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ARCHIVED - Archived - Chapter 2-0 - Language of Work - Introduction

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Legal framework

Employee rights and institutional obligations

Subsection 16(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states: "English and French are the official languages of Canada and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and government of Canada". This subsection provides the basis for the principle that employees of federal institutions have the right to use either official language as their language of work.

Section 34 of the Official Languages Act confirms this right within certain limits. First, the right of the public to be served in the language of its choice prevails over the right of employees to work in their preferred official language (section 31). In other words, the provisions of Part IV of the Act override those of Part V, in the event of any inconsistency.

The right of employees to work in either official language is also circumscribed by the language of work duties imposed on federal institutions (section 34).

The Act continues the long-standing Canadian approach known as institutional bilingualism, i.e., imposing official languages obligations on federal institutions and not on all its employees. Part V of the Act sets out the institutional obligations on language of work.

The policies in this chapter are derived from the provisions on language of work in Part V of the Act. Unlike the obligations related to service to the public in both official languages, which are based on the concept of federal offices, the obligations related to language of work are based on a distinction between two types of regions in which the institutions are located: those where both languages are commonly used ("bilingual") and those where one official language predominates ("unilingual").

"Bilingual" regions and "conducive environments"

Subsection 35(2) of the Act prescribes the bilingual regions of Canada for language-of-work purposes as those regions set out in Annex B of the Treasury Board and Public Service Commission Circular No. 1977-46 of September 30, 1977 that is entitled "Official Languages in the Public Service of Canada: A Statement of Policies". Besides the National Capital Region, these regions include parts of Northern and Eastern Ontario, the Montréal region, parts of the Eastern Townships, the Gaspé and West Quebec, as well as New Brunswick (see chapter 5-1 for a complete listing).

In these bilingual regions, federal institutions have a duty to ensure that their work environments are conducive to the effective use of both official languages and accommodate the use of either official language by their employees (paragraph 35(1)(a)). Institutions must make a constant effort, and take concrete measures, to create and maintain conducive work environments.

The Act specifies certain minimum obligations which include providing employees, in the official language of their choice, with services that are available to them as individuals (i.e., "personal services" — subparagraph 36(1)(a)(i)), with services that are centrally provided to support them in the performance of their duties ("central services" — subparagraph 36(1)(a)(ii)), and with regularly and widely used work instruments produced by or on behalf of a federal institution. These obligations also include ensuring that regularly and widely used information technology systems acquired or produced after January 1, 1991, can be used in either official language (paragraph 36(1)(b)).

In addition, the Act requires institutions in bilingual regions to provide supervision to their employees in their preferred official language where it is appropriate or necessary to create a work environment that is conducive to the use of both languages (sub-paragraph 36(1)(c)i)). It should be noted that the Act does not require all supervisors in bilingual regions to be bilingual. Rather, the requirement hinges on the composition and functions of the work unit. Thus, supervisors must be bilingual if they have subordinates who must work in both official languages or whose language of work differs.

Subparagraph 36(1)(c)(ii) also requires that senior management in bilingual regions be able to function as a whole in both official languages.

Unilingual regions and "comparable treatment"

Outside the bilingual regions, that is, in the primarily unilingual parts of Canada (where one official language predominates), the Act has provided for a special application of the principle of equal status. Paragraph 35(1)(b) states that federal institutions have a duty to ensure that the treatment of both official languages in the work environments is reasonably comparable from one predominately unilingual region (hereafter referred to as "unilingual" region) to the other. This means, for example, that if an institution has offices in two regions where the predominant language is different, it has to ensure that the treatment of both the minority language and the majority language in the region where English predominates is similar to that in the region where French predominates.

Central agencies and common service organizations

Section 37 of the Official Languages Act sets out the obligation for federal institutions that have authority either to direct or to provide services to other federal institutions (i.e., central agencies or common service organizations), requiring them to accommodate the use of either official language by the employees of the institutions they direct or serve. These institutions include, among others, the Privy Council Office, the Federal-Provincial Relations Office, the Treasury Board Secretariat, the Office of the Comptroller General, the Public Service Commission, the Translation Bureau of the Secretary of State, the Department of Justice, Public Works, and Supply and Services.

Policies on language of work are designed to ensure that employees of federal institutions have opportunities to work in the official language of their choice. The successful implementation of these policies depends largely on the leadership of the senior managers in each institution and the high degree of cooperation that has traditionally existed between employees of the two language groups.