English and French in the Workplace

What federal employees need to know

Minister of Supply and Services Canada 1995

ISBN: 0-662-61557-8

Cat. No.: SF31-27/1995

March 1995

Of all the topics connected with official languages, language of work is perhaps the one that prompts the most enquiries. With this in mind, the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages decided to inform employees of federal institutions (i.e., departments, agencies and Crown corporations) of their rights and obligations, in particular regarding bilingual regions. Although this brochure cannot cover every aspect of the topic, we hope that it answers most employees' questions.

Table of Contents

The Official Languages Act - A few words of introduction

The Official Languages Act sets out the official languages rights of Canadians when they deal with federal institutions, which include federal government departments, agencies (boards, commissions,councils), and Crown corporations. The Act also applies to Air Canada.

A key part of the Act (Part IV) deals with the right of members of the public to request and receive services from offices of federal institutions in English or French at their choice, where these offices have a significant demand for these services in either language or where the nature of the services is such that they should be available in both official languages.

Another part of the Act (Part V) sets out the circumstances in which employees in certain regions have the right to use English or French when working within federal institutions, e.g., participating in meetings, receiving instructions, writing internal documents. It specifies the obligations of departments, agencies and Crown corporations to create work environments that allow their employees to use the official language of their choice when they are not serving the public.

This brochure deals with Part V of the Act, "language of work".

Language of work responsibilities and rights - in general

  1. Where do federal employees have language of work rights?

    The Official Languages Act designates a number of regions in Canada where employees of federal departments, agencies and Crown corporations have the right to work in the official language of their choice and where these institutions have the obligation to ensure that their employees may exercise this right. These regions, referred to as bilingual regions for language of work, are the National Capital Region, all of New Brunswick, parts of Northern and Eastern Ontario, the Montreal area, and, in the rest of Quebec, parts of the Eastern Townships, of the Gaspé and of West Quebec.

    Should you have questions about the localities included in these regions, please contact the officer responsible for official languages within your institution.

  2. In bilingual regions, what are the language of work obligations of federal institutions?

To create a work environment where employees feel free to work in the official language of their choice, the following must be available in both languages:

  • supervision of employees, as follows: employees occupying bilingual positions (see Glossary) or positions requiring the use of either English or French are to receive instructions and performance appraisals in the language of their choice; employees occupying unilingual positions receive supervision in the language of the position;
  • regularly and widely used work instruments produced by or on behalf of the institution (e.g., policy manuals, directives or circulars);
  • regularly and widely used information technology systems, including software packages, acquired or produced by an institution as of 1991;
  • personal and central services (see Glossary), regardless of the duties or language requirements of the employee's position;
  • staff or committee meetings within departments, agencies or Crown corporations or that involve more than one institution when employees of both language groups participate.

In addition, the senior or corporate management of an institution has, as a whole, the responsibility to function in both official languages (e.g., conducting meetings, accepting documents, hearing presentations).

  1. Does the Act include any rights for employees working outside the bilingual regions?

In unilingual regions the language of work is that which predominates in the region where an office is located: French in Quebec and English elsewhere.

However, institutions having offices both in Quebec and elsewhere must give English and French comparable treatment as minority languages if they decide to provide their employees with any work instruments or services in both languages. For example, if a department, agency or Crown corporation provides a manual in English for its English-speaking staff in Quebec outside the bilingual regions it should also provide that manual in French for French-speaking employees who work in English-speaking regions.

  1. In bilingual regions:
  • do unilingual employees have to become bilingual for language of work reasons?
  • do bilingual employees in unilingual positions have to work in both languages?

No, in both cases. In a bilingual region it is up to the institution to ensure that the work environment is open to the use of both English and French so that neither of the above situations occur. Of course, bilingual employees occupying unilingual positions are free to practise their second official language if they wish.

  1. What are the rules for communications between regions?
  1. Communications from the National Capital Region (NCR):
  • to bilingual regions: in the preferred official language of the recipient or in both languages;
  • to unilingual regions: in the language of the office in the unilingual region.
  1. Communications from offices of central agencies or common service organizations (e.g., Treasury Board Secretariat, Public Service Commission, Public Works and Government Services):
  • to bilingual regions: in the official language chosen by the recipient;
  • to unilingual regions: in the language of the majority of the population of the province or territory.
  1. Personal or central services, regardless of the location of the office providing these services:
  • in bilingual regions: in the official language chosen by the employee receiving services;
  • in unilingual regions: in the language of the majority of the province or territory where the receiving office is located.
  1. Supervision, regardless of the location of the office providing it:
  • in bilingual regions: in the official language chosen by the employee supervised if the employee works in a bilingual position or has functions requiring the use of both languages;
  • in unilingual regions: in the official language of the majority of the province or territory in which the supervised employees work.
  1. How do these language of work rights mesh with the right of members of the public to be served in the official language of their choice?

