Canada’s Official Languages Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The foundation of Canada’s multilanguage policy encouraged the growth of a multicultural society.

Summary of Event

The implementation of the Official Languages Act of 1969 was a crucial element of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s policy of maintaining a united Canada. It also was a major step in developing a policy enabling French, English, and immigrant and aboriginal communities to maintain their ethnicities and languages. To maintain national unity while promoting cultural diversity, Canada assumed that a workable language policy was crucial. Canada was unique, in that it attempted to implement a language policy designed to influence language usage in ways to serve the interests of the Canadian people—a mutable policy developed without establishing linguistic territoriality. The Official Languages Act become the foundation to this process when it passed on July 9, 1969. Official Languages Act, Canadian (1969) Languages;cultural importance Canada;multilingualism [kw]Canada’s Official Languages Act (July 9, 1969)[Canadas Official Languages Act] [kw]Official Languages Act, Canada’s (July 9, 1969) [kw]Act, Canada’s Official Languages (July 9, 1969) Official Languages Act, Canadian (1969) Languages;cultural importance Canada;multilingualism [g]North America;July 9, 1969: Canada’s Official Languages Act[10320] [g]Canada;July 9, 1969: Canada’s Official Languages Act[10320] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 9, 1969: Canada’s Official Languages Act[10320] [c]Language, linguistics, and philology;July 9, 1969: Canada’s Official Languages Act[10320] Pearson, Lester B. Trudeau, Pierre

The language issue in Canada was not new. The conflict between the two major colonizing powers in North America, the French and the English, set the stage for ongoing contention. When the French territory was ceded to the British, the French were allowed to practice their Roman Catholic religion, and the French language continued to assert itself. Since then, a two-language and two-culture policy has been in effect. The Constitutional Act of 1791 divided the colony of Quebec into two units, Upper Canada and Lower Canada, where the majority of the parliamentarians were francophones. Although challenged in practice, administratively and legislatively, the French language remained vigorous. The Constitution of 1867, from which Canada claims its origins, institutionalized the use of French in the Quebec legislature and in some federal and Quebec courts. The constitution seemed to enable the French language and culture to spread. In addition to the right to use French in Quebec, francophones were led to believe that as French settlers moved west, they would find adequate guarantees of linguistic rights elsewhere. Also, the French viewed the constitution as an agreement between two “founding people.”

The next fifty years proved disastrous for the use of French. In 1890, Manitoba abrogated the use of French (which was not restored until 1985); Ontario abolished French schools in 1912; and limitations were imposed on instruction in French in other provinces. Francophones became increasingly confined to Quebec, with Montreal becoming an Anglophone area. It was the high birth rate of the French in Quebec that compensated for the large French emigration from Quebec to the United States and English-speaking immigrants flocking into Montreal. In spite of accommodations to have French presence in the courts, military, and other official bodies, it was clear that English was ascending over French or any other language. As a result of the majority rule principle and the decline of French language usage, the two peoples became cut off from each other—the French had to separate themselves or they would, under majority rule, lose to the English and become extinct.

By the 1960’s, the language issue required serious attention. The French language was in rapid decline outside Quebec and, although less rapidly, inside the province as well. Within Quebec, the birthrate of the French had declined to one of the lowest in the world. It was becoming apparent that English was not only the language of North America but also the international language. Even Francophones were learning and using English.

This situation resulted in civil unrest and a movement to have Quebec separate from Canada. In 1963, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson created the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Canadian (the B & B Commission) to examine the relationship between English and French Canada. More specifically, the commission was asked to review and assess Canadian language policy. The primary concern was to promote a federal-provincial response to the crisis in English-French relations. The commission also had to consider the increasing number of Canadians who had no inborn allegiance to either French or English.

In its report, the commission rejected territorial solutions. It found, however, that the use of French had fallen behind English, for example, in public service, to a politically and socially unacceptable level. It urged that a new charter, founded on the concept of “equal partnership,” be implemented at both the federal and provincial levels. It was in response to the commission’s recommendations that the Official Languages Act of 1969 was created.

