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PRB 02-56E

Official Languages in the Public Service: From 1973 to the Present

Marie-Ève Hudon
Legal and Legislative Affairs Division

Revised 6 March 2009

PDF (204 Kb, 27 pages)



In 1969, following through on recommendations made in the report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Canada’s Parliament passed the first Official Languages Act (OLA). The Act recognized French and English as the official languages of all federal institutions in Canada, but it did not explicitly grant public servants the right, under certain conditions, to work in the official language of their choice. A number of measures have been adopted since 1973 to foster respect for the official languages within the public service.

This report summarizes the evolving status of official languages in the public service over the past 30 years, with an emphasis on the change in culture that is required for true bilingualism within the Government of Canada.

The Seventies

A.  The 1973 Resolution

In June 1973, Parliament passed the Parliamentary Resolution on Official Languages in the Public Service (hereafter, the “1973 Resolution”), which reiterated the principles of the 1969 OLA and confirmed the right of public servants to work in the official language of their choice, subject to certain conditions. The intent of the resolution, which provided for the language designation of public service positions, was to increase the use of the French language at all levels of the public service through an intensified recruitment effort, the provision of French-language training programs and the development of projects designed to enhance bilingualism in the National Capital Region. The idea was to ensure the equitable participation of members of the Anglophone and Francophone communities, while at the same time giving due regard to the merit principle. (1) In short, the public service was to be a functionally bilingual institution that could serve members of the public in the language of their choice.

It is important to note that generous accommodations were included in the 1973 Resolution for unilingual employees so that they would not lose their jobs if they could not or did not wish to learn the other official language. For example, article 6 of the resolution provided that any unilingual incumbent of a bilingual position could choose to take language training at public expense or accept a transfer to an equivalent unilingual position. In addition, unilingual employees aged 55 or over could be appointed to a bilingual position without being required to take language training. The same measure applied to long-serving unilingual employees (i.e., those with 10 or more years of service prior to 6 April 1966, and who had been continuously employed in the public service since that date).

The Treasury Board (TB) and the Public Service Commission (PSC) were designated the institutions responsible for implementing the resolution. Specifically, the PSC was responsible for recruitment, staffing and training, while the TB was responsible for administering the official languages policy within the public service.

B.  Measures Taken to Implement the 1973 Resolution

The measures taken to implement the 1973 Resolution included the designation of bilingual regions, working tools, language requirements, training, the bilingualism bonus and the delegation of powers to departments.

In 1973, the TB designated bilingual regions in which both French and English were to be the languages of work for public servants. (2) In 1974, the TB tabled a report that stated the federal government’s intentions with respect to the language of work. (3) The report recommended a program that would increase the number of units with French as the language of work at every level of the public service. It mentioned the need to provide employees with work instruments in both languages, to encourage the full participation of Francophone and Anglophone communities in the public service, and to clarify the difference between public servants’ freedom to communicate with their colleagues in the official language of their choice, and their responsibilities in terms of service to the public.

In 1975, the TB stated that the public service had to make French and English versions of all its work instruments available to its employees. In 1977, the TB published a document entitled A National Understanding (4) and adopted a set of official languages guidelines. The guidelines established temporary measures, in effect until 31 December 1983, designed to make the process of implementing the official languages policy more flexible. They included guidelines on the conditional appointment of unilingual employees to bilingual positions (provided that they agreed to take language training), the reorganization of basic language training at public expense, and the bilingualism bonus. (5) It was also decided that the Official Languages Program would be incorporated into other government programs, including Crown corporations, and that it would now be up to departments to comply with the many different aspects of the Official Languages Program. (6) The guidelines retained the concept of units working in French, but left it to the discretion of each department to decide where these units would be most likely to encourage a broader use of French. In fact, this concept was to remain at the planning stage.

C.  Proposed Public Service Reform

In 1979, two important reports on reform of the federal public service were tabled in Parliament. (7) The first, submitted by the Lambert Commission, mentioned that the government was required to be accountable for and to maintain the quality and effectiveness of government programs and services by increasing the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of their management. With regard to official languages, the Commission simply made a recommendation that the rules governing the official languages as they related to internal audits be applied.

The second report, tabled by the D’Avignon Committee, recommended improvements to personnel management methods within the public service with respect to merit, staffing, appointments and training. At the time, there was a great deal of debate concerning whether the merit principle allowed for special treatment for members of groups that were under represented in the public service. The report recognized that if the bilingualism program were to be implemented, there would need to be some changes in the way that the merit principle was applied. The D’Avignon Committee did not specifically discuss the impact of its recommendations on the implementation of the Official Languages Policy in the public service, despite a brief submitted by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages (OCOL). It simply urged the government to recognize the need to give special treatment to disadvantaged groups: women, Aboriginal people and people with disabilities.

Also in 1979, the TB tabled a report that described the results achieved by the 78 departments that had submitted a plan for implementing language reform. (8) It concluded that senior management must take the initiative to consolidate progress made to date and take whatever action was needed to promote the equitable use of both official languages.

