So many people say that Canada is a bilingual country, but where I live there are not many people who speak French. I have also heard that in Québec there are many people who don’t speak English. Why do we say that Canada is a bilingual country?
The concept of being a bilingual country can be viewed in various different ways.
For example, one could consider that bilingualism means that most people in the country speak both languages fluently. Although some countries can meet that threshold, this is not the kind of bilingualism that exists in Canada. Instead, Canadian bilingualism means that there are a large number of people who speak one language, and a large number of people who speak another. In Québec alone, there are almost 8 million French-speakers.
The concept of being a bilingual country can also be based on the language–related rules and programs that are in place. This kind of bilingualism also exists in Canada. It is a bilingualism that results from our constitutional and governmental commitments to the equality of the English and French languages in the public sphere. As a result, Canada has two official languages and legal protections for minority official language rights (the French language minority outside of Québec, and the English language minority inside Québec). This is why all products must be labeled in both French and English and why some of our laws and services are available in both languages.
Last Reviewed: May 2011
Why do we have these minority language protections; why not just let our official languages be used and develop on their own?
Canadian law recognizes that both the English and the French communities, and therefore, languages, played an important role in the founding of the federation now known as Canada. It recognizes that language is a fundamental aspect of individual identity and an expression of community and culture. Canada’s bilingual character is also a fundamental aspect of Canadian national identity. It is a reference for national pride and patriotism. Like the flag and the national anthem, our bilingual composition portrays the national personality. Minority language protections ensure that all of these aspects of Canadian identity will be preserved.
Last Reviewed: May 2011
If we are worried about preserving language, why doesn’t the federal government just make it mandatory for everything to be in, and for everyone to learn, both languages?
It can’t. Canada is a federation. As a result, law-making powers are divided between the federal and provincial/territorial governments.
The basic rules that dictate which level of government can make laws in a particular sector are set out in sections 91 (federal) and 92 (provincial) of the Constitution Act, 1867 (“CA 1867”, formerly known as the British North America Act or “BNA Act”). Under the CA 1867, the word “language” itself does not appear in any of the lists in either s.91 or s.92. Instead, the authority to make laws about language is tied to each particular non-language subject matter. As a result, there is no single and complete power to make laws that are only about language, and powers over language are divided between federal and the provincial/territorial governments. Furthermore, the federal government has transferred some of its powers to the territorial governments within Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon. The result is a set of federal language laws, and a set of language laws (or no language law) for each province/territory. Because of the variety of law makers, the result is a mix of laws, many of which continue to be examined, debated and challenged in Canadian courts.
Last Reviewed: May 2011
So what are these various kinds of laws and what kinds of protections do they offer?
Language rights in Canada appear in various kinds of law, and the kind of rights or protections that they give depends on the nature of the law.
- Overarching Legislation / the Constitutional Framework: The most permanent commitment to bilingualism comes from the language rights that are enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, section 133 of CA 1867 and section 23 of the Manitoba Act, 1870. In short, these rights guarantee, under certain conditions, the use, protection and development of minority languages in certain sectors: education, governmental communications and services, legislation and publications, and judicial rights. These rights are essentially permanent, as they are difficult to alter (there is high standard for changes to the Charter and to other constitutional documents). However, as will be discussed below, although they affect people across Canada, and except in matters of minority language education rights, these rights are limited to federal government, and the governments of Québec, Manitoba, and New Brunswick (the only officially bilingual province).
- Federal Laws. Alongside the Charter and other constitutional protections, the federal government has passed additional laws about language rights. One example is the federal Official Languages Act. Again, however, this kind of legislation applies only to the federal government. Another example is section 530 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which outlines the minority official language rights of an accused in criminal proceedings before a court. These laws can be seen as one way the federal parliament puts constitutional minority language rights into action.
- Provincial Laws. Due to its bilingual status, the government of New Brunswick has also passed additional language laws that work alongside the Charter. The laws of other provinces /territories contain some language rights, but they are generally less extensive. The exact nature of these “rights” varies. Some provinces/territories have created laws that grant rights and protections. If there is such a law, then a person can complain to a court if those laws are not respected. Examples are Manitoba and Ontario. Other provinces, however, have not created such language laws. Instead they have merely directed some government departments and service providers to communicate and offer services in the minority official language. In such instances, official minority language communication and services provided by provincial or private organizations are a matter of policy, not of right.
- Municipal Bylaws. Municipalities also vary in terms of their minority-language laws, protections and policies. Most municipalities are created by the province/territory in which the municipality is located. Some municipalities have passed by-laws and established practices that recognize minority official language speakers, some have not. Since the CA 1982 makes New Brunswick bilingual, the result is that all New Brunswick municipalities are bilingual. Municipalities such as Winnipeg and Ottawa also have extensive minority–language rights, services, and policies. Even smaller municipalities, especially if they were founded by speakers of the minority language, may be quite bilingual.
Last Reviewed: May 2011
Funding for this section was provided by The Language Rights Support Program.
These FAQs were written with help from Laura Snowball, Barrister and Solicitor, and from The Centre for Constitutional Studies.