Language Rights

AuthorRobert J. Sharpe; Kent Roach
The appropriate status of the French and English lang uages has been an
ongoing source of debate throughout Canadian history i n both political
and legal spheres. The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized that
minority-language right s involve both the rights of individua ls and the
rights of communities and t hat language rights must be inter preted in
the context of Canada’s history. The Court has commented:
First, the members of t he minority communitie s and their familie s,
in every province a nd territory, must be given the opportun ity to
achieve their pers onal aspirations. Sec ond, on the collective level,
these lang uage issues are related to the development and e xistence of
the English-sp eaking minorit y in Quebec and the French-spe aking
minorities el sewhere in Canada. They also inev itably have an impact
on how Quebec’s French-speaki ng community perceives its future in
Canada, since t hat community, which is in the majority in Q uebec, is
in the minorit y in Canada, and even more so in Nort h America as a
whole. To this picture must be added the ser ious diculties resulti ng
from the rate of assi milation of French-speak ing minority groups
outside Quebec, whose cur rent language rights were acq uired only
recently, at considerable expense a nd with great dicu lty. Thus, in
interpreting t hese rights, the court s have a responsibility to reconci le
sometimes divergent inter ests and prioritie s, and to be sensitive to
the future of each la nguage community. Our country’s socia l context,
demographics and hi story will therefore nece ssarily compris e the
backdrop for the analy sis of language rights. Lang uage rights cannot
be analysed i n the abstract, without rega rd for the historical context
of the recognition ther eof or for the concerns that the ma nner in
which they are cur rently applied is meant to address.1
In other words, language rights are rights for both individuals and col-
lectivities and a cr ucial element of Canada’s complex social contract.
Minority-language right s have been part of Canada from the start and
were rearmed and ex panded in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for
specif‌ic remedial pur poses.2
There is a range of options to protect ethnic communities, including
those who share a common language. One possibility is to provide a
degree of self-government for an ethnic or language community, giving
it the powers to preserve and promote a dist inct identity. In a federation,
a language group may form the majority in a province while repre-
senting a minority in the country as a whole. Another option is to pro-
vide specif‌ic rights that permit groups to use their l anguage or express
their culture. Examples are separate-school rights, access to broadcast-
ing outlets, or guarantees t hat government services will be provided in
a certain language. Yet another device is protection against discrimi n-
ation on the basis of language or culture, preventing the majority from
disadvantaging the minority because of la nguage or cultural practice.
As will be seen, all of these options have been resorted to i n the Can-
adian C onstitution.
The territorial pri nciple, adopted in countries such as Belgium and
Switzerland, leaves t he determination of language rights to e ach province
or territorial unit. The result is linguistic uniform ity in most territorial
units. Although Canad a’s federal structure, with a fr ancophone majority
in Quebec and anglophone majorities in the other provinces, contains
elements of the territoria l principle, important features of the Canadian
Constitution see language as an aspect of the individual’s personal ity,
which is to be respected wherever one lives in Can ada. Even though
francophones are a small minority in most provinces and anglophones
1 Solski (Tutor of) v Quebec (Attorne y General), 2005 SCC 13, [2005] 1 SCR 201 at
para 5 [Solski].
2 Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombi e-Britannique v British Columbia, 2020
SCC 13 [Conseil scolaire francophone], oers a detailed hi storical account of the
evolution of language r ights in Canada.

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