In 2013–2014 and again since June 2020, some Canadian political figures have used the terms “national languages” and “official languages” interchangeably to refer to English and French when discussing the federal language regime.
However, these two terms are not equivalent. “Official” status requires the government to communicate with citizens and provide them with services in that language. In contrast, a “national” language is afforded some protection by the government that has so designated it, and some measures may be enacted to promote its use in society. However, its use in official communications is not prescribed by law.
Legally speaking, Canada does not have national languages. The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963–1969) deliberated on the kind of status it should recommend the federal government confer on English and French. The commissioners, advised by eminent professors of law and other legal experts, decided that section 133 of the British North America Act – which outlines the use of English and French in the parliaments of Canada and Quebec – already implicitly conferred “official” status on both those languages. It is, therefore, largely on that legal foundation that the commissioners based their recommendations to make English and French official languages.
Such was Canada’s decision in the 1960s. That said, Canada’s linguistic dynamic is continually changing. The Canadian linguistic landscape became even more complex with the adoption of the Indigenous Languages Act in 2019. It could be argued that this Act implicitly confers the status of national languages on Indigenous languages. Moreover, the issue of Indigenous languages has arisen in the context of the modernization of the Official Languages Act, a process undertaken by the federal government in 2018–2019.
Read the full text of the Background Paper: Official Languages or National Languages? Canada’s Decision
Author: Lucie Lecomte, Library of Parliament