    If ever a conflict arises between these two rights, those of the public always prevail.

  2. What is management's role in creating a work environment in which employees are encouraged to use their preferred official language?

Senior management

  • It provides leadership in official languages matters and ensures that the institution meets its official languages responsibilities.
  • It informs employees of their rights and responsibilities.
  • It ensures that language choices are respected.
  • It allows employees to work in their official language.
  • It provides second-language training and development opportunities.

Managers and supervisors

Managers and supervisors play a key role, as their attitudes set the tone for their units.

They must be able to:

  • communicate with their employees in the latter's first official language;
  • encourage employees to work in their chosen language or to improve their second-language skills;
  • provide performance appraisals and career development training in the employee's official language;
  • encourage the use of both official languages at meetings;
  • create opportunities for employees to work together in both official languages - for example, on a special project team;
  • as well, must make every effort to improve their own second-language skills.
  1. What can employees do to help create a bilingual work environment?

    Although it is the institution's responsibility, employees can do a lot. For example, people can make a habit of using their own official language when communicating with their managers or with bilingual colleagues of the other language group. Besides exercising their language of work rights, this gives their colleagues a chance to sharpen their own second-language skills.

    However, when opportunities arise, they can also choose to improve their second-language ability by speaking to colleagues from the other language group in their official language.

    Examples of situations that come up at work

  2. I am an English-speaking employee working at a Canada Employment Centre in Sherbrooke in a bilingual position. Most of my colleagues are French-speaking. I can function quite well in French, but sometimes it is a strain. Do I have the right to work in English - for example, writing memos in English or speaking English at staff meetings?

    Yes, if these exchanges take place within your bilingual region. However, if the duties of your position also require you to provide supervision, or personal or central services, see questions 2 and 5.

  3. I am a bilingual, French-speaking federal employee working in a bilingual position in the National Capital Region. For a long time I have been working in English simply because most of my colleagues speak English. What are my rights regarding language of work?

    Since you are in the National Capital Region, you have the right to work in either official language. For example, you can speak French in meetings and write memos or reports, receive supervision and personal and central services in French.

  4. Our agency is installing a new electronic data processing system in all our offices across Canada. Does this mean that every office must provide user manuals and software packages in both official languages?

    No. User manuals and software packages need only be available in both official languages in bilingual regions. However, any documents that employees need to provide services to the public must be available in both official languages, even in regions that are unilingual for language of work.

  5. Under what circumstances would federal employees working in unilingual regions have the right to use work instruments in both official languages?

In unilingual regions employees who must serve the public in both official languages are entitled to "regularly and widely used" work instruments in both English and French. Work units in unilingual regions that are responsible for supervising or providing personal and central services to employees in bilingual regions must also be able to provide these services in both official languages.

Questions on language and career advancement

  1.  I have colleagues who are unilingual federal public service employees in Saskatchewan. How does the Official Languages Act affect their chances for advancement in the Public Service?

Only 29 per cent of federal public service positions are bilingual, most of them (55.6 per cent) in the National Capital Region. In Saskatchewan the percentage of bilingual positions is only 3.3, reflecting the application of the Act in that province. This means that Canadians who speak only one official language have opportunities for advancement in the federal Public Service. In addition, many bilingual positions are open to unilingual employees who are willing to take language training and have the aptitude to learn a second language.

The chart below provides information on the language requirements of jobs in the federal Public Service. A similar breakdown for federal positions in each province or territory is available from the nearest office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

Public service positions - language requirements

English or French 10,000 (4.7%)

English essential 127,000 (60.0%)

French essential 13,800 (6.5%)

Bilingual 61,000 (28.8%)

Source: Treasury Board, September 1994.

  1. I am a unilingual public service employee whose job has recently been redesignated as bilingual. Does this mean I can receive language training at government expense?

    Normally, yes. You can take language training at government expense to acquire your second-language skills. However, you can also remain in your current position without having to meet the new language requirements. The same rule applies to public service employees in bilingual positions whose language requirements have been raised. In Crown corporations the rules may be different.

  2. Can I apply for a bilingual position in a federal department even if I am not bilingual?

    If a bilingual position is staffed non-imperatively you may apply, even if you are not bilingual. But you must agree to take second-language training if you win the competition, and you must have the potential to meet the language requirements within a certain time. A process that includes a diagnostic test will determine this.

    If a bilingual position is staffed imperatively you must meet the language requirements at the time of the competition. Usually this is established by means of second-language tests. Term positions or positions requiring technical or specialized vocabulary are staffed imperatively, as are certain positions that serve the public (e.g., a position that is the only point of contact with the public). Crown corporations may have different rules.

  3. How is it decided whether a job should be classified as bilingual?

When proficiency in both English and French is judged to be necessary for a job, it is classified as bilingual - either for service to the public, supervision or internal services. A set of objective criteria is used to determine what kinds and levels of skills are necessary.

