Skip to main content

This month marks the anniversary of an important moment in Canadian history, one critical to our country’s identity and unity. The Official Languages Act came into force 50 years ago – on Sept. 7, 1969.

The bells aren’t exactly ringing and the banners aren’t exactly flying, the way they likely will be for, say, the 50th anniversary of the Canada-USSR Summit Series in three years time. There are no parades or fireworks planned.

The only news about the anniversary came in March, when Ottawa officially launched a review of the law. There have since been symposiums and stakeholder consultations; in November, the Official Languages Commissioner will co-host a summit on “the future of bilingualism in Canada.” Try to contain yourselves, people.

The anniversary deserves more attention. It lies at the heart of Canada’s effort to embrace two official languages – or, as the Official Languages Commissioner puts it, “two linguistic majorities cohabiting in the same country, with linguistic minorities across the country.”

The law began life in the 1960s as a way of redressing the linguistic inequalities that kept French-Canadians out of the best jobs in the federal civil service, and forced them to speak English in the jobs they could get, or when interacting as citizens with the federal government.

The prime minister of the day, Pierre Trudeau, saw the act as a way of unifying the country by showing francophones that their language, and their right to use it, would finally be taken seriously by English Canada.

The law made it explicit that French and English were the official languages of the federal government, and that, where numbers warranted, people had the right to deal with it in the language of their choice. That also applied to federal courts, criminal courts and Crown corporations.

The unanimously adopted law further created the Official Languages Commissioner as an ombudsman to investigate complaints. (A separate but spiritually related 1974 law required consumer-goods labelling in both languages – the “government putting French on my Corn Flakes box” that once antagonized a few cranks.)

The act was rewritten in 1988, because it wasn’t achieving its goal of linguistic equality, especially with regard to the right of French-speaking civil servants to work in their mother tongue. Reform was partly necessary because, in 1982, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrined French and English as the official languages of Canada, with “equality of status and equal rights and privileges.” The Charter also included minority language guarantees.

The Official Languages Act has mostly been legislatively dormant since then, and many feel it needs another update.

The commissioner of official languages, Raymond Théberge, says the law is still applied inconsistently across federal departments and in different parts of the country. He’s recommending another toughening of the legislation, including such things as giving federal courts the ability to award damages for breaches.

Those issues deserve to be addressed by the next Parliament. The demography of the country is different than it was in 1988, and new technologies are changing how and where people work for, and communicate with, the federal government. More critically, the English-speaking minority in Quebec and the French one outside it are not consistently experiencing the linguistic equality guaranteed in the Charter.

But while those are important issues, most Canadians don’t relate to the Official Languages Act on that level. The majority experience it as a philosophical statement about Canada’s identity. And on that score, it has been successful.

In polls done for the 50th anniversary, more than 80 per cent of Canadians support the aims of the act. They believe having two official languages enhances the country’s status, and that learning a second language is a positive thing.

This unified support for the law has outlived the constitutional crises of the past 50 years, not to mention calls for its repeal on the grounds it is too expensive to implement, and conspiracy theories accusing it of being a plot to force anglos to speak French. That last criticism misses the law’s purpose, which is not about forcing you to learn another official language, but rather protecting your right to speak your own.

Ottawa’s effort to legislate linguistic equality has paid off. Like beating the Russians at hockey, co-existing in two languages is something Canada has gotten better at over the past 50 years. Perhaps a parade and fireworks are in order, after all.

Interact with The Globe