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ARCHIVED - Archived - Chapter 1-0 - Service to the Public - Introduction

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Legal framework

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982 stipulates in subsection 20(1) that, in prescribed circumstances, members of the public have the right to communicate with and receive services from federal institutions in the official language of their choice. Part IV of the Official Languages Act of 1988 entitled "Communications with and Services to the Public" sets out the duties of federal institutions to give full effect to this right. The Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations specify the extent of the public's right to receive federal services in English and French.

In short, the Act requires that any head or central office of a federal institution, whatever its location, all offices in the National Capital Region, and all offices of institutions that report directly to Parliament must serve the public in both official languages (section 22 and subsections 24(2) and (3) of the Act).

This obligation also falls on all other offices, including those that serve the travelling public, where there is significant demand for services in either official language (section 22 and subsection 23(1)), as well as in offices the nature of which makes the use of both official languages reasonable (subsection 24(1)). The Act gives the Governor in Council the authority to make regulations prescribing circumstances relating to significant demand and nature of the office, as well as those relating to services provided to the travelling public by third parties contracted by federal institutions at offices where there is significant demand (section 32). The regulations define the circumstances under which the public is entitled to be served in either official language. The directives relating to the implementation of the regulations indicate to federal institutions how to apply some of the provisions in the regulations, namely, assessment of demand, restricted clientele and the principle of proportionality (see chapter 5-2).

Of particular importance in Part IV are sections 25 to 31. Section 25 of the Act stipulates that the duty imposed on federal institutions to communicate with and to serve the public in the official language of its choice must be met when another person or organization acts on behalf of an institution and provides services that it would normally have provided (see the policy statements in part 1 of this manual). Section 26 of the Act provides that federal institutions that regulate persons or organizations with respect to activities related to the health, safety or security of members of the public must, wherever it is reasonable to do so, ensure through their regulation of these organizations that they serve the public in both languages. Section 27 specifies that the obligations relating to communications and services to the public apply to both oral and written communications and related documents and activities.

Under section 28, federal institutions are to ensure that offices required to provide their services in both official languages take appropriate measures to inform the public that their services are available in either official language, at the choice of any member of the public (see chapter 1-2 on active offer). Section 29 of the Act requires that all signs identifying the offices of a federal institution must be bilingual or placed together, with both official languages equally prominent.

Under section 30, subject to Part II and as required under Part IV of the Act, federal institutions must use such communications media as will enable them to communicate effectively with members of the public in the official language of their choice (see the guidelines on the application of sections 11 and 30 of the Act in chapter 1-5). Finally, section 31 provides that the provisions of Part IV prevail in the event of any inconsistency with the provisions of Part V. This means that the rights of the public take precedence and employees who are required to work in both official languages (whether because they hold a bilingual position or, as is the case in Crown corporations, must carry out their duties in both official languages) must first and foremost serve members of the public in the official language of their choice.