The Eighties

A.  Imperative Staffing and Public Service Appointments

In 1981, the TB adopted an official languages regulation relating to appointments in the public service, as well as a staffing policy for bilingual positions, with the intent of enabling the government to serve Canadians better in French and English, and allowing its employees to work more often in their first official language. One aspect of the policy related to “imperative staffing,” which made knowledge of both French and English a condition of appointment to certain bilingual positions. The TB also decided that all the senior management positions in bilingual regions would be designated bilingual. At the same time, it adopted the Public Service Official Languages Exclusion Approval Order, which exempted certain people from the bilingual requirements associated with appointment to a bilingual position, and reviewed the terms and conditions of the bilingualism bonus and language training. The TB also advocated a commitment to make an active offer to the public of services in French and English in the main bilingual regions, in addition to a more effective use of resources to streamline translation.

B.  Development of Official Languages Within the Public Service: A Question of Mindset

In 1982, the Special Joint Committee on Official Languages tabled a report on the language of work and equitable participation. (9) The Committee concluded that the official languages directives introduced some years earlier had not achieved the goals of the recommendations made in the 1973 Resolution because departments had not been implementing the policy consistently. It asked the OCOL to review government guidelines and programs with respect to language of work. The Commissioner’s study found that the choice of language of work depended on the readiness of managers and employees to improve the situation, and on the creation of an environment that encouraged employees to work in their own language. (10)

Contrary to the provisions of the 1977 guidelines, the special provisions with respect to conditional appointments, basic language training and the bilingualism bonus were not eliminated in 1983. Ten years after the adoption of the 1973 Resolution, it was clear that initiatives intended to increase opportunities for work in the minority language had not completely achieved the desired results, largely because the necessary change in mindset and attitude within departments had not taken place.

In 1986, two measures were adopted with respect to staffing. The first measure extended the time allotted to incumbents of non-imperative bilingual positions to meet the prescribed requirements. The second measure allowed departments to exempt members of the Executive Category and deputy ministers from the requirement that they be able to perform at the intermediate level in their second language at the time of appointment. The OCOL condemned these initiatives and recommended that the government comply with the language requirements, particularly with respect to the imperative staffing rules. According to the OCOL, the level of second-language competence for supervisors was the main barrier to linguistic equality in the workplace. In the late 1980s, it was evident that English remained the most widely used language in many areas.

C.  The New Official Languages Act (1988)

From 1985 to 1988, the OCOL recommended that the OLA be reviewed to incorporate the principle of equality of both languages of work. The new OLA, passed in 1988, contains provisions for service to the public (Part IV), language of work (Part V) and the participation of both French- and English-speaking Canadians in the federal public service (Part VI). With respect to the language of work, the OLA states that federal institutions in bilingual regions have a duty to promote a workplace that is conducive to the use of both official languages. This means providing employees with standard work instruments and computer systems in both languages and requiring that superiors (supervisors and managers) and senior management be able to communicate with their subordinates and function in both languages. With respect to the principle of full participation of both language groups, the OLA provides that they should, while respecting of the merit principle, have equal opportunity for employment and advancement within federal institutions. (11) Each group’s rate of participation in the public service must approximate its respective demographic weight. The OLA further provides that the designation of bilingual positions must be done using only objective criteria; those who consider themselves adversely affected may complain to the Commissioner of Official Languages or to the courts.

D.  Letters of Understanding and a New Attempt to Reform the Public Service

Beginning in 1988, the TB began to sign memoranda of understanding with the departments covered by the OLA in order to make them accountable for managing the official languages program within their own organizations. Similar memoranda of understanding were signed with Crown corporations in the early 1990s to help them improve the use of French and English as languages of work. These memoranda required that an annual report be prepared to enable the TB to assess the progress being made by federal institutions.

In the years following the passage of the new OLA, the government worked to develop regulations specifying how the OLA was to be applied with respect to communications and services to the public. The OCOL, for its part, urged the government to introduce language of work regulations. According to the OCOL, the government needed to define the conditions under which working environments in which employees could use their own language would be created. It also needed to ensure that the composition of the workforce equitably reflected the presence of both language communities. In 1988, the TB adopted a policy recommending that senior executives in the public service meet the requirements of their positions (i.e., the “CBC” profile) (12) by 31 March 1998.

In 1989, the government announced the Public Service 2000 program, which was intended to renew the federal public service through improved efficiency measures and enhanced management. A report tabled in the following year advocated a change in culture in the public service that would, among other things, enhance the quality of services provided to the public. (13) The report also called for the active offer of services in both official languages, and emphasized the role of the TB in ensuring that managers truly understood the spirit and application of the Official Languages Program. Thus, beginning in the late 1980s, the TB began to review and simplify its policies, guidelines and procedures in order to help federal institutions implement the Official Languages Program.

