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Official Languages in Federal Institutions


This booklet describes the main features of the official languages program in federal institutions. It provides the background for the regulations on service to the public in both official languages whose main provisions came into effect on December 16, 1992. For the most part, the regulations confirm services which were already available in English and in French and at the same time define the responsibilities of federal institutions in this area more clearly.

The legal text of the regulations can be found in The Canada Gazette, Part II, of January 1, 1992.

Languages around the world and in Canada

There are many countries in the modern world in which more than one language is spoken. In 1992, more than half of the 179 members of the United Nations had legislative or constitutional provisions dealing with language. Thus Canada is among the majority of countries in the world with more than one language and with language legislation. Canadians speak several aboriginal languages and more than 60 languages from other countries. However, English and French are the languages that the vast majority of Canadians speak. Less than 1.3 per cent of Canadians do not speak either of our two official languages.

Eight hundred million people in the world speak English and 119 million speak French. English is spoken in 45 countries, while French is spoken in 30.

The advantages of having both English and French as official languages are more apparent today since Canada plays an important role among the countries of the Commonwealth and La Francophonie, international organizations with many member countries. English and French are also among the most widely used languages at the United Nations.

A look at the past

English and French have been spoken in Canada since the arrival of the first explorers, traders and colonists from Britain and France. The Quebec Act of 1774 recognized the use of French as one of the two languages of law and the courts under the British system. In 1867, the Fathers of Confederation gave official status to English and French when legal recognition of both languages was entrenched in the Constitution of 1867.

Some important events

The first bilingual stamp was produced in 1927 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Confederation.

Bilingual bank notes were first issued in 1937.

The federal government begins printing all its cheques in both English and French in 1962.

The Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act governing products involved in interprovincial trade requires that companies publish information on their products in both official languages in 1974.

In 1963, the federal government asked the Dunton-Laurendeau Commission to recommend ways "to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races and the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada..." Tabled in 1967, the Commission's report resulted in the adoption of the Official Languages Act in 1969. This Act stipulates that English and French are the official languages of Canada for all matters relating to Parliament and the Government of Canada.

In 1982, sections 16 to 22 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms stipulated that English and French were the official languages of Canada and recognized their equality in the institutions of Parliament and the Government of Canada.

In 1988, after the federal official languages policy had been in effect for 19 years, Parliament adopted a new Official Languages Act, whose provisions are more specific than those of the 1969 version.

In the 1988 Act, the Government of Canada has provided a legal framework that serves as a model to any modern nation interested in establishing its own official languages policy.

Official languages in federal institutions

The official languages policy of the federal government is built on three key principles:

  • the right of the public to communicate with federal institutions and be served in the official language of its choice, under the circumstances set forth in the Act,
  • the right of employees of federal institutions to work in the official language of their choice, as stipulated in the Act,
  • the commitment of the government to ensuring that English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians enjoy equal opportunities for employment and advancement in federal institutions.

Service to the public

The Official Languages Act does not require all Canadians to speak both official languages. It merely commits the federal government to providing the public with services in the official language of its choice from head or central offices of federal institutions, from their offices in the National Capital Region and from offices where there is a significant demand for communication and services in both languages. The Act also stipulates that some offices, regardless of their location, must offer services in English and French because of the nature of their services, such as those relating to the health and safety of the public. Citizens may therefore choose to communicate with the federal government in English or French.

In other words, the idea that every citizen must speak both official languages-what is commonly referred to as "wall-to-wall bilingualism"- is false.

To understand the linguistic situation in Canada, it is important to know that, according to the 1991 Census, English is the first official language spoken by 19.8 million Canadians, or 74 per cent of the population, and that French is the first official language spoken by 6.8 million Canadians, or 25 per cent of the population. One must also be aware that 363,000 people in Canada speak neither English nor French. Over 86 per cent of French-speaking Canadians live in Quebec while 95 per cent of English-speaking Canadians live in the other provinces and territories. More than 968,000 Canadians living outside Quebec declare French as their first official language spoken. In Quebec, slightly over 900,000 people declare English as their first official language spoken. In Quebec, Anglophones live primarily in the metropolitan regions. Francophones living outside Quebec reside in urban and rural areas throughout Canada's provinces and territories.

