Language Policy in Canada

Language policy is comprised of a body of theory, principles, laws, programs and measures designed to manage one or more languages in a country. In monolingual societies, language policy is usually concerned with promoting an approved, standardized grammar of the common language. In bilingual or multilingual societies, it is intended to manage situations in which two or more languages are in contact and/or conflict, and to enhance the use and status of certain languages over others. Language policy in Canada has been designed to manage historical relationships among multiple languages – notably FrenchEnglish and Indigenous languages - and their various communities. While it has evolved over time, Canadian language policy has not always been marked by positive or just measures.



Languages in Canada

From a strictly legal standpoint, there are three major classes of languages in Canada: official or "Charter" languages —French and English— which are recognized under the federal Official Languages Act of 1969 (under provincial legislation, however, French is an official language only in  Quebec and New Brunswick); ancestral languages of Indigenous peoples (see  Indigenous Languages in Canada), traditionally spoken by First NationsMétis and  Inuit which are not protected legally at the federal level and; those that Statistics Canada terms “immigrant languages,” which do not enjoy official status in Canada but are spoken as national or regional languages elsewhere. (See also Languages in Use in Canada, Francophone, Anglophone and Allophone.)

Did you know? Language policies have a long history in many parts of the world. Latin, for example, was carried along with the military conquests of the Romans. French, once one of several dialects within France's borders, was deliberately developed as a unifying national tongue in the 17th century at the command of Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII’s chief minister.

History of Language Policy in Canada

It may be assumed that the earliest language policy in what is now Canada resulted from pragmatic and commercial decisions, such which Indigenous or European language best suited a particular exchange. But as the confrontation between English and French as two competing colonial powers spread across North America, the stage was set for generations of conflict over language and the development of distinctively Canadian language policies. Since concerns regarding Indigenous languages historically received little attention from colonial powers, the “problem” at the heart of Canadian language policy has been the relative status and sanctioned uses of English and French (see Francophone-Anglophone Relations).

The terms of the treaty by which the French territory was ceded to the British in 1763 were, on the surface, tolerant for the times (see Royal Proclamation of 1763). The right of the francophone population to practise the Roman Catholic religion was recognized, so far as the laws of Great Britain permitted. The French language continued to assert itself in practice, since the Quebec  Act of 1774 had restored, in civil law, earlier legislation and customs of the country which were of French origin. Moreover, the  Constitutional Act of 1791 had divided the Province of Quebec into two separate colonies, Upper Canada and Lower Canada, and provided each with an elective assembly.

In Lower Canada, the majority of elected parliamentarians were francophones who insisted that French was used alongside English and that it enjoyed equality of status in the parliamentary process. Assembly member Alain Chartier, the marquis of Lotbinière, declared during a parliamentary debate in 1793: "As the largest number of our voters finds itself in a peculiar situation, we are obliged to set aside the ordinary rules and to demand the use of a language which is not that of the Empire; but being as fair to others as we hope they will be to us, we would not wish our language to banish the language of the other subjects of His Majesty. We ask that both be permitted."

The view that it was politically unwise to foster the coexistence of two linguistic communities within a single state was expressed by Lord Durham in his report. The Act of Union (1841) reunited Upper and Lower Canada into one province. Section 41 of that Act sanctioned unilingualism in the legislature of the Province of Canada, although it did not prevent translations of documents being made for other purposes. However, they were not deemed to have the force of an original record. This section provoked such sharp protests from francophone members that it had to be repealed in 1848 by the British Parliament.

The French language in Canada, through a combination of community resilience and official tolerance, remained vigorous in many domains of public and private life. By consecrating some of the more institutional uses of French - in laws, in the federal Parliament and in the Quebec Legislature, and before federal and Quebec courts - the Constitution Act, 1867 was in effect formalizing policies that had already taken root in the developing country. Parents' rights to educate their children in English or French were not enshrined in that Act, but the right to maintain denominational schools was interpreted as a guarantee of the language of education.

Over the next 50 years, Canadian expansion and modernization took a heavy toll on the use of French and the policies supporting it. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several public Acts, such as the abrogation of official bilingualism in Manitoba in 1890 (see Manitoba Schools Question), the abolition of French schools in Ontario in 1912 (see Ontario Schools Question) and the strict limitations imposed on French-language instruction in other provinces, were deliberately aimed at repressing the use of French. Moreover, because the English languagewas the language of North American commerce, the relative pull toward French declined as the continental economy expanded.

Origins of Present-Day Language Policy in Canada

One of the most influential commissions in Canadian history, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963-69) brought about sweeping changes to federal and provincial language policy (see also Bilingualism and Biculturalism). The commission's findings led to changes in French education across the country, and the creation of the federal department of multiculturalism and the Official Languages Act.

Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson created the Commission in 1963 in response to growing unrest among French Canadians in Quebec, who called for the protection of their language and culture, and opportunities to participate fully in political and economic decision making (see Quiet Revolution).


Pearson had a sense that Canada was on the verge of a national-unity crisis that would play out along linguistic lines. While some francophone nationalists wanted greater powers and autonomy for Quebec within Canada, others were advocating for Quebec’s separation from Canada, arguing that a separate state was the only way for francophones to truly achieve their ambitions and empowerment. Pearson was convinced that federal policies with respect to Quebec and the  French language in Canada needed to change in order to avoid a national crisis.

The Commission found that French had fallen behind English, notably in the public service, to a politically and socially unacceptable extent. It urged that a "new charter for the official languages of Canada, a charter founded on the concept of equal partnership" be implemented by both the federal and provincial governments.