The Nineties

A.  Implementing the Requirements of the Official Languages Act

The 1988 OLA required federal institutions to make available to their employees in both languages, by 1 January 1991, any standard and widely used computer systems acquired or produced by the institution. Following the release of a TB policy on this matter, most institutions covered by the OLA prepared plans to meet the requirement by the specified deadline.

The Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations were tabled in Parliament in 1991 and came into force in 1992. These regulations set out the “significant demand” principle stipulated in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the OLA. They also clarified the linguistic obligations of federal institutions, and specified the circumstances in which members of the public may expect to be served in the language of their choice. Departments affected by the Regulations were required to take steps to provide language training, staffing, an active offer of service in both official languages, and information to members of the public in those places where they could be served in the language of their choice.

In 1993, the TB updated most of the policies and guidelines on official languages, including the directives on the language of work and equitable participation. (14) It specified the responsibilities of senior management, supervisors and employees with respect to the creation of an environment that is truly conducive to the use of both official languages. Directives concerning the language requirements for managers were rather flexible. Managers were “normally” to be bilingual when they supervised employees working in both languages. The OCOL continued to believe that the low level of bilingualism among supervisors constituted a barrier to the effective application of the OLA. It therefore recommended that senior management in federal agencies be held accountable for the application of the provisions of the OLA and related guidelines with respect to language of work. The TB developed a policy that reiterated the need for senior managers to meet the language requirements of their position by 31 March 1998.

In the same year, a new standard stipulated that all standard and widely used computer systems were required to have keyboards that made it possible to type all characters currently in use in both languages. In addition, a new Public Service Employment Act was passed, giving the PSC less responsibility for staffing activities; the Commission’s role in this area was restricted to recruitment (i.e., staffing from outside the public service), language testing and promotions. The TB’s role was now to support, consult and cooperate with federal institutions in ensuring the application of official languages policy concerning services to the public, language of work, and the equitable participation of both language groups. Federal institutions were given greater latitude with respect to appointments, staffing and training.

B.  Public Service Reform and Human Resources Rationalization

In 1992, the Public Service Reform Act was passed in order to implement recommendations made under the Public Service 2000 program. The purpose of the Act was to streamline human resources management in the public service and to give managers more flexibility with respect to staffing. However, managers and employees continued to lack information about their linguistic obligations and rights. The application of the language of work provisions depended on the goodwill of senior management.

From 1993 to 1997, the public service was subject to restructuring, downsizing, privatization and strict hiring limitations. In those circumstances, the federal government did not consider it useful to introduce guidelines setting out the importance of language rights for public servants. Although the reshaping of the public service involved the risk of further detracting from the equitable participation of the two language groups in the public service, it does not appear to have had this effect. However, there was a decrease in spending on official languages and in the number of offices designated bilingual.

In 1998, the OCOL tabled a study that confirmed these findings. (15) The study spelled out five guiding principles, one of which concerned the language rights of public servants, and it emphasized that the government must adopt the principles as an official policy for future government transformations. It also recommended the establishment of a working group on official languages that would be responsible for developing the strategies, policies and criteria needed to ensure that all departments, agencies and Crown corporations recognized and fully applied the OLA and the Official Languages Regulations in the context of the restructured federal administration. The group, chaired by Yvon Fontaine, tabled its report in 1999. (16) The report recognized that federal departments and agencies had an increasing responsibility for the implementation of the OLA. It concluded that these transformations must not be used to justify any lack of responsibility on the part of the federal government in ensuring that institutions subject to the OLA met their obligations. Senior executives in the public service must provide clear, effective and consistent leadership, and take responsibility for their actions in support of linguistic duality. However, the report did not make any recommendations concerning language of work.

C.  Bilingualism Among Executives and the Role of the Treasury Board Secretariat

In light of the 1988 policy (reiterated in 1993) that senior managers must meet the language requirements of their positions, the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) contacted deputy ministers, heads of central agencies and directors of Crown corporations to remind them of their commitment. It asked federal institutions to report on the administration and implementation of this policy, and undertook to ensure that the measures taken achieved the desired results. The TBS also undertook to ensure that the letters of understanding it signed with federal institutions with regard to official languages included commitments concerning the language of work. (17)

The TBS was unable to meet the deadlines set out in its policy. In March 1998, it announced that executives would have until 31 March 2003 to comply with the language requirements of their position. The new policy required that assistant deputy minister positions in departments and agencies for which the TB is the employer be staffed non-imperatively at the “CBC” level. According to the OCOL, the TBS’s inability to meet the deadlines in its policy indicated that the delegation of authority to departments had undermined the effectiveness of the Official Languages Program. Consequently, the OCOL required that any new measures include effective monitoring and accountability mechanisms.