The B & B Commission endorsed the value of linguistic diversity as an “inestimable enrichment that Canadians cannot afford to lose. . . . Linguistic variety is unquestionably an advantage and its beneficial effects on the country are priceless.” What happened eventually was the establishment of the “official languages,” English and French, and the “heritage languages,” recognized languages of other ethnic communities. Initially, the issue of heritage languages was not supported, but after pressure from other communities, three types of heritage programs were adopted: instruction incorporated into the school curriculum, instruction in the school system but after hours, and instruction that used school resources but was not part of the school program.

In the meantime, Canadian nationalism was rising, especially against U.S. policies concerning Vietnam. Outside economic and cultural influence on Canada was resented, especially in 1971, when Canada’s economic dependency on the United States was made manifest—the United States could not buy enough of Canada’s products, and Europe provided no help. In Quebec, the decline of French was becoming a prominent issue. In Montreal, riots promoting Quebec’s nationalism became endemic. One particular disturbance was in 1968, when rioting had broken out at the Saint-Jean Baptiste Day parade, and Trudeau coolly faced a bottle-throwing crowd. The maintenance of a united Canada was a central issue for Trudeau. Dismissing the “two nations” vision of Canada, he argued that Canada must be a truly federal state with equality for all provinces, yet also a homeland for both French and English culture. The Official Languages Act became the key to this policy.

The Official Languages Act of 1969 was supported by the opposition as well as the party in power. Based on the findings of the B & B Commission, the act named French and English as the official languages and guaranteed official-language minorities in the country certain basic rights in dealing with the federal government and its various agencies. It was, however, the francophone minority outside Quebec that needed such guarantees. The act also set forth a number of measures to provide the francophone community with the same guarantees outside Quebec that the English enjoyed within Quebec. Parliament’s intention was to place French on an equal footing with English as far as the federal government was concerned. The federal government improved its capacity to deal with Canadians in the official language of their choice and to allow public servants to use either language at work, in certain areas. Some provinces, such as Ontario and New Brunswick, provided government services in both languages and tried to implement their own language policies, particularly in regard to minority and second-language education.


As a result of the act, the office of the commissioner of official languages was created and a commissioner was appointed. The commissioner was to serve as a linguistics ombudsman to report annually on the progress of implementing various provisions of the act. However, the commissioner had to devote much time to persuading Canadians that the reforms were necessary and just.

The act created a great deal of controversy. Some Anglophones complained that the act forced French on them. The act was also criticized for giving French a position it no longer merited, especially in areas where speakers of languages other than English outnumbered Francophones. In spite of the controversy, principles of the Official Languages Act were incorporated into the 1982 Canadian constitution Constitutions;Canada through its Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The British Parliament renounced any future legislative role in amending the constitution, and on April 17, 1982, Queen Elizabeth II proclaimed the constitution effective. Quebec, headed by René Lévesque of the Parti Québécois, did not agree to the constitution and refused to sign it, charging that it did not go far enough in protecting Quebec’s unique place in Canada. Official Languages Act, Canadian (1969) Languages;cultural importance Canada;multilingualism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bourhis, Richard Y., ed. Conflict and Language Planning in Quebec. Clevedon, Avon, England: Multilingual Matters, 1984. Analyzes the internal policy implications of the language issue for the province of Quebec.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Driedger, Leo. The Ethnic Factor: Identity in Diversity. New York: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1989. Includes an outstanding chapter on the language issue for Canada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fleras, Augie, and Jean Leonard Elliott. Multiculturalism in Canada: The Challenge to Diversity. Scarborough, Ont.: Nelson Canada, 1992. Good analysis of the language issue within the multicultural policy of Canada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fraser, Graham. Sorry, I Don’t Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis That Won’t Go Away. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland & Stewart, 2006. Analysis of Canadian language policy, theory, and practice in the early twenty-first century. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wardhaugh, Ronald. Language and Nationhood: The Canadian Experience. Vancouver, B.C.: New Star Books, 1983. A classic, often-cited work delineating the language issue for Canada.

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Categories: History