(Disponible en français : Résumé – Les langues officielles dans la fonction publique fédérale)
The purpose of the Official Languages Act (OLA) is to ensure respect for English and French as the official languages of Canada. Pursuant to the OLA and to regulations and current policies, federal institutions are guided by certain fundamental principles that help them ensure the equality of status and use of these two languages in their internal operations, among their employees and in their interactions with the public.
The OLA sets out the right of Canadians to communicate with and receive services from federal institutions in the official language of their choice. Year after year, services to the public generate the most complaints to the Commissioner of Official Languages. The number of these complaints has increased steadily since 2012–2013. This increase is partly the result of federal institutions not being fully aware of their official languages responsibilities. Successfully applying the principle of substantive equality and actively offering bilingual services are among the ongoing challenges.
The federal government recently changed the criteria for actively offering services to the public in both official languages. It also revised its regulatory framework to ensure services to the public are consistent with the OLA. Over the next four years, more Canadians will be able to receive services from federal institutions in the official language of their choice.
In addition, the OLA stipulates the right of employees of federal institutions to work in the official language of their choice. This right applies only in regions designated as bilingual. It has also been the subject of a growing number of complaints to the Commissioner of Official Languages since 2012–2013. Recent initiatives show that a culture of linguistic duality in the workplace is not yet fully established. French remains underused, and access to language training remains a challenge. Steps need to be taken to increase managers’ responsibilities and improve oversight.
The OLA also sets out the government’s commitment to provide English- and French speaking Canadians with equal opportunities for employment and advancement in federal institutions. Furthermore, it provides for language requirements in staffing processes. The number of complaints relating to this issue has increased continuously since 2012–2013, forcing the federal government to take steps to reverse the trend.
While the status of the official languages in the federal public service has improved, further progress remains necessary. Crises and emergencies like the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic underscore the challenges federal institutions face in meeting their linguistic obligations. The federal government has made a number of commitments regarding the modernization of the OLA, and this initiative could be an opportunity to strengthen existing obligations and clarify the responsibilities of the key players.
Read the full text of the Background Paper: Official Languages in the Federal Public Service
Author: Marie-Ève Hudon, Library of Parliament