Canada, Official Languages Act, Politics, Social Studies and History

Two Solitudes and their Connected History

Two Solitudes and their Connected History

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, 50th Anniversary of the Official Languages Act Special Issue, 2019

By Robert J. Talbot

Relations between English- and French-speakers in Canada have, at different points in our history, been variously characterized by conflict, coexistence, and collaboration. Fortunately, today, relations are and have been peaceful for some time. But this was not always the case.

A Continent at War

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, North America was a continent at war. The two principal European powers jostling for control—France and Britain—went to war in North America no fewer than six times during that period. This often had devastating implications for the colonists themselves. For example, in 1696-1697 French forces expelled the majority of Newfoundland’s English-speaking population, and in 1755-1764, British forces expelled the majority of Acadia’s French-speaking population.

There were instances of coexistence, even collaboration, however, during this turbulent period. For example, some trade was maintained between British and French colonists and fishermen during peacetime. After the British took control over much of mainland Acadia, in 1713, French-speaking Acadians were initially tolerated and, to some extent, encouraged to remain as settlers in order to maintain a viable local economy.

Overall, the period was predominantly one of conflict, culminating in the Seven Years War (1754-1763) in which Britain ultimately gained control over what was, until then, New France.

British authorities quickly recognized, however, the need to maintain the loyalty (or, at least, the neutrality) of the approximately 60,000 French-Catholic settlers now in their midst, especially at a time when the American colonists to the south were beginning to push for independence from Britain. In 1774, Governor Guy Carleton persuaded the British Parliament to adopt the Quebec Act that recognized the Catholic faith and the French civil code in the colony. In 1791, the Constitutional Act allowed for an elected assembly in Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec), and French and English were recognized as the languages of the Lower Canadian parliament.

It was in part for these reasons that most French- and English-speaking settlers in Ontario and Quebec remained loyal or neutral during the American War of Independence and the War of 1812. If not for this compromise between French and English, it is possible that Canada would not exist as we know it today.

While Francophones and Anglophones fought against each other during the Lower Canadian and Upper Canadian rebellions of 1837-1838, there were also examples of French/English collaboration on the rebel side. Members from both cultural-linguistic groups had sought greater democratization of Canadian society.

Anglophones and Francophones also worked together to advance Canadian democracy through peaceful means, and to achieve greater rights and recognition for the French and English languages. In 1848-1851, the moderate reformers Robert Baldwin, an Anglophone Protestant; and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, a Francophone Catholic; formed a government as co-premiers of the recently united Province of Canada. Remarkably, they persuaded British authorities to grant responsible self-government for the colony. Baldwin and La Fontaine also adopted a measure to restore recognition of French and English as the languages of the legislature.

The Dominion of Canada

Francophones and Anglophones collaborated once more to achieve Confederation, in 1867. The leading figures of this partnership were John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier. The new federation included a French-majority province—Quebec. Its constitution recognized French and English as the languages of the federal legislature and courts; and as the languages of the provincial legislature and courts of Quebec; and, in 1870, of Manitoba as well. The constitution also recognized the rights of the Protestant minority in Quebec and of Catholic minorities in some other provinces to their own separate schools. In practice, this meant that the Anglophone minority in Quebec and Francophone minorities in other provinces could to some extent use education to ensure a continued transmission of their languages in their communities.

Relations between French- and English-speaking Canadians quickly deteriorated over the next half century after Confederation. There ensued a number of conflicts and controversies, and a fundamental disagreement over whether Canada should be a bilingual and bicultural country from coast-to-coast, or an English country with a French minority confined to the province of Quebec. Most notably, these controversies included: the hanging of Louis Riel in 1885, the restriction of French-language education rights by several provinces (notably New Brunswick, Manitoba, and Ontario), and the Conscription Crisis of the First World War. By 1918, Anglophone/Francophone relations had reached their lowest point, and some Quebec politicians had openly begun to consider secession from the federation (in the famous Francoeur Motion of 1918).

Following the First World War, moderate Anglophone and Francophone politicians and civil society leaders and intellectuals worked together in an effort to repair relations and to give greater recognition to the equality of French and English in Canada. They formed what was known as the “Bonne Entente” movement, and both men and women played an important role, including Eugénie Lorans, who served as President of the Bonne Entente League. The bonne-ententistes helped to bring about bilingual celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of Confederation, bilingual postage, and the restoration of French-language education in Ontario—all in 1927.