2000 to the Present

A.  The Plan to Modernize the Public Service and the Transfer of Responsibilities With Respect to Official Languages

In April 2001, the federal government launched a vast effort to modernize human resources management aimed at maintaining a non-partisan, merit-based public service, more flexible staffing, harmonious relations with the bargaining agents and better organization of learning and training. On 6 February 2003, the government tabled Bill C-25, An Act to Modernize the Public Service, a wide-ranging legislative reform of human resources management based on numerous recommendations for change formulated over the years.

During the consultations on this bill, the OCOL asked the government to ensure that it helped achieve the objectives of the OLA. The OCOL wanted to see a change in the organizational culture of institutions that would translate into a greater responsibility for linguistic duality within the public service. It wanted greater accountability from managers for their organization’s performance with regard to official languages, and it called for the TBS to audit the results. It wanted to promote bilingualism as a core skill within the public service, and recommended the elimination of the bilingualism bonus. It wanted a reorientation of language training to make the training focus more on the day-to-day reality of public servants and take greater account of that reality. Finally, it called for greater emphasis on the development of passive bilingualism that would allow public servants to acquire a good understanding of their second language and permit them to function easily in a bilingual environment.

On 4 November 2003, the Act to Modernize the Public Service received Royal Assent. The government proceeded to reorganize the public service in December 2003 in order to ensure that the program for the modernization of human resources management was carried out. It set up the Public Service Human Resources Management Agency of Canada. It changed its name to the Canada Public Service Agency (CPSA) in April 2007. All TBS’s responsibilities for official languages were transferred to the CPSA. On 2 March 2009, the responsibilities for official languages were transferred again to the Treasury Board Secretariat, as a result of the CPSA’s disappearance.

The Canada School of Public Service (CSPS) was also created to integrate the learning activities of all public servants, including language training and development. The CSPS has not been responsible for the language training of federal public servants since 1 April 2007. Federal institutions are now responsible for hiring the resources they deem appropriate to offer language training to their employees.

The PSC also saw its role in official languages greatly diminished: it became responsible simply for assessing the language skills of candidates for public service positions. Greater responsibility for staffing was delegated to the deputy heads of government departments and agencies, who would determine the language requirements of the positions to be staffed. The PSC retained, however, a significant oversight role for the protection of the merit principle (18) and the integrity of the staffing system.

B.  The Government’s Renewed Commitment

In the spring of 2003, the government announced the Action Plan for Official Languages, which contained a renewed five-year commitment to promote the coordination of official languages activities within federal institutions. (19) One of the main priorities identified in the action plan was the creation of a public service that is exemplary in terms of official languages. Two funds, the Official Languages Innovation Fund and the Regional Partnerships Fund, were created to support activities to encourage better management of official languages, an organizational culture change within federal institutions and new service delivery methods. The government intended that these measures would help it to strengthen its expertise and its capacity to monitor federal institutions. In September 2006, the Innovation Fund’s budget was cut. The government also wanted to increase the public service’s bilingual capacity by encouraging the recruitment of candidates who are already bilingual, by offering enhanced access to language training, and by increasing efforts to help public servants retain and improve their language skills.

In the summer of 2005, the government finalized its process for reviewing official languages policies. This renewal exercise sought to reduce the number of policies relating to official languages and clarify their function. In total, 22 policy instruments were reduced to one framework: the Official Languages Policy Framework. The new framework comprises three policies. All federal institutions other than the Senate, the House of Commons, the Library of Parliament, the Office of the Senate Ethics Officer and the Office of the Ethics Commissioner must comply with the following policies:

A number of directives set out how these policies are to be implemented; although they are not compulsory, they serve as tools for the application of the policies. Under this framework, positions designated bilingual must be staffed by candidates who meet the language requirements of the position. Since March 2007, this requirement applies to positions at the EX 02 to EX-05 levels. Exceptions may be made according to the Public Service Official Languages Exclusion Approval Order. Moreover, linguistic training is considered a genuine instrument of professional development available to all employees in the public service./p>

In the fall of 2005, the government announced additional investments to help reduce the waiting times for public servants who need language training to do their jobs. At the same time, the government published its management framework for the Official Languages Program, (20) which formalizes the interdepartmental coordination of the Official Languages Program. This horizontal management framework is designed to make federal institutions responsible for managing and accounting for their official languages performance. It is also designed to further involve official language minority communities in the planning and implementation of policies that affect their development. This marked the first time that the government had clearly set out a governance structure for the Official Languages Program across the public service. The Official Languages Secretariat plays a key role in the assessment and performance measurement process throughout the federal government. It supports the Minister of Official Languages in achieving this goal.

In the spring of 2008, the government announced the Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality. (21) It provided few new measures to strengthen official languages in the public service, with the exception of the following:

The government made a commitment to revise and modernize the 2005 management framework, in order to ensure the efficiency and coordination of federal institutions’ actions with respect to official languages.

