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The Impact of Official Bilingualism
Where has the most progress been made?

The Move to A Bilingual Civil Service

Initially, the people most affected by official bilingualism were Anglophone and Francophone civil servants. The move to a bilingual public service preceded the Official Languages Act. Prime Minister Pearson announced the new policy in 1966, following the release of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism’s preliminary report. However, substantive change did not take place until after the Official Languages Act was implemented.

There were two reasons behind the government’s move to a bilingual public service:

  • To allow Canadians to receive services in either official language.
  • To increase employment opportunities for French-speaking Canadians.

Prior to the policy change, French-speaking Canadians were at a distinct disadvantage. English was the primary language of business in the public service. French-speaking Canadians seeking federal employment had to be both bilingual and prepared to work almost exclusively in their second language. Not surprisingly, they were underrepresented in the public service, particularly at higher levels.

The situation changed dramatically after the federal government announced the policy change. Beginning in 1974, all public service positions were reclassified as English-speaking, French-speaking, or bilingual. The revised system benefited French-speaking Canadians, many of whom already spoke both official languages. By the early 1980s, the percentage of French-speaking Canadians employed by the public service exceeded their percentage of the total population. The following table shows the increase of French-speaking Canadians in the civil service:

Year 1965 1971 1975 1980 1985 1990 1997
Percentage 21 18 25.6 26.7 27.8 28.3 29.2

(Source: Office of the Commission of Official Languages, Annual Report, 1974 – 1997, found in Language Legislation and Official Bilingualism: The Uneasy Coexistence of Canada’s Language Communities)

By contrast, the policy shift threatened career prospects for many anglophone civil servants. Initially, the federal government offered free language instruction and other bonuses to encourage unilingual (primarily English-speaking) civil servants to become bilingual. However, the cost was prohibitive. Increasingly in later years, bilingual candidates applying to work in the public service had an edge over unilingual candidates.


In 1970, the federal government launched the Official Languages in Education Program. The program provides provinces and territories with funding for second language instruction and minority language instruction in both official languages. The program had the most impact outside of Quebec, as the percentage of French-speaking Quebeckers who considered themselves bilingual already exceeded the national average. With respect to minority language education, until 1984 provisions in Quebec’s language law (Bill 101) restricted Anglophones and Allophones (immigrants whose primary language is not English or French) from attending English-language schools.

However, the situation outside Quebec was very different. Education for the French-speaking minority made large strides, and English-speaking parents endured long line-ups to enroll their children in French immersion programs.

French Immersion

In English Canada, official bilingualism's most visible impact was the explosion of interest in French immersion. French immersion is a separate program from the second language course requirements mandated by all provinces (which may offer courses in second languages other than French). The main features of French immersion include the following:

  • French immersion is a program whereby students receive the majority of their instruction in the French language.
  • The two most common forms of French immersion are early immersion, when students enter at kindergarten or grade one, and late immersion, when students enter at the beginning of junior high school.
  • The percentage of instruction students receive in the French language varies between one hundred percent in the early grades and seventy-five percent in the middle grades.
  • The percentage of instruction in French decreases at the senior level.
  • Normally, the students are English-speaking, although Francophone students may enroll if instruction in their language is not otherwise available.
  • Despite its popularity in English Canada, French immersion began in Quebec in the mid-1960s.

The following table illustrates French immersion's increase as a proportion of total English language enrollment:

Year 1978 1981 1987 1990
Percentage of Students in French Immersion 0.5 2.1 5.0 6.8

(Source: Statistics Canada, found in Action Plan for Official Languages)

The results of French immersion were evident by the early 1990s. Among Anglophones aged 15 – 24 living outside Quebec, the percentage that considered themselves to be bilingual doubled between 1971 and 2001, rising from seven percent to 14 percent. However, these figures are still much lower than Quebec. Between 1971 and 2001, the number of bilingual 15 – 24 year old Francophones living inside Quebec rose from 31 percent to 42 percent. (Source: Census Canada, 1971 to 2001, found in Action Plan for Official Languages)

Furthermore, it is not clear how much of an impact French immersion programs have on the community at large. A 1985 poll indicated English-speaking parents thought bilingualism was important because it would help their children get ahead, particularly in the public service.

Minority Language Education

Minority language education rights are entrenched in section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter established the rights of English minority and French minority language groups to receive education in their primary language when certain conditions are met and when there is a sufficient number of children to warrant providing these services with public funds. In addition, Section 23 gives these minorities the right to control and manage their own educational institutions (where numbers warrant), a right that has been reaffirmed in several court cases.

Prior to 1982, there were no French schools in half of the Canadian provinces outside Quebec. Today, Francophone groups manage schools for French-speaking students in every province. Furthermore, more students who qualify for minority French-language instruction under the Charter are enrolling in francophone schools:

Year 1986 2001
Number of Eligible Children 271,914 219,860
Number Enrolled in Francophone Schools 152,225 149,042
Percentage of Total 56 68

(Source: Census Canada, found in Action Plan for Official Languages)

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Bilingualism Loses Ground


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