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Histoire du Canada


École Pointe-Lévy, Lévis, Quebec

Language Policy in Canada

History of Language Policy in Canada

Canadian language policy is the fruit of historical relationships among various language communities. The national language debate has often focused on the use of English and French (see FRANCOPHONE-ANGLOPHONE RELATIONS), but both of Canada's official languages were preceded by the languages of the Native peoples and succeeded by many other European and non-European languages (see NATIVE PEOPLE, LANGUAGES).

Of the 3.5 million inhabitants of the 4 original Canadian provinces in 1871, over 2 million were British in origin and over 1 million were French. By 1996, the proportion of those of British origin in the population had decreased substantially. Of 28 528 000 Canadians, 6.6 million claimed French as their mother tongue, 16.9 million claimed English, and 4.6 million claimed a language other than English or French. As well, 366 000 claimed English and one or more languages. The English-speaking community is distributed fairly evenly across Canada, but French-speaking Canadians are concentrated in Québec, New Brunswick, Ontario and parts of Manitoba.

It may be assumed that the earliest language policy in the colonies resulted from the usual highly pragmatic and commercial decisions that characterize new contacts between language groups, eg, decisions about which of the available native or European languages best suited the task at hand. But as the confrontation between the 2 colonizing powers spread to North America, the stage was set for generations of conflict over language and the development of distinctively Canadian language policies. Since the concerns of Indian and Inuit languages were seldom given serious attention, the heart of the Canadian language question became the relative standing and sanctioned uses of English and French.

The terms of the treaty by which the French territory was ceded to the British in 1763 were, on the surface, quite tolerant for the times. 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 Québec into 2 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 saw to it that their language 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 2 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 "habitant" 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 Québec Legislature, and before federal and Québec 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 and often has been interpreted as a guarantee of the language of education.

If the French language held its own until Confederation, the next 50 years of Canadian expansion and modernization took a heavy toll on both the use of French and the policies believed to support 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 LANGUAGE was the language of North American commerce, the attractiveness of French tended to decline as the continental economy expanded.

By 1963, when the Royal Commission on BILINGUALISM AND BICULTURALISM was created by Prime Minister Lester Pearson, the relative status of the French language had declined to an unacceptable extent. The commission, asked to review and assess Canadian language policy, was primarily concerned with promoting a concerted federal-provincial response to what it called the "crisis" in English-French relations. It also had to take account of the fact that increasing numbers of Canadians no longer had any inborn allegiance to either English or French.

Language relations had entered a new era, but language policy had not kept pace. The B & B Commission found that French had fallen behind English, eg, 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. As part of the ambitious 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]).

Reaction to federal government reforms was sometimes extremely negative. Besides overseeing federal efforts to comply with the Act, the Commissioner of OFFICIAL LANGUAGES and others have had to devote much energy to persuading Canadians that these reforms are necessary and just. Some provinces, eg, Ontario and New Brunswick, provide government services in both languages and have tried to implement their own language policies, particularly in regard to minority-language and second-language education.

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. Some language-policy initiatives by the Québec government appear to be 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. In 1977 Québec adopted the Charter of the French language, BILL 101, making French the only official language of the province and strengthening its position as the most important 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 rather narrow definition of "English-speaking," and certain public uses of languages other than French have been limited. However, as the use of French has become more firmly established, provincial governments have more recently shown some willingness to relax these restrictions. 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 Québec, 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. 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 declared at the same time 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 spite of recent developments, the English educational network in Québec remains the most complete minority-language educational system in Canada. In 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 Québec through a large part of their elementary and secondary schooling.

Non-Official Language Groups

No clear policy toward all Canadian language groups has been devised. 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 Québec. Although major attempts were made through the MEECH LAKE ACCORD and the CHARLOTTETOWN ACCORD to resolve differences between Québec and the rest of Canada, tensions between these 2 groups still dominate Canadian national politics. This situation means that issues relating to languages other than English or French continue to be overshadowed. International events and changes to the Immigration Act throughout this century have meant that immigration has changed from being largely Caucasian from northwestern Europe to being widely international, with a resulting rise in speakers of a wide variety of languages.

Until the 1960s, immigrants were left to learn the majority language of their area on their own or with help from 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, although never enough such courses to meet the demand. 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).

While Canadian schools have long taught non-official languages as "modern" languages, they have intended this neither to take advantage of existing linguistic resources of the country nor to ease immigrants' transition to the English or French community. Non-official linguistic communities continue to support the learning of their ancestral languages through community classes and even private schools. The MULTICULTURALISM policy (1971) and Act (1988) have provided some support for ethnolinguistic groups to promote their languages. Since the 1970s, provincial schools have offered many of these languages as subjects (heritage languages) in schools, provoking some controversy.

Most of Canada's 50 or more Aboriginal languages have been put at great risk of extinction by repressive education policies and other factors (see NATIVE PEOPLE, LANGUAGES). While Inuktitut and Cree are used as languages of instruction in the early grades in some northern area schools, Aboriginal languages in other areas are taught in many schools for Aboriginal children as subjects with little teacher or curriculum support, even in the Northwest Territories where Aboriginal languages are official languages along with English and French. Some southern communities have established Aboriginal language immersion programs to revive and maintain languages rapidly losing speakers.

Suggested 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).


The Canadian Encyclopedia © 2006 Historica Foundation of Canada

Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages
c. 2006

© 2006, Historica Foundation of Canada. All Rights Reserved.