the Senate is the forum for representing the regions or provinces. Thus, when it was created, because of its size and linguistic composition, Quebec and Ontario were considered as regions in their own right, each represented by 24 senators. The provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island constitute a third region, the Maritimes, which is also represented by 24 seats. Finally, the four western provinces form a fourth region, also represented by 24 senators, that is, six by province. The province of Newfoundland and the northern territories are represented independently of the system of regions, consisting of six senators for Newfoundland and one senator for each of the three territories (Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon) [1].

The Senate also allows official language minorities, particularly francophone minorities outside Quebec, to be represented in federal political institutions given their low numbers in the House of Commons. In fact, in 2015, during the election of the new government under the leadership of the Honorable Justin Trudeau, 23 francophone MPs outside Quebec, 6.0% of the total number of MPs, entered the House of Commons. As for the Senate, in 2015, there are six Senators representing CFCs, or 6.6% of the total Senators.

With respect to First Nations representation in the Senate, in 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Between 1867 and 2016, 15 First Nations or Métis communities were appointed to the Senate. In the House of Commons, there are five Inuit, Métis or First Nation MPs.

In addition to representing official – language minorities, Métis peoples and First Nations, both the House of Commons and the Senate have a committee on official languages: The Standing Committee on Official Languages and the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages, where the language issues can be further reflected and studied.

To conclude this section, federalism is characterized by tensions inherent in its functioning. It has a centrifugal or centralizing effect, usually favorable to the federal government, because of the principle of federal paramountcy. Canadian federalism also has a centripetal dimension, as it serves to disseminate power in accordance with existing boundaries between orders of government. Federalism thus leaves the provinces able to govern themselves, including the area of language. Provinces must be represented in federal institutions such as the Senate.

Finally, federalism guide state intervention in the field of language due to the division of powers. On the one hand, language is a shared competence in Canada and an ancillary or auxiliary one. On the other hand, the different orders of government in the country can legislate in one or more languages. They can also legislate on language in their jurisdiction in addition to adopting separate language policies. These dimensions give a special color to the Canadian language regime, as we will see in the next section.

[1]  Data taken from Linda Cardinal and Sébastien Grammond, Une tradition et un droit : La représentation politique des minorités francophones au Sénat, Ottawa, The University of Ottawa Press, 2016.

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