Because the country contains two major language groups and numerous other linguistic minorities, in Canada official languages policy has always been an important and high-profile area of public policy.
In an exhaustive 1971 study of Canadian language law prepared for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Claude-Armand Sheppard offered this definition for the term “official language”: “[An] official language is a language in which all or some of the public affairs of a particular definition are, or can be, conducted, either by law or custom. We take public affairs to comprise the parliamentary and legislative process, administrative regulations, the rendering of justice, all quasi-judicial activities, and the overall day-to-day administration.”
This article lists key events in the evolution of language policy in Canada since 1710, when the French-speaking population of Acadia first came under British administration. The timeline covers the policies of the colonial predecessors to the current Canadian state, and the policies of Canada's provinces and territories. The policies listed include:
These policy changes have been important to the extent that they affected the lives of individual Canadians. Therefore, in order to give some idea of the relative importance of various policies over the centuries, population statistics for Canada's different language groups are included where such information is available.
Official languages policies, in one form or another, have been in existence since the beginning of the European colonization of North America. In the early years, French was the sole language used in New France while English had been the sole language of British America. The First Nations continued to use their indigenous languages in their own affairs. There were a limited number of people who knew both a European and a native North American language, often Christian missionaries the “black robes” and the children of natives they ministered to. These bilinguals were called on in diplomacy, but otherwise the linguistic worlds of the settlers and the natives were largely separate. Without being fluent, natives and settlers often learned very rudimentary forms of each other's languages called “pidgins”. Pidgins, such as the Algonquian–Basque pidgin, Labrador Inuit Pidgin French, American Indian Pidgin English, and Pidgin Delaware were initially important languages of trade and diplomacy, but none of them was ever prestigious enough to be used in any other governmental context.
The need for a considered language policy came with the absorption New France into the British Empire. This began with the British occupation of Acadia in 1710 followed by the conquest of Canada in 1759. Britain was then ruling over a large population of non-English speaking white settlers. In what is now the eastern half of the country, some sort of accommodation was made for French during the long period of British colonial rule that followed, but at no point did the language achieve full legal and practical equality with English. The public reaction to this situation was one of the sources of the political instability that led to the adoption of a series of constitutions, culminating in the adoption of a federal structure in 1867 as a way of allowing the two languages to have different levels of official status in different provinces.
Following Confederation in 1867, French and English were treated as being fully equal within Quebec, in all matters under provincial jurisdiction. In matters under federal jurisdiction, English occupied a de facto privileged position, and French was not fully equal, although it did enjoy some constitutionally protected privileges. In other provinces, French was sometimes tolerated and sometimes actively suppressed. Other settler languages, such as Scottish Gaelic, Irish, and German were ignored in politics and increasingly suppressed with adoption of universal public education.
Aboriginal languages, which earlier Christian missionaries had studied and helped to document, came under sustained attack by a system of state-sponsored church-run residential schools beginning in the 1840s in the east and later extending across the country. These schools were part of a deliberate policy to suppress or eliminate indigenous languages in favour of English. Over the course of the Twentieth and early Twenty-first centuries, the two predominant settler languages, English and French, have gradually achieved a greater level of equality in most of Canada's provinces, and full equality at the federal level. The trend has been very different in Quebec, however, where in the 1970s English was formally deprived of its status of full legal equality. Today, French is, both de facto and de jure, the sole official language of Quebec.
Also since the 1960s and the adoption of the policy of Official multiculturalism in Canada, teaching of other languages besides English and French, not only as a separate subject but as the medium of instruction, has expanded dramatically, beginning primarily with European languages, notably Ukrainian, the policy changes at the provincial level have seen a boom in schools catering to a variety of language groups. For example, in Edmonton, Alberta in 2015 the Catholic school board offered full immersion in French, "bilingual programs" (one third to one half time immersion) in Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian, and part-time language and culture programs in Filipino, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, and Nehiyaw Pimatisiwin (Cree).Likewise, the public school board offered American Sign Language Bilingual, Arabic Bilingual, Chinese (Mandarin) Bilingual, French Immersion, Late French Immersion, German Bilingual, Hebrew Bilingual, International Spanish Academy, Ukrainian International Bilingual, and Awasis (Cree) programs.
For events prior to the creation of the province 1905, see Northwest Territories
For events prior to the creation of the colony in 1784, see Nova Scotia
Either the English or the French language may be used by any person in the debates of the said [Territorial] Council, and in the proceedings before the Courts, and both of those languages shall be used in the records and journals of the said Council, and the ordinances of the said Council shall be printed in both those languages.
[The Legislative] Assembly may, by ordinance or otherwise, regulate its proceedings, and the manner of recording and publishing the same; and the regulations so made shall be embodied in a proclamation which shall forthwith be made and published by the Lieutenant Governor in conformity with the law, and therefore shall have full force and effect.
For events prior to the creation of the Province of Upper Canada in 1791, see Quebec
The British authorities did more than use French in their relations with their new subjects. They also used French as their own language of work and for correspondence. Nothing gave greater satisfaction to British pride than to be able to show a knowledge of French at least equal to what one would find among the best educated people in French Canada. Therefore the problem of language and culture did not constitute and could not constitute a political problem during the first ten or so years of the existence of the colony.
If in any article of this code founded on the laws existing at the time of its promulgation there shall be a difference between the English and French texts, that version shall prevail which is the most consistent with the provisions of the existing laws on which the article is founded; and if there be any such difference in an article changing the existing laws, that version shall prevail which is the most consistent with the intention of the article, and the ordinary rules of legal interpretation shall apply in determining such intention.
For events prior to the creation of the province 1905, see Northwest Territories
For events prior to the creation of the territory in 1898, see Northwest Territories
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