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Language policies of Canada's provinces and territories

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Language policies of Canada's provinces and territories

The language policies of Canada's province and territories vary substantially between different regions and also between different eras.

From the 1890s until the 1960s, English was the only language that most government services were provided in outside of Quebec (which was functionally bilingual) and using French in the courts or in schools was often illegal. This led to fears by French Canadian nationalists that French-speakers would be assimilated, leading the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963–1969) to recommend that the federal government and all provinces offer more services in French.

Since that time, Quebec has used provincial law to valourize French (see Charter of the French Language) at the expense of English, while the other provinces have begun to offer more and more services in French and in other language besides English, including Aboriginal languages and immigrant languages.[1] The 1982 amendments to the Canadian constitution included a right of minority-language education that has forced policy changes in all of the provinces. Quebec is unique in requiring private businesses to use French and requiring immigrants to send their children to French-language schools. In other provinces there is no requirement that businesses use a particular language, but English predominates, and immigrants may send their children to English, French or third-language schools.[2]

History (before 1982)

At the time of Confederation in 1867, English and French were made the official languages of debate in the Parliament of Canada and the Parliament of Quebec. No specific policies were enacted for the other provinces, and no provisions were made for the official languages to be used in other elements of the government such the courts, schools, post offices, and so on. The official language policies of the provinces and territories were initially set when they were created by the federal government, or in the case of provinces that were separate colonies before joining Confederation (Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and British Columbia) were inherited from their own histories. Language policies in all provinces have evolved over time in response to changing demographics, public attitudes, and legal rulings.

The Prairies

Prior to becoming part of Canada in 1869, English was a minority language in the West, where French and Aboriginal languages were more common. The arrival settlers from Ontario, the British Isles, and the United States changed the demographic balance, however. One of the outcomes of the Red River Rebellion of 1870 was the creation of Manitoba as an officially bilingual province, to protect the French-speaking Metis from being overpowered by the incoming Anglophone settlers. This guarantee failed, however, and in the aftermath of the Manitoba Schools Question, that province was allowed to become officially English-only, until these policies were declared unconstitutional in 1985.

The Northwest Territories Act of 1891 made English and French official languages in the rest of Canadian West. But in 1892 the Legislature of the Northwest Territories declared itself English-only.

This trend continued to the creation of the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905, and beyond.
By the time Alberta was made a province in 1905, the French language had been dealt a series of aggressive blows, and the use of French in government, the courts and schools was made illegal.
—-Alberta Online Encyclopedia[3]

Effect of the Charter on the provinces and territories

Section Twenty-three of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that Canadian-born or educated parents (not recent immigrants) have a right to educate their children in their choice of either French or English wherever there are "sufficient numbers". This was a major change in that education is normally considered solely provincial jurisdiction, and policy had been majoritarian. Court cases such as Doucet-Boudreau v. Nova Scotia (Minister of Education) have indicated that this is a positive right that demands timely and sufficient action from the provincial governments.

Categorizing the provinces (and territories)

In its January 2012 report on the costs and benefits of official bilingualism at the provincial level in Canada, the right-wing think tank the Fraser Institute, identified several potential methods for classifying the provinces based on language circumstances and policies (territories were not included).

First it stated that linguistic minorities were only of a significant size in three provinces, either in absolute numbers (Quebec [575,000] and Ontario [489,000]) or as a proportion (New Brunswick [just over 30%]), while in the other seven provinces minority communities are quite small, as low as 1.3% in British Columbia[4]

Second, the report suggested that in six of the provinces, governments only those offer minority-language services they are obliged to under Section 23 of the Charter (i.e. education). While in three provinces (Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Quebec) there are other constitutional rights that come into play, over and above Section 23. While in Ontario, there is a developed policy of statutory (not constitutional) minority language rights.[5]

Officially bilingual or multilingual

New Brunswick and Canada's three territories have all given official status to more than one language. In the case of New Brunswick, this means perfect equality. In the other cases, the recognition sometimes amounts to a formal recognition of official languages, but limited services in official languages other than English. Manitoba was officially bilingual at its creation, became officially Anglophone only, but this was later reversed by the courts.

