What are the official languages of Canada?

Canada is a bilingual nation with two official languages (French and English), but a multitude of languages are spoken in the country. There are over 67 distinct dialects and languages, which are classified into 11 Aboriginal language groups. Of them, only Ojibway, Inuktitut, and Cree are spoken by a large enough group of fluent speakers. Salishan languages are used in the Northwest Plateau while Iroquoian and Algic languages are spoken in the Eastern Woodlands cultural area.

French and English are the mother tongue of 23.2 percent and 58.8 percent of Canadians, respectively. Both are official languages in New Brunswick only, and the official language in Quebec is French. Both French and English are recognized as official languages by the Constitution of Canada. This means that services offered by the federal government must be available in English and French. All laws enacted by the federal authorities must be in both languages, and federal employees can use an official language of their choice at work.

In terms of geographic distribution, 95 percent of residents in Quebec speak French, and 45 percent know English. The majority of the population (97.6 percent) in the rest of Canada knows how to speak English, and 7.5 percent are capable of speaking French. The bilingual belt covers Quebec, northeastern Ontario, and parts of Ottawa where 63 percent of bilingual Canadians live. In Quebec, the rate of bilingualism has risen from 26 percent to 40 percent.

The history of official bilingualism in Canada dates back to the British North America Act (section 133). In 1867, the Act permitted the use of both French and English in parliamentary debates and federal courtsí proceedings. Section 133 stipulated that English and French should be used in the journals and records of Parliament. In addition, legislation should be enacted in both official languages. Stamps became bilingual in 1927 and in 1936, banknotes became bilingual. The federal Translation Bureau was formed in 1934 by an Act of Parliament and in 1959, simultaneous interpretation was introduced in the House of Commons. The Parliament adopted the first Official Languages Act in 1969, which recognized French and English as official languages to be used in all federal institutions. The act granted equal status to both languages not only before the courts and in Parliament but in the federal administration. The Act also states that all Canadians have the right to appear before tribunals and federal courts using an official language of their choice. Finally, in 1997, the memorandum of understanding between the Treasury Board Secretariat and Canadian Heritage made all departments accountable in view of official-language minorities.

Apart from the official and minority languages spoken in Canada, there were hybrid languages (trade languages and mixed languages). Intermarriage and trade required a common means of communication, which resulted in the development of such languages. They were spoken by a small number of people, highly localized, and persisted only briefly. Hybrid languages are the Chinook Jargon, Basque pidgin, and Michif.