Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages ensures that the Official Languages Act (adopted in 1969, amended in 1988 and 2005) is followed within the federal government and the Parliament of Canada. The Commissioner also ensures that both of
The role of the Commissioner of Official Languages was established by the Official Languages Act (1969), and the first Commissioner was appointed in 1970. Each Commissioner is appointed by Parliament for a term not exceeding seven years. If the Commissioner’s term is renewed, it cannot be for more than another seven years.
The Commissioner of Official Languages is an ombudsperson, which means that they act independently and are responsible for defending citizens’ language rights. This role gives the Commissioner the authority to receive, review and investigate complaints regarding non-compliance with the Official Languages Act. The results of these investigations may be shared directly with the person who filed the complaint and the institution implicated in the complaint; the results may also be mentioned in special reports to Parliament.
The Commissioner acts as an inspector of the Canadian government’s language practices, conducting periodic reviews of government activities when it comes to the application of language rights. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has regional offices, which allow the Commissioner to be a liaison between public bodies, government institutions and the different linguistic communities in
Lastly, the Commissioner has a reporting role, and makes recommendations to the Parliament of Canada in an annual report usually based on studies carried out by the Office.
Canada’s Language Commissioners
Keith Spicer (1970–77)
A scholar, public servant, journalist and writer (born
In 1970, Spicer ceremoniously became the first to assume the role of
Maxwell Yalden (1977–84)
A public servant and diplomat (born
During Yalden’s mandate as Commissioner of Official Languages, regional offices were created in Moncton, Winnipeg, Montréal, Sudbury and Edmonton. Facing some public resistance over the Official Languages Act, Yalden made proposals that would bring it more in line with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982.
D’Iberville Fortier (1984–91)
A diplomat (born
Fortier was the first Commissioner of Official Languages from Québec. He continued the work begun by his predecessor of updating the Official Languages Act. The culmination of his work was a new Official Languages Act adopted by the Parliament of Canada in 1988.
Victor Goldbloom (1991–99)
A pediatrician and politician (born
Goldbloom carried out an extensive study to investigate the availability of services in both official languages within Canadian government offices that were officially designated bilingual. He began a second and equally far-reaching study to investigate the possibility of assigning the coordination of all of Canada’s linguistic policies to the Privy Council Office.
Dyane Adam (1999–2006)
A psychologist, teacher and university administrator (born 1953 in Casselman, ON), Dyane Adam taught at the University of Ottawa, Glendon College and Laurentian University. She was also the Assistant Vice-President for French Programs and Services at Laurentian University (1988–94) and the President of Glendon College (1994–99). She was Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages from 1999 to 2006. From 2008 to 2010, she was a mentor for the Trudeau Foundation and a member of the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation du Québec. She began as vice president of the Trudeau Foundation Society in 2011.
Adam was the first female and the first Franco-Ontarian Commissioner of Official Languages. During her mandate, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages made a distinct shift towards language activism. Dyane Adam severely criticized the government for its application of the Official Languages Act in the sectors of the armed forces, the Internet, elite sports, the aviation industry and immigration. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages became more sensitive to Canada’s new linguistic plurality during this period. A particular emphasis was placed on reinforcing the status of minority language communities by using official language legislation. Three amendments were made into law in 2005 when the Act to amend the Official Languages Act was adopted. Federal institutions were required to ensure that positive measures were taken to promote English and French in Canada while respecting the provinces’ jurisdiction and powers.
Graham Fraser (2006–16)
A journalist and writer (born 1946 in Ottawa, ON), Graham Fraser was a reporter and columnist for the Toronto Star and also taught journalism at Carleton University. He has been Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages from 2006 to 2016. He is the author of several books in English and French as well as many articles for Maclean’s magazine and for The Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette and Le Devoir.
During Fraser’s mandate, an award of excellence was created for the promotion of linguistic duality in Canada. Also during his mandate, two important reinterpretations of the Official Languages Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms were made by the Supreme Court of Canada during the DesRochers (CALDECH) case and the Nguyen case. Both cases dealt with citizens’ rights to receive service of equal quality in both official languages. In a report made public in January 2016, Commissioner Fraser denounced the austerity budget policy led since 2011 by the Conservative government, because it had a dramatic impact on the reduction of services offered to minority official language communities.
Public Perception of the Commissioner
When the Canadian media comments on the actions of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, it is often to highlight the indifference towards the role and the difficulties faced in carrying out its duties. The anglophone press tends to view the Office as a guard dog for the French language, whereas the francophone press tends to view it as a covert agent of linguistic assimilation. Media in both linguistic communities sometimes agree that the Commissioner has roles that are both costly and unclear. The general public has a fairly vague understanding of the existence of the official actions of both the Commissioner and the Commissioner’s Office.