Revising the Official Languages Act: Will History Repeat Itself? 

Official Languages Minister Mélanie Joly and PM Trudeau at a press conference in late 2020. In the Throne Speech, the Liberals promised a renewal of the Official Languages Act, but it’s not clear what that means. Adam Scotti photo

Canada’s Official Languages Act was made law in 1969, was substantially amended in 1988 and is now overdue for an overhaul. As the issue of language rights re-emerged in the final weeks of 2020, it was obvious that many elements of the debate have changed since 1988, but, as Royal Military College professor Stéphanie Chouinard writes, the politics at all levels remain remarkably consistent.

Stéphanie Chouinard  

It has been several years since official languages have been as hotly debated in the House of Commons as they were in the last few weeks of 2020. Indeed, parliamentarians have recently focused on the status of both official languages, as well as whether, and if so, when, the government would present its plans for a new-and-improved Official Languages Act (OLA)—a promise the Liberals made during the 2019 electoral campaign and reiterated in last September’s Speech from the Throne. 

The OLA turned 50 in 2019; its present iteration was adopted in 1988. To say this legislation needs a revision is an understatement. Some of its elements are painfully outdated. For example, while Part IV of the Act outlines the federal government’s obligation to use both official languages in communications with the Canadian public, it is devoid of any mention of now-ubiquitous electronic communications or of social media. Other weaknesses in the Act, such as the Official Languages Commissioner (OLC)’s mandate, or Part VII of the Act (outlining the federal government’s commitment to the enhancement of official language communities’ vitality, which was gutted by the Federal Court in 2018), are also in dire need of a major facelift.  

Generally speaking, it is good practice to revisit legislation of such importance as the OLA once every few decades to ensure its continued usefulness and relevance. However, debates on this legislative overhaul are taking place in a country that looks very different today from the Canada of 1988.

Firstly, Canada’s demographics have changed drastically since then. Our population has grown by a third in the past three decades, and much of that growth can be attributed to immigration. As of today, two out of five Canadians were not born in this country. While our immigration system favours speakers of both official languages, knowledge of English far outweighs knowledge of French among newcomers, which was spoken by only 2.82 percent of Canada’s immigration intake in 2019. 

As a result, while the number of French speakers in Canada is rising, their weight relative to the total population is slowly decreasing. We have now reached the symbolically critical point where there are more allophones (individuals whose mother tongue is neither English nor French) in Canada than there are French-as-mother-tongue individuals. These statistics do not fail to be mobilized by detractors of official languages, who often argue that French should not be getting special treatment in this country – forgetting a history of linguistic accommodation and compromise between French and English that predates Confederation itself. 

Second, Indigenous peoples mark another change in our society, not only from a demographic perspective, as they are the fastest growing segment of the population, but also because Canadians are paying more attention to their issues than ever before, and the protection and revitalization of their languages is an urgent issue. 

Of the more than 70 indigenous languages that are spoken in Canada today, only three are considered to be in a relatively safe position, a sufficient number of speakers preventing their disappearance: Cree, Inuktitut, and Ojibway. All others are endangered or on the verge of extinction—a direct result of Canada’s attempts at assimilation through colonial policies such as residential schools. In 2019, the federal government adopted the Indigenous Languages Act. While this was a first step in the right direction, the act does not live up to some Indigenous peoples’ expectations. For example, the Inuit made it clear that they wished for more than a recognition of their languages’ existence but also for the development of government services in their language (to which they are entitled at the territorial, but not at the federal, level). 

The powers of the newly created Indigenous Languages Commissioner’s office (the holder of this office is not yet named) are only a shadow of the OLC’s. An eventual revision of the OLA will once again address the comparative inaction of the federal government towards the protection and enhancement of Indigenous languages. 

At least one element has remained unchanged since the OLA was last amended: the omnipresence of Quebec in Canada’s language debates. One needs to remember that in 1988, the Meech Lake Accord, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s attempt to “bring Quebec back into the Canadian fold” by granting it status as a “distinct society”, was still being debated in the country’s provincial legislatures. The new OLA was a way to signal to Quebec a willingness to reinforce French as an official language in Canada, while calming official-language minorities (namely, Anglo-Quebecers and Francophones outside Quebec) who, understandably, feared being forgotten in the constitutional debates. 

Just over 30 years later, it appears not much has changed on this front. Despite organizations such as the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne (FCFA) and Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) tirelessly calling on the federal government to modernize the OLA for years, the safety of French in Quebec is what has sparked the latest political debate on official languages. In mid-November, St-Laurent Liberal MP Emmanuella Lambropoulos questioned the veracity of the decline of the use of French by Montreal merchants in a parliamentary committee meeting with the OLC. Her questions elicited a political storm; several debates in the House of Commons have since been devoted to the protection of French in Quebec. This issue now appears to be the main concern in the revision of the OLA. 

The different parties’ position on this file is revealing. The Bloc Québécois has, unsurprisingly, adopted the position of the Legault government that all institutions under federal jurisdiction in Quebec should be subjected to Bill 101, rather than the OLA. 

This would create a dangerous precedent whereby other provinces could push for similar exemptions. Outside New Brunswick, Canada’s only officially bilingual province, and Ontario’s “designated regions” as per the French Language Services Act, federal institutions could function in English only. This would in practice render both Part IV (pertaining to communications with the public) and Part V (pertaining to federal civil servants’ right to work in the official language of their choice) of the OLA meaningless. During the fall sitting of the House, the federal Conservative Party was pressuring the government to table a new OLA by the end of the year. It has also begun referring to official languages as “national languages” in a nod to the “two founding peoples” of this country. 

While this ideological turn does not intrinsically deny the existence of Francophones and Acadians outside Quebec, this rhetoric rather seems an attempt at seducing right-wing nationalists in Quebec, a province where the Conservative vote is notoriously weak, and potential electoral gains plentiful. This Conservative rhetoric also overlooks Indigenous peoples and their languages. Meanwhile, the NDP, which was a force to contend with in Quebec less than a decade ago, and which traditionally had a strong official-languages “champion” (former Acadie-Bathurst MP Yvon Godin, for instance, tabled several bills on mandatory bilingualism for Supreme Court justices), is missing in action in this debate. 

Late in November, Official Languages Minister Mélanie Joly announced an upcoming white paper on the future of official languages, which should be presented to Parliament early in 2021. The choice of a white paper as a policy tool is not uninteresting, empowering her to go beyond the scope of the OLA and to propose changes to other critical legislation and regulations impacting official languages. However, Joly has already conducted wide-ranging consultations with minority community stakeholders on the OLA, and they have made their requests clear. Moreover, the only provincial counterpart with whom she appears to be in discussions over the revision of the act is Quebec minister Simon Jolin-Barrette. The white paper announcement is hardly coincidental in terms of electoral politics, especially in a minority House that could move into election mode at any time. 

Just as the concern for Quebec was top of mind for legislators in the revision of the OLA in 1988, the last weeks of 2020 have set the stage for history to be repeating itself in the new year. Let’s hope the parties’ appetite for electoral gains in that province won’t eclipse the necessity of strengthening this act so it meets today’s challenges and the needs of all Canadians—including official-language minorities—who have until now driven the discussion on the new OLA, and who depend on it most.  

Contributing Writer Stéphanie Chouinard is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Royal Military College (Kingston). She is cross-appointed at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on language rights, Indigenous rights, federalism, and judicial politics.