Backgrounder: Details on the Tabling of the Bill to Modernize and Strengthen the Official Languages Act


OTTAWA, June 15, 2021

On June 15, the Government of Canada introduced Bill C-32, an Act for the Substantive Equality of French and English and the Strengthening of the Official Languages Act.

The Official Languages Act (OLA) guides a number of federal activities, including the language of Parliamentary proceedings and government communications, the language of work of public servants, access to justice and support for official-language minority communities. The OLA is the key instrument ensuring that Canada’s two official languages, French and English, are promoted and protected.

It has been more than 30 years since the last reform; so the OLA is in need of modernization to better reflect language realities in Canada and advance substantive equality of French and English while supporting the development of official-language minority communities. It is also through the modernized OLA and its related instruments that the Government of Canada will act fully in its areas of jurisdiction and assume its responsibilities to establish a new balance in our language regime.

The following are some of the key changes that the bill would make to the OLA.

Recognition of the diversity of provincial and territorial language regimes

The modernized OLA would now recognize the diversity of language regimes in the provinces and territories. The OLA recognizes, for example, that French is the official language of Quebec and that French and English are the official languages of New Brunswick and that they have legal status and equal rights and privileges. This addition would recognize the fact that various constitutional, legislative, regulatory, policy and other provisions are in force in these provinces and territories, illustrating the diversity of Canada’s linguistic landscape. Furthermore, the modernized OLA would explicitly recognize the importance of reclaiming, revitalizing and strengthening Indigenous languages in Canada and the fact that nothing in the OLA must interfere with these objectives.

Increased protection for French

The Government of Canada intends to act within its jurisdiction to protect and promote the French language. To do so, the OLA would be amended to include this commitment. More concretely, this new wording would make specific reference to the need to protect and promote French in each province and territory given the language’s minority status in Canada and in North America as a whole. In addition, it would contain a commitment by the Minister of Canadian Heritage to take appropriate measures with respect to organizations within their portfolio to support the development and promotion of Francophone culture in Canada. The OLA would also contain a commitment to support the use of both official language in Canadian diplomacy and to promote French abroad.

Learning of official languages

In the amended OLA, the federal government would recognize the importance of opportunities to learn a second official language in Canada. The Act would also affirm the Government of Canada’s commitment to enhancing French‑ and English-speaking minorities’ access to quality learning opportunities in their own language throughout their lives, from early childhood to post-secondary studies. The bill also takes into account the importance of second-language learning programs, including French immersion, for the achievement of a bilingual Canada. The government is committed to working with the provinces and territories to improve access to these programs so that Canadian children can receive the best that our country has to offer.

In addition, the federal government would commit to helping estimate the number of children whose parents have the right, under section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to have them educated in the minority official language of their province or territory.

Protecting the institutions of official language minority communities

The modernized OLA would be more specific about the key sectors linked to the development of official language minority communities (for example, immigration, education from early childhood to post-secondary studies, health, culture and justice) and would explicitly seek to protect and promote the presence of strong institutions serving these communities. Indeed, one of the proposed additions is to recognize CBC/Radio Canada as a flagship institution that, through its activities, contributes to the vitality of official-language minority communities and to the promotion and protection of both official languages. The Act would also contain an obligation for the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to adopt a Francophone immigration policy to support the vitality of Canada’s French linguistic minority communities outside Quebec. This is an essential measure to ensure the support of the demographic weight of these communities.

Federally regulated private businesses

The modernized OLA would recognize the need for a federal government that intends to act in its area of jurisdiction to promote and protect the use of French as a language of work and a language of service in certain federally regulated private businesses in Quebec and in other regions of the country with a strong Francophone presence. This would ensure the private sector’s contribution to the protection of French by providing new rights for consumers to receive service in French and for employees to work in French. The implementation of these measures will be gradual, over a period of three years for federally regulated private businesses in Quebec of 25 employees and more and over a period of five years for federally regulated private businesses of 50 employees and more in regions with a strong Francophone presence.

Employees of a private federally regulated company who occupy a position in a place of work located in Quebec and in regions with a strong Francophone presence will have the following rights:

  1. the right to do their work and to be supervised in French;
  2. the right to receive all communications and documentation from the company in French, including offers of employment or promotion, notices of dismissal, collective agreements and grievances;
  3. the right to use work tools and computer systems in common and general use in French.

The bill allows for the development of regulations to guide the mandate of French language promotion committees, which will be able to normalize the use of the French language in these businesses. This will be in keeping with the obligations under the Charter of the French language in Quebec and will ensure that affected businesses in regions with a strong Francophone presence embrace and respect the newly recognized rights.

Strengthened official languages governance

The Government of Canada must be exemplary in its implementation of the Act and it must continue its work in order to realize the vision of a public service where everyone works in the official language of their choice wherever this right exists.

Part VII of the OLA—Advancement of English and French—would be amended to include a list of examples of positive measures that federal institutions could take to support official-language minority communities and to promote both official languages. Official languages governance would be strengthened to ensure better implementation of the OLA. For example, the Treasury Board would be able to establish policy instruments (implementation principles, instructions, policies and directives) for the implementation of the commitment to promote English and French. The Minister of Canadian Heritage would be given a leading role within the federal government with respect to implementing the OLA. In addition, the Treasury Board would exercise the following powers: monitoring and auditing the compliance of federal institutions; evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of the policies and programs of federal institutions; and informing employees of federal institutions about the principles and implementation programs (for Part IV [Communications with and Services to the Public], Part V [Language of Work] and subsection 41[2] of Part VII [Advancement of English and French]).

Access to justice

The amended OLA would include a commitment to financially support a body independent of the Government of Canada that would be responsible for administering a program, such as the Court Challenges Program, whose purpose would be to provide funding for test cases of national importance relating to language rights to be brought before the courts. The OLA would also state clearly that final decisions of federal courts that establish a precedent in a given area of law would be made available to the public in both official languages simultaneously. There are also plans to amend the OLA by removing the existing exception so that the Supreme Court would have the same duty as other federal courts to ensure that judges who hear proceedings can do so directly, in the official language or languages chosen by the parties, without the assistance of an interpreter.

Increased powers for the Commissioner of Official Languages

The role of the Commissioner is to promote official languages and exercise the ombudsman function in a spirit of cooperation with the parties concerned. The OLA gives the Commissioner great latitude in action. In order to provide the Commissioner with the tools required to bring federal institutions to resolve compliance problems, the government is proposing to strengthen the scope of their powers and add a gradation to it.

The amended OLA would include a provision allowing the Commissioner of Official Languages, after carrying out an investigation, to make available to the public their recommendations, findings and summaries of investigations. Henceforth, the Commissioner would be able to enter into compliance agreements and/or issue orders to federal institutions or other entities subject to the OLA. These amendments would allow the Commissioner to take such measures as they deem necessary to remedy violations identified in respect of Part IV (Communications with and Services to the Public) and Part V (Language of Work) of the Act.

As detailed in the reform document, French and English: Towards a real equality of official languages in Canada, these legislative changes would be accompanied by regulatory measures, namely a regulation on positive measures for federal institutions and a secondary regulations for private companies under federal jurisdiction. For this reform to be complete, the proposed changes to the OLA would also be accompanied by administrative measures.

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