Executive Summary – Official Languages and Parliament

(Disponible en français : Résumé – Les langues officielles et le Parlement)

In the Canadian parliamentary context, English and French enjoy equality of status and use. In fact, there are a number of constitutional and legislative provisions governing the use of both official languages in Parliament. These provisions, which have evolved over the course of history, now apply to both the legislative process and parliamentary procedure and reflect the fundamental nature of the language rights granted to members of Parliament and senators, as well as the people they serve.

The Constitution Act, 1867 introduced the first official languages guarantees and obligations for parliamentary institutions. Practices promoting legislative bilingualism have been developed over time, and parliamentary institutions have adapted accordingly, for example, by implementing simultaneous interpretation and the co-drafting of federal legislation. Certain practices were codified when the federal government adopted its very first Official Languages Act in 1969.

Recognizing that bilingualism is an important feature of parliamentary democracy in Canada, the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms codified language rights for parliamentary proceedings and documents. Canadian courts then clarified the scope of these rights and ordered Parliament to continue adapting its practices. In 1988, the language requirements regarding debates, proceedings, the legislative process and various parliamentary documents were set out in a new version of the Official Languages Act (OLA).

Parliamentary procedure has undergone several changes to provide a framework for the use of not only the official languages, but other ones too. In recent years, the Senate and the House of Commons have taken measures governing the use of Indigenous languages.

In addition, more resources were allocated for parliamentary translation and simultaneous interpretation to meet parliamentarians’ significant official language requirements. As well, bilingualism was added as a condition for the appointment of officers of Parliament.

Recent official languages challenges stemming from the use of new technologies have appeared and, once again, required the Canadian Parliament to adapt its practices. For example, virtual Senate and House of Commons sittings and their respective committee meetings resulting from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‑19) pandemic have brought about their own set of challenges regarding Parliament’s and parliamentarians’ compliance with language requirements.

By promoting official language best practices, Parliament serves as a model of an institution that is accessible to both of Canada’s official language communities. This model could be called upon to continue evolving in connection with debates on the OLA, which the federal government has pledged to modernize over the course of the 43rd Parliament.

Read the full text of the Background Paper: Official Languages and Parliament

Authors: Chloé Forget, Marie-Ève Hudon and Élise Hurtubise-Loranger, Library of Parliament
Revised by: Marie-Ève Hudon, Library of Parliament