Political and Institutional Foundations of Language Management in Canada

Language Regimes

The establishment of a language regime differs from one country to another. A regime rests on normative, institutional and administrative traditions. It is also the result of interactions between key actors such as political parties and social movements each having their own views on how language should be represented in the public sphere. Since the 19th century, language regimes have been generally established in the context of European nation-States. In the 20th century, the establishment of new post-colonial regimes in Africa, Asia and Latin America revived the question of the role of the state in the choice of language policies in these regions. In the 21st century, discussions on globalization and linguistic diversity call for further analysis of the role of states in the field of language [1].

[1] Rainer Enrique Hamel, « L’aménagement linguistique et la globalisation des langues du monde », Télescope,  vol. 16, no 3, 2010, p. 1–21.

Canada’s Language Regime

A large part of Canada's language regime history is to understand how English and French have become the country’s two official languages. There are also other historical languages in Canada, particularly the languages of Aboriginal and Métis peoples, some of which have official status in the federal territories. There are also almost 200 immigrant languages in Canada. These languages are not all spoken on a daily basis, but they form part of Canada`s linguistic reality.

The history of the Canadian language regime is marked by turning points, but it also shows patterns of continuity such as the fact that language is constantly the object of negotiation or compromise. Language rights in Canada are guided by the idea of compromise – the heart of Canada's language policy. This compromise is the result of many factors: demographic, economic, political and social factors.


On the one hand, the Canadian language regime is characterized by the dominance of English which has been the case since the Conquest of New France by the British in the 18th century. On the other hand, the British government had to compromise with French Canadians, whose demographics were more important at the time. The situation gave rise to numerous language debates.

The first important debate on language took place in 1792 within the context of the creation of the new Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada. Francophone members assumed that they will be able to speak French in the assembly. However, English-speaking MPs did not share same opinion, but they were obliged to accommodate and join the Francophone majority. Up until this day, the National Assembly of Quebec operates solely in French.

Then, in 1840, as a result of the patriots' rebellions against British power, the merger of the assemblies of Upper and Lower Canada resulted in the banning of French within the new assembly of United Canada. The Durham Report, or the British North America Business Report, suggested that French Canadians would have to assimilate to English. The measure failed, because francophone members continued to use the French language in the new Legislative Assembly.

The First Turning Point

In 1867, at the time of the creation of the Canadian federation, English and French were recognized in the new constitution of the country, the British North America Act, Section 133. This section confirmed that both French and English may be used in parliamentary debates in the federal legislature and in the Legislative Assembly of Quebec and that the legislation must be published in both languages in addition to being used in the federal and Quebec tribunals.

The approach was not constraining, but it was embedded in the new Canadian constitution. Section 133 is the core of the Canadian language regime that is developed in the 19th century but it was limited and asymmetrical. It included the recognition of English and French in the Canadian Parliament and in the Quebec Legislative Assembly. The initial compromise did not impose any demands on the other founding provinces, whether it be New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or Ontario, where French Canadians and Acadians also lived during Confederation. Lastly, the compromise leading to Section 133 did not include indigenous languages.

Moreover, the provinces opposed a model of Anglo-compliance to the initial compromise. The approach, whose aim is to confirm the superiority of English and Protestantism, was imposed on French Canadians, Aboriginal peoples and immigrants. The proposed model supported indeed the action of the provinces that would ban French in their legislative assemblies and in education, as well as Gaelic and German, which were also spoken at the time – especially in Ontario and Manitoba.

The Anglo-compliance model was consistent with the spirit of the Durham report, which also proposed the assimilation of French Canadians, but it was equally made possible through federalism. Naturally, federalism leaves room for the swaying of the provinces in several areas, including language, by virtue of the division of powers.

Thanks to their struggles, French Canadians defeated the English assimilation project in favor of Canadian bilingualism. This project is based on the ideal of equality between French Canadians and English Canadians from coast to coast. The Métis Nation played a key role in the establishment of Canadian bilingualism, which will lead to the creation of the Province of Manitoba in 1870 as mentioned in 2015 in Caron v. AlbertaOriginally, the constitution of the new province included requirements for French as set out in Section 133 of the Canadian Constitution, however, in practice, with very little respect for said requirements by the Manitoba government.

The Second Turning Point

It was not until 1960 that the federal, as well as the New Brunswick and Ontario governments, began to question the Anglo-compliance model to the benefit of Canadian bilingualism. Given the rise of Quebec's cultural and political affirmation, the federal government became increasingly active in promoting Canadian bilingualism. For example, in 1963 it announced a major commission of inquiry, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in Canada, which called for a new compromise between the two founding peoples. In 1969, it enacted the Official Languages Act.

New Brunswick also promulgated its own Official Languages Act, but no other province followed its example. The government of Ontario opened up to the principle that it will offer services in French where practical and reasonable. In 1974, Quebec made French the official language of the province. In 1976, it adopted the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) which made French the language of work and advertisement. The Charter also requires that newcomers send their children to French schools.

In 1982, as part of the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution of Westminster, the government adopted Charter of Rights and Freedoms in which it confirmed the equality of French and English in law, statutes, and privileges. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms represents a turning point in the history of Canada's language regime. It gives language rights to all Canadians and makes French and English the languages of citizenship in the country, as well as granting the right to education in the mother tongue to official language minorities across the country (see Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms).

In 1988, the Government of Canada adopted a new Official Languages Act in which it confirms, in Part IV, its obligation to communicate and provide services to the public in the official language of its choice. It also gives civil servants the right to work in the official language of their choice in Part V of the new Act. Finally, in 2005, the federal government revised its legislation on official languages and added, in Part VII of the Act, an obligation to adopt positive measures to ensure the development and vitality of official language minorities. It also made this part of the law judicable.

Despite these major advances in the Canadian language regime, it will continue to rely on a representation of the language rights and official languages as a compromise.  In 1999, in Beaulac, the Supreme Court of Canada challenged the view that the reference to this compromise should be used to interpret the rights of official language minorities. It confirmed that it had a limited approach to the progression of equality between English and French.  However, in 2015, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the latter in Caron. In the end, Canadian courts have advanced the representation of language within the language regime as an expression of a right and not merely as a compromise. However, despite the liberal and generous interpretations of the past by the Supreme Court in the area of language rights has also confirmed that it was equally dependent on the representation of language as a compromise.

To summarize, since the founding of the country, the gradual institutionalization of the Canadian language regime has been based on a hierarchical representation of English and French as well as other languages. Because of federalism and its interaction with the Anglo-compliance model and heritage, this representation served to adopt many discriminatory measures against French Canadians, particularly in the provinces. These measures have been questioned by many French-speaking groups in the country and by the Supreme Court of Canada who have contributed to the transformation of representations of language within the Canadian language regime but they have succeeded only partly in discarding the use of the compromise in order to impose limits on language rights.

The Third Turning Point

Today, indigenous peoples are increasingly demanding recognition of their languages, emphasizing the importance of a people's ability to speak their language, as shown by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (see in particular The "Language and Culture" section of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls for Action). In 2016, Senator Joyal tabled a bill to formalize Aboriginal languages in the country.

Thus, the representation of language as a right can constitute a favorable lever to the linguistic demands of the other groups. Since the 1990s, several provinces have followed the lead of the federal government to offer services in French to their official language minorities. With the exception of British Columbia, provinces also recognize that they have a role to play towards the enhancement and development of their official language minority. Some provinces also recognize indigenous languages and promote the teaching of foreign languages within their school system.


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