The 50th anniversary of Canada’s Official Languages Act

By Normand Laplante

Canada’s Official Languages Act celebrates its 50th anniversary in July 2019! Library and Archives Canada holds many archival documents chronicling the genesis and evolution of the Act, which has been so important for the recognition of Canada’s linguistic duality.

In 1963, the government of Lester B. Pearson created the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism “to inquire into and report upon the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada and to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada and the measures that should be taken to safeguard that contribution.” The Commission archives bear witness to meetings between the Commission’s two co-chairs, André Laurendeau and Davidson Dunton, and provincial governments, as well as public hearings held in 1964 and 1965 across Canada, during which over 400 briefs were submitted by individuals and organizations. A broad research program was also put in place to document the main points of discussion. In the first volume of the final report, tabled in the House of Commons in December 1967, the Commission recommended a federal law on official languages as “the keystone of any general programme of bilingualism in Canada.”

A black-and-white photograph of two men with a microphone between them.

André Laurendeau and Davidson Dunton, co-chairs of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. ©Library and Archives Canada (a209871)

During its meeting on March 26, 1968, the federal Cabinet approved Prime Minister Pearson’s proposal to follow up on the Commission’s recommendation of a bill on official languages and to introduce it in Parliament during the upcoming parliamentary session. With the goal of reinforcing national unity, the proposal was one of Pearson’s last acts before leaving politics in April 1968. He was succeeded as leader of the Liberal Party and as Prime Minister of Canada by Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The Trudeau Cabinet’s deliberations on the bill are well documented in the Cabinet Conclusions for the period from August 1968 to the coming into force of the Act in September 1969.

Two typewritten pages titled “Official Languages Bill.”

Cabinet conclusions, meeting of August 14, 1968, pages 6 and 7 (note that Cabinet conclusions were written in English only at that time). © Governement of Canada (e000836640 and e000836641) © Governement of Canada

These documents reveal some of the nationwide issues that the government considered in drafting the bill, including possible amendments to Canada’s constitution, the definition of “first official language spoken as a mother tongue” as a criterion for creating bilingual districts, and the use of official languages for the administration of justice in provincial courts. The Cabinet at the time also studied the duties and responsibilities of a new Commissioner of Official Languages, and the time needed to implement the dispositions of the Act in the federal public service.

The new Official Languages Act, which came into force on September 7, 1969, confirmed the status of English and French as the two official languages of Canada. It reflected the endorsement by the Trudeau government of various recommendations made by the Royal Commission. From that point on, all orders in council, regulations, acts, ordinances and other public documents of the Parliament of Canada and the federal government had to be produced in both official languages, and it was the responsibility of departments and agencies, and judicial or quasi-judicial bodies, to ensure that the public could communicate with them and receive their services in both official languages. In the same spirit, anyone testifying before a judicial or quasi-judicial body could do so in his or her official language of choice.

The Act also established the position of Commissioner of Official Languages. The role of the Commissioner, who is directly accountable to Parliament, is to ensure recognition of the status of each of the official languages and compliance with the spirit of the Act in the administration of the affairs of Parliament and the Government of Canada. The Commissioner has the authority to investigate public complaints about the application of the Act, to conduct such studies as are deemed necessary, and to report annually to Parliament on the status of the Act. In 1970, Keith Spicer became the first Commissioner of Official Languages for a seven-year term.

A colour reproduction of a page from a learning kit about bilingualism with a story of two children learning French / English and a drawing of the kids thanking M. Spicer.

A page taken from hte learning kit called Oh! Canada produced in 1971. © Government of Canada (e011163973)

Maxwell Yalden (1977–1984), D’Iberville Fortier (1984–1991), Victor Goldbloom (1991–1999), Dyane Adam (1999–2006), Graham Fraser (2006–2016), Ghislaine Saikaley (interim, 2016–2018) and Raymond Théberge (since 2018) have succeeded Spicer as Commissioner.

The Act also gave the federal government the power to designate bilingual districts, a concept suggested by the Commission, within which federal offices must provide bilingual services. The boundaries of these regions were to be determined by the Bilingual Districts Advisory Board; however, this section of the Act was never implemented. Despite the recommendations of two iterations of the advisory board in 1971 and 1975, the government abandoned the concept of bilingual districts, considering it to be unworkable since a consensus on the boundaries could not be achieved.

The proclamation of the new Constitution Act, 1982 and its Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms led to the modernization of the Official Languages Act. The Charter enshrines the language rights of Canadians. It guarantees the protection of English and French as the official languages of Canada and New Brunswick, as well as the right to minority-language education for Francophone communities outside Quebec and the Anglophone community in Quebec. In 1988, the Canadian government adopted the new Official Languages Act, which more precisely defines constitutional language guarantees, the federal government’s role and responsibilities in supporting these rights, including the services provided to Canadians and possible legal remedies for non-compliance with the law, and the effective use of both official languages in the federal public service workplace.

A colour copy of the Charter with a piece of adhesive tape in the corner. The coat-of-arms of Canada is centred at the top of the page, with the title, Canadian flag and silhouettes on both sides below it. At the bottom is an illustration of the Parliament building. The text of the Charter is displayed in four columns.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Robert Stacey fonds. © Government of Canada (e010758222_s1)

Part VII of the new Act sets out the federal government’s commitment, through positive measures, to enhance the vitality and support the development of official-language minority communities, and to significantly promote English and French in Canadian society.

Find out more …

Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism:

Cabinet Conclusions:

Official Languages Act:


Normand Laplante is a senior archivist in the Social Life and Culture Private Archives Division of the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

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