Bill C–13, An Act to amend the Official Languages Act, to enact the Use of French in Federally Regulated Private Businesses Act and to make related amendments to other Acts was introduced in Parliament on March 1, 2022. As outlined below, the Bill proposes significant amendments, with the goal of promoting substantive equality between Canada’s official languages, English and French. The impact on federal employers will be significant.
The objective of Bill C-13 is to modernize the Official Languages Act, which has not been substantively amended in more than 30 years. Some of the key improvements that the Bill proposes are as follows:
- Strengthening the Treasury Board’s powers by replacing the discretionary nature of some of these powers with legal obligations. This will improve oversight and accountability for official languages throughout the Government of Canada.
- Strengthening the powers of the Commissioner of Official Languages by adding new powers, including the power to enter into compliance agreements and to issue an order to a federal institution or other entity subject to the Act to take such measures as the Commissioner considers appropriate to remedy violations identified in the application of certain parts of the Act. Additionally, a new power would be added to impose administrative monetary penalties on certain private entities and Crown corporations that are currently subject to the Act in the area of transportation serving the travelling public.
- Creating an obligation for Canada to have a Francophone immigration policy containing objectives, targets and indicators to increase Francophone immigration to Francophone minority communities.
- Creating a new regulation on positive measures to guide federal institutions concerning consultation and consideration of the priorities of official-language minority communities.
- Requiring the Government of Canada to contribute to the estimation of the number of children of parents entitled to minority official-language education.
- Adding a paragraph to the preamble of the Act will be a reminder that official-language rights and provisions apply even in emergencies to ensure the protection of all Canadians.
- Adding the remedial nature of language rights to the principles of interpretation of the Act to remedy past injustices and provide greater protection to official-language minority communities across the country.
- Strengthening the provisions for court decisions to be translated to provide for an immediate translation of more federal court decisions.
Potential Impact on the Federally Regulated Private Sector
Bill C-13 proposes new rights to work and to be served in French in private-sector businesses under federal jurisdiction in Quebec and regions with a strong Francophone presence, as defined by regulations. These rights will be part of the new Use of French in Federally Regulated Private Businesses Act (“the Act”), separate from the Official Languages Act. The following employers would be exempt from this Act: small businesses (as specified in the regulations); a corporation that is incorporated to perform functions on behalf of the Government of Canada; a corporation that is subject to the Official Languages Act under another Act of Parliament; a council, government, corporation or other entity that is authorized to act on behalf of an Indigenous group, community or people; and the broadcasting sector.
In relation to communications with or services provided to consumers in Quebec or in relation to workplaces in Quebec, federally regulated private businesses can choose to be subject to Quebec’s Charter of the French language instead of this proposed Act.
Under the Act, consumers in Quebec would have the right to communicate in French and obtain available services in French from a federally regulated private business that carries on business in Quebec. It is important to note that this right does not preclude consumers from communicating with or obtaining services from the federally regulated private business in English or a language other than French.
Any individual or group of individuals may make a complaint to the Commissioner, regardless of the official language spoken by the individual or group, if they believe that a federally regulated private business has failed to comply with rights and duties relating to consumers under the Act.
Employees of a federally regulated private business who occupy or are assigned to positions in a workplace in Quebec would have the right to:
- carry out their work and be supervised in French;
- receive all communications and documents from the federally regulated private business, including offers of employment or promotion, notices of termination of employment, collective agreements and grievances, in French; and
- use regularly and widely used work instruments and computer systems in French.
To clarify, these rights do not preclude communications and documents from being in both official languages. However, the use of French must be at least equivalent to the use of English.
The Act will also prohibit discrimination against an employee in federally regulated private businesses in Quebec and in other regions with a strong Francophone presence solely because they only speak French or do not have sufficient knowledge of a language other than French.
The Act further provides that an employee may make a complaint to the Commissioner if the employee believes that their federally regulated private employer has failed to comply with its statutory obligations. However, the Commissioner is not permitted to conduct or carry out any investigation on the Commissioner’s own initiative. The Act also allows the Commissioner, with the consent of the complainant, to refer a complaint to the Canada Industrial Relations Board if: (1) the Commissioner has attempted to resolve the complaint but is of the opinion that the Commissioner will not be able to resolve the complaint within a reasonable period; and (2) the Board is better placed to deal with the complaint, in light of the nature and complexity of the complaint, or the seriousness of the alleged failure to comply. However, the Commissioner is not permitted to refer a complaint to the Board if the Commissioner has, in respect of the complaint, entered into a compliance agreement under the Official Languages Act with the federally regulated private business; or made an order with respect to that federally regulated private business under the Official Languages Act If the Board decides that a complaint is well-founded, the Board may, by order, require the federally regulated private business to comply with the section of the Act at issue. The Board has the broad power to make additional orders, such as requiring the federally regulated private business to reinstate the complainant.
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The author gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Erica Herman, an Articling Student in the firm’s Toronto office.