C.  The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages Presses for Respect of the Official Languages in the Public Service

Since 1999, the OCOL has advocated a culture change within the federal public service to foster respect for the specificity, language and culture of the country’s two official language communities. Integrated leadership, promotion of the official languages policy and concrete actions are needed to encourage the advancement of both official languages within the federal public service. The results of a September 2002 survey of federal public servants revealed that the vast majority accepted the core principles of the Official Languages Program. (22) However, they had some misconceptions about their official language rights and obligations. According to the OCOL, to promote a culture change, senior management has to set an example by encouraging greater use of French as a language of work in the regions designated as bilingual.

From 2004 to 2006, the OCOL published three studies on the use of the official languages in the workplace. The first showed that English remains dominant in the organizational culture of departments located in the National Capital Region, primarily because senior management does not do enough to set an example regarding the equality of the two official languages. (23) The second, which focused on the bilingual regions of Quebec and Crown corporations, and the third, which focused on the language of work within federal institutions in New Brunswick, arrived at the same conclusion: federal employees who are members of official language minority communities must often adopt the language of the linguistic majority in order to progress within the federal administration. (24) Thus, French clearly dominates as the language of work in Quebec, while English dominates everywhere else in Canada. To remedy this situation, the OCOL proposed action on three fronts: leadership, personal capacity and institutional capacity. The commitment of senior management remains a key element in fully realizing the objectives of the OLA. In that vein, the OCOL continued to insist that deputy minister and associate deputy minister positions be designated bilingual. According to the OCOL: “Paradoxically, the government demands that its executives (members of the EX group), but not its topmost officials, be bilingual.” (25)

The OCOL described the evolution of services to the public as a “plateau,” especially with respect to written communications, active offer and services offered to the travelling public. It felt that the Official Languages Regulations should be reviewed by the government. According to the OCOL, “it will be essential for the government to rethink the regulation to make it simpler, consistent with case law, and, finally, relevant to the citizens of Canada.” (26) The OCOL stated, moreover, that federal employees occupying positions that offer services to the public must understand the importance of providing an active offer of service in both official languages. Without an active offer of service, it is difficult to ensure that the services offered are of equal quality in both languages.

The OCOL recognized that language of work is a weak link in the implementation of the OLA. In other words, the reality on the ground fails to reflect the letter and spirit of the OLA. To rectify this situation, several solutions have been proposed. The OCOL recommended that the government examine the relevance of adopting language of work regulations. (27) It recommended that deputy heads of all federal institutions take concrete steps to create a work environment conducive to the use of both official languages. (28)

In June 2008, the OCOL expressed concern that the Roadmap did not include a more specific component on the public service. The OCOL had hoped that “this aspect would be included in the government’s priorities.” (29)

D.  The Standing Committee on Official Languages Criticism

In May 2005, the Standing Committee on Official Languages tabled a report in Parliament. (30) The Committee noted that full respect for the two official languages within the public service remained an unattained ideal. The Committee:

In a response tabled in October 2005, the government undertook to develop modules on official languages and to incorporate them into the training given to public servants. (31) It said that audit measures had already been established to evaluate how well federal institutions were applying parts IV, V and VI of the OLA. As regards moving the headquarters of federal institutions, it had adopted an implementation principle that provisionally protects the language-of-work rights of the employees involved. The government made no commitment regarding the bilingual designation of deputy minister positions and the abolition of the bilingualism bonus.

In March 2008, the Standing Committee on Official Languages tabled another report in Parliament. (32) The report showed that it was difficult to evaluate the actual impact of the Action Plan for Official Languages regarding improvement of the situation of the official languages in the public service. Recommendations were set out in order to attract more qualified bilingual employees and to improve the linguistic training offered to the public servants.

Some Statistical Data (33)

A.  Language Requirements of Positions

Since the adoption of the 1973 Resolution, federal public service positions may be designated bilingual or unilingual, depending on the specific language requirements. By 1974, one year after the resolution was adopted, 19% of positions in the federal public service had been designated bilingual. (34) This percentage increased steadily over the years, from 25% in 1978 to 40% in 2006. Table 1 illustrates the changing pattern in language requirements for positions in the public service over the years.

Table 1 – Language Requirements of Positions
in the Public Service (1978–2007) (35)

Year Bilingual English
or French
1978 25%
1984 28%
2000 35%
2006 40%
2007 40%

The proportion of bilingual or unilingual positions varies considerably from region to region. Most bilingual positions are in regions that have been designated as bilingual. In the National Capital Region, this percentage was 45% in 1974 and 65% in 2007. Table 2 clearly illustrates the current diversity by region.

Table 2 – Language Requirements of Positions
in the Public Service by Region (2007) (36)

Region Bilingual
Western and
Northern Canada
(excluding NCR)
Capital Region
(excluding NCR)
New Brunswick 50%
Atlantic provinces
Outside Canada 37%
Total 40%

The percentage of bilingual or unilingual positions also varies from one employment category to another. Bilingualism is required primarily in “management,” “administrative” and “administrative support” positions. This is because these employment categories are more involved in providing service to the public. In “management” positions, managers are required to carry on working relations in the language(s) of the employees who report to them. The bilingualism requirements for “scientific,” “technical” and “operational” positions are much lower, even though they have tended to rise over the years.