The territories

New Brunswick

New Brunswick has been officially bilingual since the passing of the Official Languages in New Brunswick Act (1969). This was complemented by An Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Official Linguistic Communities in New Brunswick in 1981. New Brunswick's bilingualism was constitutionally enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. The Charter was amended in 1993 to clarify that the two language communities are legally equal. In 1999 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Moncton (City) v. Charlebois that New Brunswick's official bilingualism also applied to municipalities in the province. In 2002 the Official Languages Act became New Brunswick's new language law, leading to the creation of the creation of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick in 2003.[6]


Manitoba stands out amongst the provinces as a province with a small Francophone linguistic minority but above-average constitutional protection of this minority.
—Fraser Institute[7]

Manitoba was established as an officially bilingual province under section 23 of the Manitoba Act, 1870. However in subsequent years the provincial government moved to end French-language services and become English-only. In the famous Supreme Court of Canada case Reference re Manitoba Language Rights of 1985 the court found these policies unconstitutional. The province of Manitoba is now overwhelmingly English-speaking and the first language of the courts, government ministries, and schools is English. However, in order to comply with the court's ruling the province is required to provide nearly all its services in French (as well as English). The government's policy is summarized in the French Language Services Policy, last updated in March 1999.[8]

Regionalized bilingualism: Ontario

Ontario has a regionalized language policy, where part of the province is English-only and other areas are bilingual. Province-wide services (such as websites and toll-free telephone numbers) are provided in both English and French. However individuals only have a right to French-language services in certain designated regions of the province under the French Language Services Act (1986). There are 25 regions so designated. These are: areas with 10% or more Francophones; urban centres with 5,000 or more Francophones; and areas previously designated by the Government of Ontario between 1978 and 1985.[9] Notably this includes Toronto, Canada's largest municipality, and Ottawa, the nation's capital, as well as many other cities, counties, districts, townships, and towns.[10] For the purposes of the policy, the definition of a "Francophone" was broadened in 2009. Previously it included only mother-tongue speakers, however it now includes allophones (people whose first language is neither French or English) who "have particular knowledge of French as an official language and use French at home, including many recent immigrants to Ontario for whom French is the language of integration".[9]

Officially French-only: Quebec

Until 1969, Quebec was the only officially bilingual province in Canada and most public institutions functioned in both languages. English was also used in the legislature, government commissions and courts.

An Act to promote the French language in Quebec was passed in 1969 by the Union Nationale government of Jean-Jacques Bertrand. It required the education ministry to ensure that French as a second language was taught to all English-speakers and immigrants in Quebec, but allowed Quebeckers freedom of choice in deciding in which language to educate their children. This was considered too weak by many Quebec nationalists, leading to the creation of the Mouvement Québec français and increased support for the new Parti Québecois.

From 1968 to 1973, the Commission of Inquiry on the Situation of the French Language and Linguistic Rights in Quebec investigated how to strengthen the position of French in Quebec. Its recommendations led to the passage of the Official Language Act or "Bill 22" in 1974 by the Quebec Liberal Party government of Robert Bourassa. This made French the sole official language of Quebec and required its use in business.

Bill 22 was replaced by the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) by Quebec's National Assembly in August 1977, under the majority government of the Parti Québecois led by René Lévesque. It is structured as a list of rights, where everyone in Quebec has the right to be served in French by the government and businesses, and also provides certain rights for speakers of English and aboriginal languages. Most government services are available in both French and English. Regional institutions in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec offer services in Inuktitut and Cree.

Several legal challenges have been raised against Bill 101 in the ongoing legal dispute over Quebec's language policy. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Ford v. Quebec (Attorney General) that the ban on outdoor signs in languages other than French was unconstitutional. The government of Quebec choose to invoke the "notwithstanding clause" to shield the legislation from the courts. The United Nations Human Rights Commission ruled similarly in Ballantyne, Davidson, McIntyre v. Canada in 1993. The ban on non-French signs was lifted with the passage of Bill 86 in 1993.

Officially English with services in French and other languages

Most provinces have laws that make either English or both English and French the official language(s) of the legislature and the courts, but may also have separate policies in regards to education and the bureaucracy.


