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 or not adequately considering them in every context, including the digital realm. Actively offering services in both official languages, providing the travelling public with bilingual services and ensuring third‑party services delivered on behalf of federal institutions are bilingual are among the ongoing challenges.
In 2019, the federal government changed the criteria for 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. By 2024, more Canadians will be able to receive services from federal institutions in the official language of their choice. Moreover, in 2023 the OLA underwent substantial reforms to adapt it to today’s technological, sociodemographic and legal realities. These changes relate to some aspects of communications with and services to the public in English and French.
In addition, the OLA stipulates the right of employees of federal institutions to work in the official language of their choice. This right, which applies only in regions designated as bilingual for language‑of‑work purposes, has also been the subject of a growing number of complaints to the Commissioner of Official Languages since 2012–2013. Initiatives launched in 2017 show that a culture of linguistic duality in the workplace is not yet fully established. French remains underused in documents, meetings and interactions with supervisors. Steps were taken to increase managers’ responsibilities and improve oversight. Moreover, the legislative amendments of 2023 clarified some aspects of the right to work in English and French in federal institutions.
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. However, the Commissioner of Official Languages has found that progress in this area is slow. In general, expectations for official languages management are high, and the legislative changes of 2023 have raised hopes for the years ahead.
Despite the progress made so far, the two official languages do not yet have equal standing in the federal public service. Crises and emergencies such as the COVID‑19 pandemic, and the growing use of technology in the workplace underscore the challenges federal institutions face in meeting their linguistic obligations. The modernization of the OLA was an opportunity to strengthen existing duties and clarify the responsibilities of key players. This HillStudy provides an overview of contemporary official languages issues and highlights those to watch in the years to come.
Read the full text of the HillStudy: Official Languages in the Federal Public Service
By Marie-Ève Hudon, Library of Parliament