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 importance of the language rights granted to parliamentarians, 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 adhering to the principle of 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 needs.
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 required the Canadian Parliament to adapt its practices once again. For example, hybrid and virtual Senate and House of Commons sittings and their respective committee meetings resulting from the COVID‑19 pandemic have brought about their own set of challenges regarding Parliament’s compliance with language requirements.
By promoting official language best practices, Parliament serves as a model of an institution that is accessible to English‑ and French‑speaking Canadians. This model could be called upon to continue evolving in connection with the modernization of the OLA. Debate on the Act’s modernization began in the 42nd Parliament and has resulted in the introduction of new legislation in the 44th Parliament.
Read the full text of the HillStudy: Official Languages and Parliament
By Marie-Ève Hudon, Library of Parliament