Not all public service employees meet the requirements of their position, even though, over the years, the language proficiency of the incumbents of bilingual positions has improved, with the rate of compliance rising from 70% in 1978 to 91% in 2007. As previously mentioned, some unilingual public servants were excluded from the requirements for appointment to a bilingual position under the Public Service Official Languages Exclusion Approval Order. The number of excluded employees has nevertheless decreased over the years, from 27% in 1978 to 5% in 2007. Table 3 shows the progress in the linguistic status of incumbents of bilingual positions over the years.

Table 3 – Linguistic Status of Incumbents of Bilingual Positions
in the Public Service (1978–2007) (37)

Year Meet Do Not Meet Incomplete
Exempted Must Meet
1978 70%
1984 86%
2000 83%
2006 90%
2007 91%

Even today, not all incumbents of bilingual positions with supervisory responsibilities meet the requirements of their position. However, the percentage has definitely improved over the years. Whereas in 1978 only 64% met the language requirements of their position, this figure had risen to 89% by 2007. Furthermore, an ever-diminishing number of supervisors have been exempted from the language requirements of their position. Table 4 illustrates the improvement since 1978 in the linguistic status of incumbents of bilingual positions with supervisory responsibilities.

Table 4 – Linguistic Status of Incumbents of Bilingual Positions
With Supervision Responsibilities in the Public Service (1978–2007) (38)

Year Meet Do Not Meet Incomplete
Exempted Must Meet
1978 64%
1984 80%
2004 82%
2006 87%
2007 89%

With regard to senior managers in the public service, 94% met the language requirements of their positions as of 31 March 2007.

B.  Equitable Participation

As previously mentioned, since the adoption of the 1973 Resolution, the federal government has made an effort to ensure that the workforce in the public service tends to reflect the presence of both official languages communities in Canada. Over the years, equitable participation by both linguistic communities has been achieved throughout the public service, with due regard to their representation within the total population of Canada. Francophone participation increased from 25% in 1978 to 31% in 2007. Anglophone participation dropped from 75% in 1978 to 69% in 2007. (39) Generally speaking, Francophone participation was favoured, particularly when compared to the actual percentage of Francophones in the total population of Canada. According to 2006 Census data, the percentage of Francophones, Anglophones and Allophones within the population of Canada was 22.1%, 57.8% and 20.1%, respectively. However, the representation of the two language groups in the public service varies considerably by region and occupational category.

From the regional standpoint, the participation of Francophones is highest in Quebec, New Brunswick and the National Capital Region. Given the percentage of Francophones in the population of these three regions, they may even be over-represented in the public service. In the other regions, the proportion of Francophones is approximately equivalent to their percentage of the population. Table 5 illustrates trends in the participation of the two language groups by region since 1978.

Table 5 – Participation of Anglophones and Francophones
in the Public Service by Region (1978–2007) (40)

Region 1978 1984 2000 2006 2007
Anglo. Franco. Anglo. Franco. Anglo. Franco. Anglo. Franco. Anglo. Franco.
Canada and
outside Canada
75% 25% 72% 28% 69% 31% 69% 31% 69% 31%
Total 211,885 227,942 143,052 177,779 179,490
Western and
Northern Canada
99% 1% 98% 2% 98% 2% 98% 2% 98% 2%
Total 49,395 52,651 32,000 38,000 38,494
(excluding NCR)
97% 3% 95% 5% 93% 7% 95% 5% 95% 5%
Total 34,524 36,673 19,895 23,523 23,166
Capital Region
68% 32% 64% 36% 59% 41% 59% 41% 58% 42%
Total 70,340 75,427 53,691 74,465 76,056
(excluding NCR)
8% 92% 6% 94% 7% 93% 8% 92% 8% 92%
Total 29,922 32,114 18,811 21,067 20,838
New Brunswick 84% 16% 73% 27% 62% 38% 59% 41% 59% 41%
Total 6,763 7,698 5,207 5,939 5,860
Atlantic provinces
98% 2% 96% 4% 96% 4% 95% 5% 95% 5%
Total 19,212 21,802 12,434 13,668 13,950
Outside Canada 76% 24% 74% 26% 71% 29% 67% 33% 67% 33%
Total 1,729 1,577 1,014 1,117 1,126

From the standpoint of occupational categories, Francophones are still significantly over-represented in the “administrative” and “administrative support” categories. The percentage of Francophone employees has improved considerably over the years in the “management” category, and also in the “scientific” and “technical” categories. Table 6 shows the participation trends for the two language groups by occupational category since 1978.