The introduction of a federal Translation Bureau, bilingual currency, and an English/French national radio service (CBC/Radio-Canada) followed in the 1930s. On the international stage, English- and French-speaking statesmen like Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe worked together to bring about Canada’s independence from Britain. While instances of conflict and tension persisted, relations and recognition of French and English were far better in 1939 than they had been in 1919.

National Unity Crisis

Tensions mounted once more during and after the Second World War. Another (although far less serious) conscription crisis occurred, and after the war, French-Canadian intellectuals grew increasingly critical of the socio-economic disparity separating English- and French-speaking Canadians, and of the continuing predominance of the English language in the public sphere, including in Quebec where Francophones constituted the majority.

The situation came to a head during the 1960s “Quiet Revolution” in Quebec. The country saw the rise of a secular Francophone nationalist movement that considered separation from Canada as a serious alternative to the status quo. In 1962, controversy and protest flared over the lack of Francophone representation within the federal public service. Not only was it often difficult for Francophones to be served by the national government in their own language, but they also had unequal access to jobs in Canada’s national administration.

To respond to the mounting national unity crisis, and to identify potential solutions, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson created a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963-1969). Pearson also took other measures that were aimed at fostering a national Canadian identity that was more inclusive of French-speaking Canadians and Ethno-Cultural communities, notably with the adoption of a new Canadian flag, in 1965.

The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was headed by a Francophone, André Laurendeau, and an Anglophone, Davidson Dunton. Its multi-volume report issued a series of sweeping recommendations, including:

  • Official bilingualism at the federal level, not only in parliament and the federal courts, but also in government administration;
  • Official bilingualism for Ontario and New Brunswick (in addition to Quebec, which was, at the time, already a bilingual province), and improvements to French-language service in other provinces;
  • The creation of bilingual districts throughout the country where appropriate;
  • Official bilingualism in the national capital region, across all levels of government;
  • Constitutional recognition of the right of official language minorities throughout the country to send their children to publicly funded schools in their official language, where numbers warrant;
  • An Official Languages Act and a Commissioner of Official Languages for the federal government and for each bilingual province.

In response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission, the federal government, under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, adopted the Official Languages Act (OLA) that came into effect on 7 September 1969. Its purpose was to strengthen national unity through greater equality of, access to and participation in Canada’s national institutions, for all Canadians, regardless of what official language they spoke.

The OLA affirmed the equality of French and English in the federal parliament and courts (strengthening Section 133 of the British North America Act), recognized French and English as the Official Languages of Canada, mandated that federal institutions serve and communicate with the public in both languages (specifically, central offices, offices in designated bilingual districts, and institutions serving the travelling public), and in time affirmed the right of federal public servants to work in the official language of their choice. Collectively, these measures attempted to put an end to a century of debate and ambiguity over whether Canada was an English-speaking country with a territorially confined bilingual Quebec, or a bilingual country with room enough for the two official languages to thrive, from coast, to coast.

The 1969 OLA also established the position of Commissioner of Official Languages, an independent agent of parliament whose job would be “to take all actions and measures within his [or her] authority with a view to ensuring recognition of the status of each of the official languages and compliance with the spirit and intent of this Act” (Section 25, OLA, 1969). This responsibility, explained Keith Spicer, the first Commissioner of Official Languages (1970-1977) in his inaugural annual report, “enables the Commissioner not simply to defend the institutional bilingualism prescribed by law, but actively, if indirectly, to help promote it.”

Spicer, an Anglophone in his mid-thirties who had worked as a professor, media commentator, and researcher for the B&B (Bilingualism and Biculturalism) Commission, believed that the promotion of linguistic duality had to be fun, frank, and accessible. Above all, it had to be couched in terms that would resonate with both Francophones and Anglophones. Reflecting at the end of his mandate, Spicer explained: “Seven years ago, I wondered what role I should strive for… The answer lies in trying each day to reconcile two imperatives: proving to French-speakers that the reform is serious, and to English-speakers that it is humane, and rich in opportunities for their children” (OCOL Annual Report, 1976).

Other measures promoting the equality of French and English, and key moments influencing Anglophone/Francophone relations, would follow over the next fifty years, notably the constitutional recognition of French and English as Canada’s two official languages, and the entrenchment of French- and English-language rights in the Charter, in 1982, and the adoption of a revised OLA in 1988.


Robert J. Talbot is Manager of Research at the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada.