Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
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Official languages

General Questions

1. Who is subject to the Official Languages Act?

"Federal institutions" as defined in section 3 of the Official Languages Act. For more information, refer to the official list of offices and service points required to provide service in both official languages

2. Must you be bilingual (English and French) to obtain a position in the federal public service?

Not necessarily. Unilingual candidates have access to many bilingual positions if they agree to take the necessary language training, at government expense. The government has committed itself to maintain generous access to language training for public service employees, whether it is to meet the needs of the institutions or for their employees' career aspirations, and if necessary, during work hours and at government expense. For more information about job opportunities within the Government of Canada, please consult the Public Service Commission's web site.

3. Roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders

The Official Languages Act (the Act) clearly states that every federal institution is responsible for implementing the Act within the context of its mandate. Furthermore, the Act gives the Treasury Board the responsibility of development and general co-ordination of the federal principles and programs related to service to the public, language of work and participation in federal institutions. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages retains all the powers assigned to it by the 1969 Act. The 1988 Act strengthens its role as "language Ombudsman" which allows it to investigate complaints and seek solutions.

The Act states that the Government of Canada is committed to enhancing the vitality of the English and French linguistic minority communities in Canada and to fostering the full recognition and use of both English and French in Canadian society. The Department of Canadian Heritage is responsible for promoting a co-ordinated approach to the implementation by federal institutions of their obligations. Finally, the Department of Justice ensures the existence of a society that is fair and law-abiding. More specifically, the department assumes general responsibility for the Official Languages Act.

Service to the public

4. Must all federal offices provide service in both official languages everywhere in Canada?

No. Some 4,000 out of 11,700 offices and service points must provide service in either official language.

Here is the official list

Compliance Review of the Official Languages Regulations

5. What is the intent of the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations?

  • The Regulations were adopted to define the notions of significant demand and nature of the office that were introduced in the Act.
  • The Regulations include provisions that define significant demand in terms of the size of the official language minority populations, and other provisions that take into account the volume of demand for services. In the first case, the Regulations provide for the use of the data from the most recent decennial census of the population. Thus, the provisions in the Regulations will be reapplied using the 2011 Census data.

6. Are all offices and service points of institutions covered by the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations?

  • No. Institutions that have only one office, the head office, or offices in the National Capital Region, or that report directly to Parliament are not covered by the Regulations, since those offices are automatically required to serve the public in both official languages under sections 22 or 24 of the Official Languages Act.

7. What do we mean by official language minority population?

  • In the Regulations, the English or French linguistic minority population is defined as the official language minority population in a given province, as determined by Statistics Canada under "Method 1" described in its publication "Population Estimates by First Official Language Spoken". This statistical method involves combining in an objective way the various figures on knowledge of official languages, mother tongue and home language.

Language of work

8. Does the Official Languages Act specify the regions where employees of federal institutions have the right to use either official language as the language of work?

Yes. The designated bilingual regions are the National Capital region, parts of northern and eastern Ontario, the Montreal area and parts of the Eastern Townships, of the Gaspé and western Quebec, as well as New Brunswick.

For more information

9. In bilingual regions, what are federal institutions' language of work obligations?

In order to create a work environment where employees feel free to work in the official language of their choice, the following services must be offered in both official languages

  • staff supervision. Employees who hold bilingual positions or positions where the use of French or English is needed must receive instructions and their performance evaluations in the language of their choice. Supervision of employees occupying unilingual positions is done in the language of the position;
  • work instruments for current or general use produced by or for the institution (for example, manuals of directives, codes of conduct or circulars); current and generalized computer systems, including software, acquired or produced by the institution since 1991;
  • central and personnel services, whatever the duties or the language requirements of the positions; meetings of staff or committees within departments, agencies or Crown corporations, or those where more than one institution participates, when employees from both language groups are in attendance. Furthermore, the institution's senior or corporate management is responsible for ensuring operations in both official languages (for example: holding meetings, receiving documents, and listening to presentations).

10. What role must management play in creating a work environment in which employees are encouraged to use the official language of their choice?

Senior management

  • Acts as the leader for official languages and ensures that the institution fulfils its responsibilities in this area.
  • Informs the employees of their rights and responsibilities.
  • Ensures that the language preferences are respected.
  • Allows employees to work in their official language.
  • Provides opportunities for second-language training and development.

Managers and supervisors – They play a key role, since their attitude sets the tone for their unit. Among other things, they must:

  • Be able to communicate with their subordinates in the latter's first official language;
  • Encourage the employees to work in the official language of their choice or to improve their knowledge of the second language;
  • Provide performance evaluations and training or development in the employee's official language;
  • Promote the use of both official languages during meetings; give the employees the opportunity to work together in French and in English (for example, as part of a special project);
  • Make every effort to improve their own second-language skills.

