What Are the Official Languages of Canada?

Why Canada Has 2 Official Languages

Canada, Quebec, Quebec City, Chateau Frontenac Hotel and street scene
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Canada is a bilingual country with "co-official" languages. English and French enjoy equal status as the official languages of all federal government institutions in Canada. This means that the public has the right to communicate with, and receive services from, federal government institutions in either English or French. Federal government employees have the right to work in the official language of their choice in designated bilingual regions.

History of Canada's Dual Languages

Like the United States, Canada started as a colony. Beginning in the 1500s, it was part of New France, but later became a British colony after the Seven Years' War. As a result, the Canadian government recognized the languages of both colonizers: France and England. The Constitution Act of 1867 enshrined the use of both languages in Parliament and in federal courts. Years later, Canada strengthened its commitment to bilingualism when it passed the Official Languages Act of 1969, which reaffirmed the constitutional origins of its co-official languages and set out the protections afforded by its dual-language status.

How Multiple Official Languages Protect Canadians' Rights

As explained in the Official Languages Act of 1969, recognition of both English and French protects the rights of all Canadians. Among other benefits, the Act recognized that Canadian citizens should be able to access federal laws and government documents, regardless of their native language.

The Act also requires that consumer products feature bilingual packaging. 

Are the Official Languages Used Throughout Canada?

The Canadian federal government is committed to advancing the equality of status and use of the English and French languages within Canadian society and provides support to the development of English and French linguistic minority communities.

However, the reality is that most Canadians speak English, and of course, many Canadians speak another language entirely. 

All institutions that fall under federal jurisdiction are subject to official bilingualism, but provinces, municipalities, and private businesses do not have to operate in both languages. Although the federal government theoretically guarantees bilingual services in all areas, there are many regions of Canada where English is the clear majority language, so the government does not always offer services in French in those regions. Canadians use the phrase "where numbers warrant" to indicate whether a local population's language usage requires bilingual services from the federal government.

Other Countries with More Than 1 Official Language

While the United States is one of only a few countries with no official language, Canada is far from the only nation with two or more official languages. There are more than 60 multilingual countries, including Aruba, Belgium and Ireland.