The regulations on service to the public, which specify the obligations under the Official Languages Act, take into consideration the linguistic composition of the country. They define "significant demand" for services in English or French in a federal government office. They include a series of rules of general application based for the most part on the number and proportion of the linguistic minority in the region served. Other rules govern specific services such as those at border posts where statistical data on the local population is not a major factor. Because of their nature, some federal offices must provide services in both official languages, including services provided in national parks, embassies and consulates. All signs dealing with health, safety and security must be bilingual. The regulations also cover language obligations relating to services provided to the travelling public by third parties in certain airports, railway stations and other locations under federal jurisdiction which serve the travelling public.

The federal government considers it of fundamental importance to provide federal services to Canadians to the extent possible in the language of their choice. The Official Languages Act and the regulations on service to the public are built on this principle, which stems from a respect for the Canadian people. To fulfill the government's obligation to serve the public as effectively as possible in English and in French, the Official Languages Act requires departments and Crown corporations to actively offer their services in both official languages in certain offices. The official languages symbol displayed in these offices lets the public know it can be served in either official language. Similarly, federal employees actively offer their services by answering the telephone in both languages: "Good morning... Bonjour." Some federal employees even wear a pin bearing the official languages symbol.

The signs displayed in departments and Crown corporations also testify to the legal status of both official languages in federal institutions. Throughout Canada, at the entrance to all federal institutions, on letterhead and in all official documents, the name of the organization always appears in both official languages.

To work in the language of choice

The Act also stipulates that English and French are both languages of work in federal institutions and recognizes that federal employees have the right, in certain regions, to use either language. For example, in New Brunswick, the National Capital Region, certain parts of Northern and Eastern Ontario, the Montreal region and certain parts of the Eastern Townships, the Gaspé and West Quebec, federal institutions must provide their employees with English and French versions of all documents required to perform their work, and ensure that employees in bilingual positions are supervised in the language of their choice. This is to create an environment conducive to the use of both languages at work. Outside these regions, the normal language of internal communications is English or French depending on the dominant language in the province in which the federal office is located.

Equitable participation

In terms of equitable participation, the federal government is committed to ensuring that members of both linguistic groups have equal opportunities for employment and advancement. Respecting this principle should permit the staff of federal institutions to reflect the presence in Canada of both official language communities, while taking into consideration the mandate of each institution, its public and the location of its offices. This commitment also respects the merit principle - it is not linked in any way to hiring quotas. At present, the overall participation of Anglophones and Francophones working in federal departments is equitable.

Treasury Board

The Treasury Board -- a committee of ministers of the federal government -- is responsible for the general direction of federal policies and programs in the area of official languages. Its mandate includes ensuring that federal institutions respect their official languages obligations. The Official Languages and Employment Equity Branch of the Treasury Board Secretariat is the administrative arm of the Board for the application of the Act. However, federal institutions are primarily responsible for implementing the Official Languages Act and the service to the public regulations. They provide the federal government's window to the public, as it were. The Treasury Board Secretariat helps federal institutions to comply with the Act and the regulations and to develop ways of serving the Canadian public in both official languages.

A major accomplishment of our country

Since the adoption of the first Official Languages Act in 1969, the linguistic composition of Canada has changed considerably. From a practical standpoint, the Act gives effect to the principles of linguistic equality recognized at least as far back as the signing of the Constitution of 1867. The Act provides the two official language communities with services that meet their needs. It ensures that English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians have equal opportunities for employment in federal institutions and then are able to work in the language of their choice in regions designated for that purpose.

Since 1969, federal institutions have experienced major changes in the area of official languages. Their ability to serve the public in English and in French has improved significantly, due primarily to the improved language skills of their employees. In bilingual regions, government employees have more opportunity to work in the official language of their choice. The participation of English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians has become more equitable, thus enabling the federal Public Service to become more sensitive to the needs of the Canadian public.

Canadians have reason to be proud of the Official Languages Act. A significant majority of them believe that federal institutions should offer their services in English and in French where the need has been identified.

  • If you wish to obtain more information about official languages in federal institutions, please write to us:

    Official Languages and Employment Equity Branch
    Treasury Board Secretariat
    Ottawa, Ontario
    K1A 0R5

  • The text of this publication is available on audiocassette.

    Copies of this booklet and the audiocassette are available from:

    Distribution Centre
    Treasury Board of Canada
    Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0R5
    Telephone (613) 995-2855
    Facsimile (613) 996-0518


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