Who protects your language rights?

  1. If I feel my language rights have not been respected, who can help me?

If you feel your language rights are not respected you have two main courses of action: you can ask your supervisor or the official languages representative in your institution to clarify your rights, or you can contact the nearest office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

  1. What happens if I lodge a complaint with the Commissioner's Office?

First, staff will decide if your complaint falls within the Commissioner's jurisdiction. If it does, they will investigate. Your institution will be informed of the complaint, given the details and asked to explain. However, your identity remains confidential, unless you authorize its disclosure. You will be kept informed of the progress and results of the investigation. Once it is completed, measures to resolve the situation will be recommended to your institution.

Roles and responsibilities of the Commissioner of Official Languages

  • Where the official languages are involved, the Commissioner of Official Languages protects the rights of all Canadians, including federal government employees.
  • He conducts investigations, either on his own initiative or in response to complaints from the public or from federal employees who feel that federal institutions have not respected their language rights. These investigations help him make sure institutions respect the spirit and intent of the Official Languages Act. When necessary, the Commissioner recommends improvements.
  • He also explains Canada's official languages policies and promotes understanding between English- and French-speaking Canadians.

Roles and responsibilities of the Treasury Board

The Treasury Board, a committee of Cabinet, is responsible for the general direction and co-ordination of the official languages policies and programs of the Government of Canada relating to service to the public, language of work, and the equitable participation of English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians in federal institutions. The Treasury Board Secretariat supports the Board by:

  • developing policies for the Board's approval, as well as interpreting them and communicating them to other federal institutions;
  • monitoring and auditing the implementation of the Official Languages Program and, where required, advising other federal institutions on its implementation;
  • producing an annual report on the program that the President of the Treasury Board tables in Parliament.

For more information

This brochure deals only with the main aspects of the Official Languages Act and related policies. For a full description of the Act, please read the actual text. If a conflict arises between this brochure and the provisions of the Act, the latter takes precedence.

To learn more about your rights under the Act, the regulations defining where two-language services to the public should be available, or any other aspect of the Act, you may contact the official languages representative in your institution or the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages at any of the addresses and phone numbers listed below.

Descriptions of the requirements of the Act intended for a general readership are available from the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. For more information on the policies that flow from or complement the requirements of the Act, please consult the "Official Languages" volume of the Treasury Board Manual. Information on policies may also be available on computer systems.

Here are suggestions for further reading on the topic of this brochure:

Chairing meetings - How to make your meetings a success in both official languages

(18-page booklet)

Chairing Meetings in Both Official Languages - A Handy Checklist

(one-page card)

First Item / Premier Point

(a 17-minute videocassette on chairing two-language meetings)

You have the floor - Using both official languages in meetings

(10-page booklet).

To receive copies, please contact:

Treasury Board Secretariat
Official Languages and Employment Equity Branch
300 Laurier Avenue West
Ottawa, Ontario
Telephone: (613) 952-6206
TDD (613) 957-8657
Fax: (613) 952-2857

Offices of the Commissioner of Official Languages
110 O'Connor Street
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0T8
Telephone: 613) 996-6368
TDD 1 800 461-2630
Fax: (613) 993-5082

(Collect calls are accepted.)

Atlantic Region
Room 303
Heritage Court
95 Foundry Street
Moncton, New Brunswick
E1C 5H7
Telephone: (506) 851-7047 or 1 800 561-7109
Fax: (506) 851-7046

Quebec Region
Room 4204
800 Victoria Square
P.O. Box 373
Montreal, Quebec
H4Z 1J2
Telephone: (514) 283-4996 or 1 800 363-0628
Fax: (514) 283-6677

Ontario Region
Room 2410
1 Dundas Street West
P.O. Box 24
Toronto, Ontario
M5G 1Z3
Telephone: (416) 973-1903 or 1 800 387-0635
Fax: (416) 973-1906

Manitoba & Saskatchewan Region
Room 200
Centre-Ville Building
131 Provencher Boulevard
Winnipeg, Manitoba
R2H 0G2
Telephone: (204) 983-2111 or 1 800 665-8731
Fax: (204) 983-7801

Alberta, British Columbia,
Northwest Territories & Yukon Region
Room 620
10055-106 Street
Edmonton, Alberta
T5J 2Y2
Telephone: (403) 495-3111 or 1 800 661-3642
Fax: (403) 495-4094


The following terms have a special meaning in the context of the Official Languages Act.

Bilingual position:
a term used by the Public Service for a position with at least one function requiring a knowledge and use of both official languages. Crown corporations do not use the term "bilingual position" but have functions that require the use of both languages.
Central services:
are strictly work-related and include administrative, staffing, financial, evaluation and audit, library and legal services.
Personal services:
relate to the employee as a person. They include such things as pay and benefits, health services and career and personal counselling.
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