In 1969, in response to the Commission's recommendations, Parliament passed the Official Languages Act (1969), which was supported by all parties in the House. The role of the Commissioner of Official Languages was established by the Act, and the first Commissioner was appointed in 1970. The Commissioner of Official Languages ensures that the Official Languages Act is followed within the federal government and the Parliament of Canada. As part of the program that followed, the federal government sought to improve its own 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. The Act was updated in 1988 (see Official Languages Act [1988]).

The principles of the Official Languages Act and other important components of language policy were enshrined in the 1982 Constitution through the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The impact of the Act, particularly on the field of minority education, has been somewhat slow to make itself felt; nor does the Charter make federal and provincial language policies complementary in every respect.

Language Policy in Provinces

Because of the structure of Canadian federalism, language policies vary across different provinces and territories. Here are a few examples:

Language-policy initiatives by the Quebec government have been based on a conviction that it is vital that the interests of the province's French-speaking majority be fully protected before significant concessions can be made to any other language group, including the anglophone community (see Quiet Revolution, Quebec Language Policy and English-Speaking Quebecers). Since 1974, French has been the only official language in the province, although some government services remain accessible in English. Quebec has the distinction of being bilingual on constitutional and federal levels, while officially allowing only French in its provincial institutions. In 1977 Quebec adopted the Charter of the French language,Bill 101, making French the only official language of the province and strengthening its position as the public language of work, commerce and community life. The right to choose English as the language of schooling has been restricted to those parents who meet a narrow definition of "English-speaking." Certain public uses of languages other than French have been limited.

New Brunswick has its own provincial Official Languages Act, parallel English and French school systems and legislation requiring equal government treatment of both language groups. In 1986 Ontario, home to the largest French-speaking population outside Quebec, implemented the French Language Services Act (Bill 8) guaranteeing provincial services in French in those parts of the province where the vast majority of Franco-Ontarians live. The province has also passed legislation making French an official language of the courts.

Manitoba, under the terms of its entry into Confederation in 1870, formally recognized the use of English and French in its laws, its legislature and its courts (see Francophones of Manitoba). It failed, however, to abide by these provisions. Following a 1979 Supreme Court decision requiring the reinstatement of institutional bilingualism, the province has been engaged in debating whether to comply retroactively with the Manitoba Act of 1870 or to devise a compromise that would attempt to give contemporary expression to the bilingual spirit of that fundamental law. The matter was submitted to the Supreme Court of Canada, which unanimously declared that all enactments (and ensuing rules and regulations) of the Manitoba legislature printed and published in English only are, and always have been, invalid. However, in the interests of public order and the rule of law, the Court also declared that existing enactments would be deemed to have full force and effect until the deadline set for their translation expires.

Language policy strongly influences education policy across Canada. Many provinces, supported financially by the federal government, have extended and improved their minority- and second-language education programs (see Second-Language Instruction). During the 1970s and 1980s several provincial governments that had not previously done so took steps to provide elementary and secondary schooling in French. In 1990 a group of francophone parents challenged the provincial government on minority-language educational rights. The Mahe case was decided in favour of the parents by the Supreme Court. In Quebec, where French is the language of the majority, the English educational network is the minority-language system. In majority English-speaking provinces the number of students enrolled in French immersion has increased dramatically, and English as a second language is still a compulsory subject for French-speaking children in Quebec through a large part of their elementary and secondary schooling (see Canada’s “Founding Mothers” of French Immersion).

The 1982 Constitution with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, despite its powerful effects on French and English language policies throughout Canada, has not been signed by Quebec. Although major attempts were made through the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord to resolve differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada, tensions between these two groups still dominate Canadian national politics. This situation means that issues relating to languages other than English or French continue to be overshadowed

Language Policy and Non-Official Language Groups

Until the 1960s, immigrants were left to learn the majority language of their area on their own or with help from local organizations such as churches, Frontier College or the YMCA. Since that time, most provincial governments and the federal government have joined community, private and post-secondary institutions in creating programs to teach official languages as second languages to immigrant adults. Expressed motivations for these programs generally link official language learning to the economy and citizenship. Most immigrant children receive some provincially funded support to learn the language of instruction of their schools (see Second-Language Instruction).

Over the years, Canada’s multiculturalism policy (1971) and Act (1988) have provided some support for various ethnolinguistic groups to promote and retain their heritage languages. Educational systems across Canada have provided opportunity for immigrant communities to maintain their mother tongues. Immersion programs in languages other than English and French are widely available (see Second Language Instruction).

Canada is home to around 70 Indigenous languages. Indigenous languages are official languages in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, while the Yukon recognizes the significance of the Indigenous languages of the territory. Many Indigenous languages in Canada are endangered because of a history of restrictive colonial policies such as the Indian Act and residential schools that prohibited the speaking of these mother tongues (see  Indigenous Peoples and Government Policy in Canada). Indigenous communities and various educational institutions have taken measures to prevent more language loss and to preserve Indigenous languages (see  Indigenous Language Revitalization in Canada.)

On 5 February 2019, the Canadian government tabled the Indigenous Languages Act, which seeks to protect and revitalize Indigenous languages in Canada.


Further Reading

  • Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Official Languages; Barbara Burnaby, "Language Policies in Canada," in Michael Herriman and Barbara Burnaby, eds, Language Policies in English-dominant Countries: Six Case Studies (1996).