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Studies on the Canadian Constitution and Canadian Federalism


Last revised:
28 November 2005

The Official Languages’ Act of Canada


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

Following the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism established in 1964 to investigate the problems of Canadian unity, the government of Pierre E. Trudeau passed, in 1969, Bill C-120 - An Act Respecting the Status of Official Languages in Canada (17-19 Eliz II, c. 54). The law fitted well in the objective of the Trudeau government of recognizing the French and the English languages as equal in Canada and aimed at opposing the concept of a French Canada to that of a French Quebec (see Jean Lesage): all of Canada would be recognized as the home of French Canadians and not only Quebec. With increased identification of francophones with Canada, and a greater role given to French Canadians and their language in the federal government, Trudeau hoped to rechannel Quebec nationalism and deliver a deadly blow to separatism in Quebec.

Section 2 of the bill stated that English and French are the official languages of Canada and that they "enjoy equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all of the institutions of the Parliament and Government of Canada." Section 5 declared that the final decisions of the federal courts were to be issued in both English and French and S.8 stated that both the English and French versions of a law enacted by the Parliament of Canada are equally authentic. Section 9 made it the duty of each agency of a Crown Corporation in Ottawa or in a bilingual district to ensure that services were available in both official languages. Bilingual districts might be set up in such areas of Canada where the federal government felt that the percentage of population of the official minority might be sufficiently great to warrant the establishment of bilingual services. Section 19 established a Commissioner of Official Languages whose duties are to see that measures are taken so that both languages are recognized, to carry out investigations, to hear complaints and make recommendations to the federal government.

Although initially daring in its proposals, given the history of minority language rights in Canada and the resistance to bilingualism of segments of the population, the principle of the bill has increasingly received widespread support throughout Canada although its application has come sharply under attack from time to time. The bill was only accepted after the federal government agreed to shift from a policy of "biculturalism" to one of "multiculturalism". In 1974, the constitutionality of the bill was challenged in the Supreme Court of Canada by a member of Parliament and the sitting Mayor of Moncton (Jones v. the Attorney-General of Canada, 45 DLR 1974). The Act was unanimously upheld by the court by virtue of the Peace, Order and good Government and Criminal Law and Procedures clauses (91-27).

The bill has been revised twice in a significant manner to strengthen some of its provisions. In 1982, some of its provisions were constitutionalized by their insertion into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (ss. 16-22).

© 2001 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College