In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Canada’s Official Languages Act (the “OLA” or the “Act”), the Federal Government recently announced a historic $2.7 billion in funding to support Canada’s official language minority groups and promote official bilingualism from coast to coast.
Specifically regarding the provision of services, the 2018 Federal Budget Plan informs that the Government will endeavour to improve access to services in the official minority language offered by federal institutions, specifically for Quebec’s English-speaking communities. Moreover, the Action Plan for Official Languages – 2018-2023: Investing in Our Future confirmed the Government’s ongoing commitment to review the Official Languages Regulations for Communications with and Services to the Public (the “Regulations”), which, among other things, define the circumstances wherein a demand for services in either official language will be deemed “significant” under the OLA. The Regulations also detail specific instances when services must be offered in either official language, such as offering services to the traveling public, or depending on the nature of the office. The 2018-2023 Action Plan states that the end-goal of this regulatory overhaul is to improve the provision of services to members of the public in both official languages, namely with respect to transportation-related services. The regulatory review should be completed by 2019. Finally, we note that the Government has pledged significant funding dedicated to the recognition of the National Capital’s official bilingual character, thus supporting provincial and municipal efforts to create and ensure the provision of public services in the language of the official minority in Ottawa.
What does this mean for service providers subject to the Act? Currently, federal institutions subject to Part IV of the OLA that provide services and communicate with the public must ensure that they, or any person or organization acting on their behalf, actively offer services in either official language within the National Capital Region or elsewhere in Canada, where the demand for services in either French or English is deemed “significant”. Exact details on what we can expect from Parliament’s review of the Regulations are not yet clear. However, redefining the scope or meaning of the “significant demand” criterion may be one of the possible changes impacting service providers’ obligations with respect to the provision of services offered in either official language. Until the extent of these potential changes is fully known, service providers would do well to consider whether they are currently required to offer services in either official language and, if so, ensure that the provision of their services is OLA compliant. The failure to do so may lead to a complaint before the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages and, in certain cases, may evolve into litigation before the Federal Courts.
We will continue to monitor this situation closely, and provide updates when more information is made available.
The authors wish to thank Lucas Rivest-Crothers, articling student, for his contribution to this publication.