Table 6 – Participation of Anglophones and Francophones
in the Public Service by Occupational Category (1978–2007) (41)

  1978 1984 2000 2006 2007
   Anglophones 75% 72% 69% 69% 69%
  Francophones 25% 28% 31% 31% 31%
Total 211,885 227,942 143,052 177,779 179,490
   Anglophones 82% 80% 73% 71% 70%
  Francophones 18% 20% 27% 29% 30%
Total 1,119 4,023 3,106 4,087 4,323
Scientific and Professional
   Anglophones 81% 78% 74% 74% 74%
  Francophones 19% 22% 26% 26% 26%
Total 22,633 22,826 17,626 25,247 25,693
Administrative and Foreign Service
   Anglophones 74% 71% 64% 63% 64%
  Francophones 26% 29% 36% 37% 36%
Total 47,710 56,513 52,315 78,868 84,437
   Anglophones 82% 79% 75% 76% 76%
  Francophones 18% 21% 25% 24% 24%
Total 25,595 27,824 15,027 17,070 17,084
Administrative Support
   Anglophones 70% 67% 66% 68% 67%
  Francophones 30% 33% 34% 32% 33%
Total 65,931 72,057 34,311 32,884 27,810
   Anglophones 76% 75% 76% 76% 77%
  Francophones 24% 25% 24% 24% 23%
Total 48,897 44,699 20,667 19,623 20,143

C.  Language of Work

Just because an employee’s mother tongue is French does not mean that he or she will use French as the language of work. Employees whose mother tongue is English, however, almost always use English as the language of work. In a survey conducted in 1974 by the Treasury Board, one year after the adoption of the 1973 Resolution, 75% of employees said that they used English as their language of work, 12% used French and 9% used both languages. The main language of work for incumbents of positions designated as bilingual was English in 57% of cases, French in 11% and both in 28%. (42) These figures show that just because a position is designated bilingual does not mean that the incumbent will necessarily use both languages in the workplace.

According to a 2002 Treasury Board Secretariat study, Anglophones working in a bilingual environment spend 14% of their time speaking French. On the other hand, Francophones working in a bilingual environment spend 43% of their time speaking English. According to the study, even today, Francophones do not feel completely at ease in using French at meetings, in writing documents or in communicating with their colleagues or supervisors. For example, in bilingual regions, most documents are prepared in English (72%) even though a high percentage of the employees in these regions is Francophone (e.g., Francophones represent 42% of the workforce in the National Capital Region and 41% in New Brunswick). (43)


Equitable representation for both language groups in the public service does not guarantee either increased use of French in the working environment or improved service to the public in both official languages. As successive Commissioners of Official Languages have pointed out, strong leadership is needed, in addition to a change in culture with respect to attitudes towards official languages in the public service. Senior executives have a crucial role to play in effecting this culture change.

The federal public service now faces a dual challenge. First of all, the workforce is aging. The government must therefore find innovative ways to renew its workforce by hiring young people who want a career in the public service. Furthermore, the pool of bilingual people in Canada’s population has increased considerably in recent years. The government needs to take advantage of the situation to increase the number of bilingual employees in the public service.

The modernization of the public service has been the subject of many discussions and proposals for reform in recent decades. From the official languages standpoint, many questions remain. How does one encourage a change in culture within the public service that would support the promotion and effective use of both official languages? How does one make managers recognize the importance of the two languages within their institutions and encourage their practical use? How can we ensure that services to the public are equivalent and of equal quality in both languages? How can we encourage bilingual public servants to use both languages effectively in their working environment, whether in communicating with colleagues and supervisors, or in drafting documents? What is the best way to ensure that the federal government allocates the resources needed to make the use of French and English in the workplace a genuine priority? Once again, these questions highlight the need to change attitudes and behaviour in terms of respecting both official languages in federal institutions subject to the Official Languages Act.


  1. The merit principle was initially adopted to prevent favouritism and to make the public service more efficient. It calls for the best-qualified applicants to be hired through a competitive process designed to evaluate their knowledge, experience and abilities. The 1973 Resolution states in article 3 that “a knowledge of English and French is one of the elements of merit in the selection of candidates for bilingual positions.”
  2. These regions included the National Capital Region, the province of New Brunswick, Montréal and some parts of the Eastern Townships, the Outaouais and Gaspé regions in Quebec, and a number of regions in northern and eastern Ontario.
  3. Treasury Board, Report on the Implementation of the Resolution on Official Languages Passed by Parliament in June 1973, Ottawa, 1974.
  4. Government of Canada, A National Understanding: The Official Languages of Canada. Statement of the Government of Canada on the Official Languages Policy, Privy Council Office, Ottawa, 1977.
  5. In 1966, the government introduced a bilingualism bonus program for employees in the “Secretarial, Stenographic and Typing” group. In 1977, it was decided that federal public servants in positions designated bilingual would receive an annual bilingualism bonus of $800. The measure was initially considered to be temporary.
  6. Beginning in 1978, departments had to set their own official languages objectives, approve the language requirements of positions and manage their language training program. The delegation of this responsibility led to increased reporting requirements, and deputy ministers were asked to submit an official languages plan and an annual report to the Treasury Board for review and approval. The TB and the PSC continued to develop overall guidelines, to provide general guidance to departments and agencies, to evaluate progress and to review departments’ and agencies’ annual action plans and reports with respect to implementation of official languages programs.
  7. Royal Commission on Financial Management and Accountability, Final Report, Ottawa, 1979 [Lambert Commission]; Special Committee on the Review of Personnel Management and the Merit Principle, Report, Ottawa, 1979 [D’Avignon Committee].
  8. Treasury Board, Language Reform in Federal Institutions, Ottawa, 1979.
  9. Special Joint Committee on Official Languages, Fourth Report to Parliament, Ottawa, June 1982.
  10. Commissioner of Official Languages, The Language of Work in the Public Service, Ottawa, 1982.
  11. The concept of “federal institutions” is broader than the concept of agencies and departments mentioned in the 1973 Resolution. Under the 1988 Act, federal institutions include the administrative structure of Parliament and the federal courts, the Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as well as departments and agencies proper, including Crown corporations.
  12. The “CBC” profile means level C (superior) for reading, B (intermediate) for writing and C (superior) for oral interaction.
  13. Government of Canada, Public Service 2000: The Renewal of the Public Service of Canada, Ottawa, 1990.
  14. Contrary to the OCOL’s recommendations, language of work and equitable participation were not covered by regulations that would have required federal institutions to implement the relevant provisions of the OLA. The guidelines permit considerable flexibility, and simply suggest specific steps that can be taken to help these institutions comply with their duties under the OLA.
  15. Commissioner of Official Languages, Government Transformations: The Impact on Canada’s Official Languages Program, Ottawa, 1998.
  16. Working Group on Government Transformations and the Official Languages, No Turning Back: Official Languages in the Face of Government Transformations, Ottawa, 1999.
  17. The system of memoranda of understanding between the TBS and departments and other federal agencies was virtually abandoned in 1997, when the annual reviews submitted by these institutions began gradually to replace the memoranda. Since then, the TBS has not been required to approve these annual reviews, but it uses the data contained in them to prepare its own official languages annual report, which is tabled annually in Parliament.
  18. The new Public Service Employment Act, which came into force on 31 December 2005, created a new definition of merit. The definition recognizes that official language proficiency is one of the essential qualifications for appointment to the public service.
  19. Government of Canada, The Next Act: New Momentum for Canada’s Linguistic Duality: The Action Plan for Official Languages, Ottawa, 2003.
  20. Government of Canada, Canada’s Linguistic Duality: A Framework to Manage the Official Languages Program, Ottawa, 2005.
  21. Government of Canada, Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality 2008–2013: Acting for the Future, Ottawa, 2008.
  22. Treasury Board Secretariat, Attitudes Towards the Use of Both Official Languages Within the Public Service of Canada, Ottawa, September 2002.
  23. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, Walking the Talk: Language of Work in the Federal Public Service, Ottawa, 2004.
  24. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, Making it Real: Promoting Respectful Co-existence of the Two Official Languages at Work, Ottawa, 2005; Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, Towards Real Equality of Official Languages: Language of Work Within Federal Institutions of New Brunswick, Ottawa, 2006.
  25. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, Annual Report 2001–2002, Ottawa, 2002, p. 67.
  26. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, Annual report. Special Edition. 35th Anniversary: 1969–2004, Vol. I, Ottawa, 2005, p. 45.
  27. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, Annual Report 2005–2006, Ottawa, 2006.
  28. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, Annual Report 2007–2008, Ottawa, 2008.
  29. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, “Graham Fraser relieved official languages investments will continue,” News release, Ottawa, 19 June 2008.
  30. Standing Committee on Official Languages, Bilingualism in the Public Service of Canada, Ottawa, May 2005.
  31. Government of Canada, Government Response to the Second Report of the Standing Committee on Official Languages – Bilingualism in the Public Service of Canada, 26 October 2005.
  32. Standing Committee on Official Languages, Leading by Example: Bilingualism in the Public Service and the Renewal of the Action Plan for Official Languages, Ottawa, March 2008.
  33. Some percentages in the tables in this section do not total 100, due to rounding.
  34. Treasury Board (1974).
  35. Public Service Human Resources Management Agency of Canada, Annual Report on Official Languages 2004–2005, Ottawa, 2006; Public Service Human Resources Management Agency of Canada, Annual Report on Official Languages 2006–2007, Ottawa, 2009.
  36. Public Service Human Resources Management Agency of Canada (2009).
  37. Public Service Human Resources Management Agency of Canada (2006 and 2009).
  38. Ibid.
  39. In all federal institutions subject to the OLA (including Air Canada and designated airport authorities), the presence of the two language groups remained stable from 1991 to 2007, with Francophones at 27% and Anglophones at 73%.
  40. Public Service Human Resources Management Agency of Canada (2006 and 2009).
  41. Ibid.
  42. Treasury Board (1974).
  43. Treasury Board Secretariat (2002).

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