Modernizing the Official Languages Act: A bilingual national capital

  • June 06, 2021
  • Jean-Michel Richardson and Kenza Salah


In 1970, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (the “Laurendeau-Dunton Commission”) published the fifth volume of its final report on the Federal Capital, in which it dreamed of a bilingual National Capital. The first recommendation from the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission was that French and English should have “full equality of status” within the National Capital, and that the full range of services and facilities provided to the public be available in both languages “throughout” the Federal Capital (including private sector). The Laurendeau-Dunton Commission also recommended that the federal government assume a direct and positive role within the National Capital to promote a regime of equality between both languages.

This dream has not yet come true, and the struggle continues even though constitutional and legislative protections have been enacted over the years.

In February 2021, the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages unveiled a white paper on the modernization of the Official Languages Act (the “OLA”) which included the following:

Since a bilingual country must have a bilingual capital, the Government wishes to continue to work with the City of Ottawa and the Francophone community to recognize the French fact and to strengthen the presence of both official languages within the National Capital.

At this point, the Minister’s intentions regarding the issue of a “bilingual capital” are not clear. Yet it is unquestionable that the current context provides the federal government with an ideal opportunity to legislate on this issue to ensure and promote substantive equality between both official languages in the National Capital.

Where are we?

In 2017, as Canada was preparing to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the Ontario Legislature amended the City of Ottawa Act, 1999 to recognize the National Capital’s “bilingual character” and give force of law to By-law No. 2001-170 (Bilingualism) enacted in 2001 (which incorporates by reference the City of Ottawa’s bilingualism policy). This provincial recognition of the City of Ottawa’s bilingual character was the result of the determination and mobilization of Francophones and Francophiles over the past two decades.

At the federal level, the description of the National Capital Region is defined in the National Capital Act. Although the administration of municipalities within the National Capital Region, such as the City of Ottawa, falls under provincial jurisdiction as per the Constitution Act, 1867 (the “CA 1867”), the federal government nevertheless plays an important part in constitutional terms. Namely, the CA 1867 provides that Ottawa is the seat of the federal government, and in 1966, the Supreme Court of Canada, in Munro v. National Capital Commission, stated that in accordance with the introductory clause of section 91 of the CA 1867 relative to “Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada,” the Parliament of Canada has the authority to develop, conserve and improve the National Capital Region so that the nature and character of the seat of the Government of Canada may be in accordance with its national significance.

For now, the OLA’s preamble provides that the federal government is committed to enhancing the bilingual character of the National Capital Region. However, the OLA provides no mechanism for the implementation of such a commitment.


A federal intervention is entirely legitimate: the country’s bilingual status justifies it. Indeed, many experts agree on this issue. In July 2018, the ACFO and two research chairs specializing in language issues filed a joint brief (available here) with the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages with respect to modernizing the OLA. In this joint brief, experts recommended a new part to be added to the OLA regarding the equality of both official languages within the National Capital Region. An effective federal intervention can manifest itself in several ways. The federal government currently has an ideal opportunity to implement its commitment and assume a direct and positive role to ensure and promote the substantive equality between both official languages within the National Capital – in collaboration with the Province of Ontario, the City of Ottawa and the Francophone community.

It is important to emphasize that the enactment of the first OLA following the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission’s recommendations in 1969 had a revolutionary impact on the social and economic conditions of Francophones across the country. However, the federal government’s commitment continues to be necessary if we are to attain complete symmetry and safeguard sustainable bilingualism, particularly within the National Capital.

About the authors

Jean-Michel Richardson: Jean-Michel is a research lawyer with Emond Harnden L.L.P. and a member of the Ontario Bar Association’s Official Languages Committee.

Kenza Salah: Kenza is an associate, intellectual property with Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt L.L.P. in Ottawa and the vice-president of the Ontario Bar Association’s Official Languages Committee.

About the Official Languages Committee

The Ontario Bar Association’s Official Languages Committee was founded in the 1980s to promote an equal access to justice in French within Ontario’s legal system and community. For more information, visit our website.