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Archived - 40 Years of the Official Languages Act

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This article summarizes the history of the Official Languages Act and offers various links to information about language rights in Canada and about the role that the Department of Justice Canada plays in ensuring the implementation of this fundamental act.

Forty years ago, on September 9, 1969, the Official Languages Act came into force (hereinafter, "the 1969 Act"; online at This Act had been adopted by the federal Parliament some months prior as part of the recommendations made by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Often referred to by the names of its co-chairmen, André Laurendeau and A. Davidson Dunton, the Commission was mandated to examine the state of bilingualism and biculturalism and to recommend ways of ensuring wider recognition of Canada's linguistic duality (

The 1969 Act declared French and English to be Canada's official languages "in all matters pertaining to the Parliament and Government of Canada"; it also declared their equality of status as well as equal rights and privileges with regard to their use in all institutions of Parliament and the Government of Canada. The 1969 Act expanded the scope of the constitutional guarantee regarding the use of French and English in Parliament and federal courts (set out in section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867) to cover all federal institutions, including federal departments, agencies and Crown corporations as well as quasi-judicial bodies and administrative agencies.

The 1969 Act also established, for the very first time, a person's right to receive federal services in French or English. Lastly, it created the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, which is mandated by Parliament to receive and investigate complaints and to make recommendations, and to report to Parliament.

In 1988, the 1969 Act underwent significant amendments (hereinafter, "the 1988 Act"; see This thorough revision of the 1969 Act was necessary because of the 1982 enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (hereinafter, "the Charter").

In effect, subsection 16(1) of the Charter constitutionalizes the principle of equality between French and English with regard to their use in the institutions of Parliament and the Government of Canada. Subsections 17(1), 18(1) and 19(1) reiterate and reinforce the provisions of section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867 regarding parliamentary, legislative and judicial bilingualism at the federal level. Subsection 20(1) sets out the public's right to communicate with and obtain services from federal institutions in French and English. Section 23 grants parents belonging to a minority language community rights to an education in their language anywhere in Canada.

Section 2 of the 1988 Act defines the threefold purpose of the new Act: (1) to ensure respect for English and French as the official languages of Canada and ensure equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all federal institutions; (2) to support the development of English and French linguistic minority communities and generally advance the equality of status and use of the English and French languages within Canadian society; and (3) to set out the powers, duties and functions of federal institutions with respect to official languages.

Worthy of note among the new provisions is Part V of the 1988 Act, which addresses the language of work in federal institutions. Breakthroughs in this regard, as anticipated by the 1969 Act, had yet to materialize. Therefore, Part V unambiguously confirmed the right of officers of federal institutions to use either official language in accordance with the provisions of this Part.

Also worth noting is Part X, which provides for the option to seek legal remedy before the Federal Court if certain rights guaranteed by the 1988 Act are violated. Parts VI and VII describe the federal government's commitments regarding the full participation of English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians in federal institutions and regarding the advancement of English and French in Canadian society.

Part XII also makes amendments to the Criminal Code with regard to the language of the accused. These amendments set out an entire series of ancillary rights that apply when it is ordered that an accused be tried in his or her preferred official language. These provisions came into force in all provinces on January 1, 1990. In 2008, the Criminal Code's language provisions were again amended. An analysis of these amendments is also available.

In 2005, Part VII of the 1988 Act was amended, requiring federal institutions to take positive measures to support the development of official language communities and to foster the full recognition and use of French and English in Canadian society. It also stipulates that any failings in this regard may be subject to remedy, as set out in Part X of the 1988 Act.

To celebrate this 40th anniversary, the Department of Justice organized special activities this past June. A series of articles on how the Act has been interpreted in case law was published in the Department's electronic newsletter, JustInfo. A slightly revised version of these articles is available online at A Brief History of the Evolution of Language Rights Before the Supreme Court of Canada.

An article demystifying the official language related responsibilities within the Department is also available online. Lastly, another article advocates for a better understanding of one of the distinctive characteristics of the Canadian federal legislative system: the bilingual and bijural drafting of bills and legislative instruments.

A special edition of the Official Languages Act, consolidated by the Official Languages Law Group (OLLG), has been printed for the 40th anniversary of the Act. Copies are available by request. Please contact the OLLG at 613-941-4037.

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