Official Languages Act (1988) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Official Languages Act (1988)

The Official Languages Act (1988) consolidates all of the changes made to the Official Languages Act of 1969, providing more detail and making them clearer within a new legislative framework. This version highlights the responsibilities of federal institutions with respect to the official languages (see also Language Policy in Canada).

This is the full-length entry about the Official Languages Act of 1988. For a plain language summary, please see The Official Languages Act (1988) (Plain Language Summary).

Official Languages Act (1988)

Given royal assent on 28 July 1988, the Official Languages Act of 1988 consolidates all of the changes made to the Official Languages Act of 1969, providing more detail and making them clearer within a new legislative framework. This version highlights the responsibilities of federal institutions with respect to the official languages, provides for the permanent review of the Official Languages Program by a parliamentary committee and establishes the right to apply to the Federal Court for a remedy. It takes precedence over all other Acts of Parliament except the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Details of the Official Languages Act (1988)

The Official Languages Act of 1988 consists of a preamble and 111 sections.

Preamble and introductory sections

A series of “whereas” clauses sets out the principles underlying equal rights for both of Canada’s official languages (including in linguistic minority communities). Next are the short title and purpose of the Act (sections 1 and 2). Section 3, the definitions section, then clarifies several concepts, including “Commissioner,” “federal institution,” “department,” “National Capital Region,” “Crown corporation” and “court.”

Part 1: Proceedings of Parliament

The Act provides that English and French are the two languages used in the Parliament of Canada. It requires the simultaneous interpretation of parliamentary debates, and official reports on such proceedings must be in both official languages (section 4).

Part 2: Legislative and Other Instruments

This part explains that Acts of Parliament, rules, orders, regulations, by-laws and proclamations that are required under any Canadian law to be published in the official gazette of Canada must be made or issued and published in both official languages. The same applies to rules governing practice and procedure in federal courts, treaties, federal-provincial agreements, regulations, notices, instruments and advertisements directed to the public. Both official language versions are equally authoritative when interpreting these instruments. The Act also sets out the limited exceptions to this rule, which are made for documents relating to the territories and the governance of Indian bands (sections 5 to 13).

Part 3: Administration of Justice

The Act provides that English and French are the official languages of the federal courts, and it makes the courts responsible for ensuring that participants in proceedings before them can understand every stage of such proceedings in the official language of their choice. Details of exceptions (mainly for the Supreme Court,  Federal Court and Tax Court) and adjustment periods are provided. The pre-printed portion of any form used in proceedings before a federal court must be in both official languages; the details added to the form, on the other hand, may be in either official language provided the form clearly indicates that a translation of the details may be obtained on request. However, no decision, order or judgment issued by a federal court is invalid simply because it was not made or issued in both official languages (sections 14 to 20).

Part 4: Communications with and Services to the Public

This portion of the Act governs the language of communication when the federal government provides services to the public. Every federal institution has a duty to ensure that any member of the public can communicate with and obtain available services from its offices, both in Canada and abroad, in either official language. The Act clearly provides that this duty applies, in particular, to the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada, the Office of the Information Commissioner and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (sections 21 to 33).

Part 5: Language of Work

This part of the Act describes the duties of federal institutions with respect to the use of the official languages as languages of work. English and French are the languages of work in all federal institutions. Under the Act, officers of the federal government therefore have the right to use either language. This part also touches on the federal bilingual districts by reference to an administrative document outlining them. The Act does not specifically list the districts in question, but the related government regulations and powers are set out. The Act requires that the work environments of a federal institution be conducive to the effective use of both official languages and accommodate the use of either language by its officers and employees (sections 34 to 38).

Part 6: Participation of English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians

The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring that English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Canadians, without regard to their ethnic origin or first language learned, have equal opportunities to obtain employment and advancement in federal institutions (see also Francophone, Anglophone and Allophone). The composition of the work-force of federal institutions must also tend to reflect the presence of both the official language communities of Canada, taking into account the characteristics of individual institutions (sections 39 and 40).

Part 7: Advancement of English and French

The Government of Canada is committed to enhancing the vitality of the English and French linguistic minority communities in Canada and supporting and assisting their development, and to fostering the full recognition and use of both English and French in Canadian society. A number of changes have been made to this part of the Act as Canada's language policy has evolved, and it specifically describes the process of enhancing Canada's English and French linguistic minority communities (sections 41 to 45).

Part 8: Responsibilities and Duties of Treasury Board in Relation to the Official Languages of Canada

The Treasury Board has responsibility for the general direction and coordination of the policies and programs of the Government of Canada relating to the implementation of the Official Languages Act in all federal institutions other than the Senate,House of Commons and  Library of Parliament. This part describes the procedure the Treasury Board is to follow in carrying out its responsibilities (sections 46 to 48).

Part 9: Commissioner of Official Languages

The office of Commissioner of Official Languages is described in detail. The Act sets out the Commissioner’s role, powers, status and salary, as well as the limits on the Commissioner’s term of office. A senior public servant, the Commissioner has the same legal status as a “deputy head of a department.” Special attention is paid to describing the procedure by which citizens may make complaints to the Commissioner regarding the application of the Act, and to the manner in which the Commissioner is to investigate those complaints and make recommendations (sections 49 to 75).

Part 10: Court Remedy

This part of the Act describes the role played by the Federal Court – Trial Division where a citizen or government has made a complaint to the Commissioner of Official Languages in respect of a right or duty under the Official Languages Act. Where the Court concludes that a federal institution has failed to comply with the Act, it may grant the remedy it considers appropriate and just in the circumstances (sections 76 to 81).

Part 11: General

This part provides that the Official Languages Act prevails over all other Canadian laws except the Canadian Human Rights Act. It also stipulates that nothing in the Official Languages Act affects the customary status acquired by languages other than the official languages of Canada. Also provided are a number of technical and terminological details regarding the making of regulations, the application of the Act and the limits on its application (sections 82 to 93).

Part 12: Related Amendments

This part lists the related amendments made to other Canadian laws by the Official Languages Act (sections 94 to 98).

Part 13: Consequential Amendments

This part lists the consequential amendments made to other Canadian laws by the Official Languages Act (sections 99 to 104).

Part 14: Transitional Provisions, Repeal and Coming into Force

This part repeals the Official Languages Act of 1969, introduces this Act and sets out the various transitional provisions involved in the shift from the old to the new legislation (sections 105 to 111).

Viability of the Official Languages Act of 1988

Although, in theory, support for bilingualism is slowly growing in Canada, many federal agencies, including various branches of the public service, airport services and the armed forces, are still reluctant to require their organizations to comply with Canada’s Official Languages Act.

The 2005 Act to amend the Official Languages Act tightened the provisions on the advancement of English and French. Part 7, and more specifically section 41, now provides that every federal institution has a duty to ensure that positive measures are taken to implement the commitment to the advancement of English and French in Canada, and that this implementation should be carried out while respecting the jurisdiction and powers of the provinces.

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