Alberta inherited its English-only status from the Northwest Territories in 1905, and then was strengthened over time. The Language Act 1988, reaffirmed the unilingual English nature of the province,[11] while recognizing a right to use French in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and before certain courts.[12] The Language Policy in Education (1978) requires school boards to establish French programs at the request of a local advisory committee.[12] The School Act recognizes a right to instruction in French for the official language minority (1988) and right of Francophones to manage their own schools (1993).[12] Laws are drafted solely in English and there is no legal requirement that they be translated into French. French may be used orally in all provincial courts in Alberta. There is no requirement that healthcare services be provided in French, and it is left up to the initiative of individual hospitals and clinics.[12] There is no requirement that social services be provided in French and this is left up to individual NGOs and charities that work with the provincial government.[12] Other government services are provided in English only, except where the provincial government sees a need for French, including tourism and immigration, or where the federal government has provided funding.[13] There is no official policy requiring municipalities in Alberta to provide services in French. Three municipalities have voluntarily declared themselves officially bilingual (English-French): Falher, Legal and Beaumont all small communities with a francophone heritage. Some other municipalities are not officially bilingual but provide some services in French or other languages other than English.[12] Since 1993 there have been distinct Separate and Public Francophone school boards in Alberta in addition to the existing Public and Separate school boards which also offer French immersion.[12] Besides French the government does not offer most services in many other languages, but there are exceptions. Official government toll-free lines related subjects like family violence and gambling are available in 170 languages.[14] The government publishes an educational curriculum to assists teachers of Chinese, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Punjabi, Spanish, and Ukrainian,[15] as well as of Cree and Blackfoot.[16]

Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia has no legal requirement to provide any services in a language other than English, which was already well-established as the official language when the province joined Confederation in 1867. However the province has an Office of Gaelic Affairs whose mission is "to work with Nova Scotians in the renewal of Gaelic language and culture in the Province" [17] and an Office of Acadian Affairs:
to offer advice and support to provincial government departments, offices, agencies and Crown corporations so that they can develop and adapt policies, programs, and services that reflect the needs of the Acadian and francophone community.
—Office of Acadian Affairs[18]
As well there is a French-language web portal,[19]

Prince Edward Island

During the first half of the 20th century, there were 60 French language schools in Prince Edward Island. However, due to a consolidation of the school system, the number of French schools declined to only one by the late 70s. A second school opened in 1980 and, 20 years later, three new French schools opened in the province.
The French Language School Board was created on July 1, 1990.[20] This was followed by the opening of new French-language school in Summerside-Miscouche, West Prince, and Rustico in 2000, and Souris in 2003. The Francophone Affairs Division was established on April 1, 1989[21] Under the French Language Services Act (2000), Prince Edward Island made a variety of mostly non-binding commitments to provide services in French, but according to a government report (as of 2005), many sections of the Act have not proclaimed into law, as the province is still in the process of building its capacity to deliver services in French.[22]


In Saskatchewan, a 1968 amendment to the School Act permitted the establishment of designated French schools. Prior to this date, English was the only language which could be used as a language of instruction in Saskatchewan schools.[23] The Language Act
provides that all acts and regulations can be enacted, printed and published in English or in English and French. The Act also provides that both English and French may be used in the Legislative Assembly and in Saskatchewan courts. However, the rules of court must be in both languages.
—- Ministry of Justice and Attorney General of Saskatchewan.[24]
In 2010, the Government of Saskatachewan launched a bilingual website that indexes all the services it provides in French:[25]

De facto English only

British Columbia

Access to French-language education in BC is determined not only by Charter rights under Section 23, but also by a provincial policy decision to extend French-language schooling to francophone non-citizens living in British Columbia. There are 59 regional Anglophone school boards in BC and one province-wide francophone board. There is one French language college (Educacentre College), no French-language universities but some French-medium instruction at Simon Fraser University.