For more information, please see the Key Leadership Competencies Profile.

11. What can the employees do to create a bilingual work environment?

Even though this is the institution's responsibility, the employees can play an important role. For example, they can make it a habit to use their own official language when they communicate with their superiors or bilingual colleagues from the other language group. This way, they can not only exercise their language of work rights but also give their colleagues the opportunity to develop their knowledge of the second language. They can also, if the opportunity arises, seek to improve their second language by talking with their colleagues from the other language group in that group's official language. 

12. Must all supervisors from the designated regions become bilingual?

No. However, in these regions the supervisors must be able to communicate with their subordinates in either language where it is indicated, so that the work environment will be conducive to the use of both languages. This requirement brings into play the linguistic makeup and functions of the work units. Treasury Board policies on language of work specify the circumstances in which supervision must be bilingual. 

13. To whom can we refer if we believe that these language of work rights have not been respected?

Employees can start by raising the question with their employers, to try and solve the issue internally. This being said, the Act provides for redress in two stages, first before the Commissioner of Official Languages, then, if necessary, before the Federal Court.

Equitable participation of English-Speaking and French-Speaking canadians

14. Does equitable participation mean that there will be positions reserved for each language group?

No. The government's commitment concerning participation, as stated in the Act, provides for full compliance with the merit principle in matters of the employment and advancement of English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians in federal institutions.

15. Does equitable participation mean that quotas are not permitted?

Exactly. The current policies explicitly prohibit setting quotas for the benefit of either official language community. The Act specifically requires that equitable participation occur without violating the merit principle. 

Revisions to the Treasury Board policies on the staffing of bilingual positions and on language training in order to take learning disabilities into account

16. Why is there no definition of "learning disabilities" in the policies?

It is difficult to find a definition that suits every situation. It is best to let qualified professionals determine whether a problem is or is not a disability. In any case, the courts have indicated that disabilities should be accommodated on a case by case basis, and a single definition may not be compatible with this principle. 

17. The policies indicate that for persons with learning disabilities the normal exemption period of two years and the prescribed number of training hours can be extended but they don't specify by how long? Why not?

The jurisprudence regarding learning disabilities indicates that their accommodation must be addressed on a case by case basis. In fact, the degree of severity of a learning disability can vary from one person to the next, and the actual accommodations needed may vary as well.

18. There are disabilities other than learning disabilities that may need accommodation. Why do these policies not mention this?

First, the Canadian Human Rights Act requires the accommodation of disabilities in general, even if a specific policy does not mention disabilities. As regards the policies in question, they are policies intended for access to language training and are thus unsuitable as policies to deal with the accommodation of disabilities in general. However, it was important to make specific reference to learning disabilities in view of the Federal Court decision.

Moreover, the Employment Equity Division of Treasury Board Secretariat is responsible for the Policy on the Duty to Accommodate Persons with Disabilities in the Federal Public Service.

19. When a professional assessment to determine the nature of a person's disability is needed, who has to pay for it?

When the employee needs to take language training as a result of a position requirement (e.g., the need to staff a bilingual position through an appointment or deployment), or as training approved by the supervisor (e.g., for career purposes), then the institution where the person works pays for the assessment.

20. Why do the policies not say whether it is possible for a person with a disability to obtain an exclusion from having to meet the language requirements of a bilingual position?

First, most cases of learning disabilities can probably be accommodated through additional training hours and a longer exemption period. For the more serious cases, if it is believed that an exclusion on compassionate grounds is warranted, an application should be made to the Public Service Commission, or to Deputy Heads or other heads of organizations, if the authority to grant exclusions has been delegated to them.

21. Does the Second Language Evaluation System (SLE) take into account persons with disabilities, including those with learning disabilities?

Yes. The Public Service Commission, which is responsible for developing tests for the SLE as well as policies and procedures for administering them, and is fully committed to employment equity policies, provides for the accommodation of persons with physical or psychological or other disabilities, including learning disabilities, as a result of having to take these tests.

22. How does the Public Service Commission let persons know that accommodations can be made for those with disabilities, including learning disabilities?

This subject is dealt with in various documents regarding the SLE prepared by the Personnel Psychology Centre of the PSC, including its administrative procedures and the information sheets for candidates who must take the reading, writing or oral interaction tests. The form entitled Second Language Evaluation Request Form, which the requesting organization must send to the test centres to have members of their staff tested, includes a section to indicate if the candidate needs accommodation of a certain kind and, if so, invites the requestor to add a description of the precise nature of the problem so that appropriate measures can be taken.

The Personnel Psychology Centre has also published a document entitled Guidelines for Assessing Persons with Disabilities that includes information on the procedures that applicants, as well as responsible persons in departments and agencies are to follow when changes to language or occupational tests are needed.

Examinees and other interested persons are invited to consult the SLE web site.