Outside of education, there is no legal framework for minority language services by the civil service or the courts.[26]

Newfoundland and Labrador

Many Aboriginal and European languages where once widely spoken in Newfoundland and Labrador. However, Britain eventually gained firm and unchallenged control of the island and adjacent coast following the French defeat in the Seven Years' War, and English then became the language of administration and commerce, as in most of the British Empire. In isolated fishing villages many minority languages persisted in private use, however, until the coming of standardized education in the nineteenth, and more so the twentieth centuries. When Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949 it had already used English as the sole language of government for several centuries. Today, Newfoundland is the most linguistically homogeneous province in Canada. In 1999, 98% of the population spoke only English as their sole mother tongue.[27] The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has no statutory language policy, simply having inherited English from colonial times. The Island of Newfoundland was once the homeland of the Beothuk language, and also seen some Mi'Kmaq speakers. The Labrador coast is home to the Innu-aimun and Inuttut languages. Newfoundland was also home to unique regional dialects of the French and Irish Gaelic languages, now extinct, as well as smaller groups of Old Norse, Basque, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Scots Gaelic speakers. Today the Government offers minimal French-language services through its French-language webisite in all other respects, it is English-only, including in the legislature, the courts, the schools, and the civil service.

Comparison table

Province or Territory Legislation on official language policy Ministry or department responsible for language policy Other legislation Legal cases Other agencies Language(s) of the Legislature Language(s) of the Courts Language(s) of the Civil Service Language(s) of the Schools Language policies affecting businesses and private citizens
Alberta Language Act School Act Mahe Francophone Secretariat of Municipal Affairs English (French officia, but rarely used) English (French official but rarely used) English English and French None
Manitoba Manitoba Act Reference re Manitoba Language Rights English (French official but rarely used) English (French official but rarely used) English (predominantly, some French) English and French None
New Brunswick Official Languages Act Commissioner of Official Languages An Act Recognizing the Equality of the Two Official Linguistic Communities in New Brunswick Moncton (City) v. Charlebois English and French English and French English and French English and French
Nova Scotia Office of Acadian Affairs and Office of Gaelic Affairs Doucet-Boudreau English English English (some French) English, French, Gaelic none
Ontario French Language Services Act Office of Francophone Affairs Education Act Office of the French Language Services Commissioner English and French English (French in some regions) English (French in some regions) English and French none
Prince Edward Island Arsenault-Cameron
Quebec Charter of the French Language "Bill 101" Office québécois de la langue française Bill 86 Ford English and French English and French French English and French French is required for some businesses, no French is required by law for private citizens.
Saskatchewan Language Act School Act English and French English and French English English and French None


  1. ^ Frederick Lee Morton (2002). Law, Politics and the Judicial Process in Canada. University of Calgary Press. p. 509.  
  2. ^ Joseph H. Carens (1995). Is Quebec Nationalism Just?: Perspectives from Anglophone Canada. McGill-Queen's Press. p. 61.  
  3. ^ "Alberta Online Encyclopedia - Saint Vincent and St. Paul - Language". 2010-12-08. Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  4. ^ Vaillancourt, et al., v
  5. ^ Vaillancourt, et al., vi
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ Vallincourt et al., viii
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b "Profile of Ontario's Francophone Community, 2009: Concepts and Definitions". Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  10. ^ "Government of Ontario - Office of Francophone Affairs: Map of Designated Areas". Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  11. ^ Vaillancourt, et al., viii
  12. ^ a b c d e f g
  13. ^ "Canadian Heritage - Services - Alberta". 2008-12-09. Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  14. ^ "Government of Alberta". 2008-10-31. Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  15. ^ "Alberta Education - International Languages Programs". 2006-12-28. Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  16. ^ "Alberta Education - Programs of Study". 2006-12-28. Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  17. ^ "About Us - Office of Gaelic Affairs - Government of Nova Scotia". Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  18. ^ "Acadian Affairs - Home". Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  19. ^ "Bonjour! | Government of Nova Scotia". 2011-07-25. Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  20. ^ "English". Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  21. ^ "Executive Council Office: Executive Council Office Department Guide". 1989-04-01. Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  22. ^ "French Language Services Report" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  23. ^ "Multicultural Education and Heritage Language Education policies". Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  24. ^ "The Language Act - Justice and Attorney General - Government of Saskatchewan". Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  25. ^ "About - Bonjour - Government of Saskatchewan". Retrieved 2011-11-02. 
  26. ^ Vallincourt et al., 9
  27. ^ "Language: Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage". Retrieved 2011-11-02. 

See also

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