Understanding and Complying with the Official Languages Act: A Guide for Organizations

The Official Languages Act is a federal law that plays a crucial role in promoting bilingualism in Canada. The Act mandates that English and French are both recognized as the official languages of the country. This means that all organizations in Canada – including businesses, governmental organizations, and non-profits – are required to provide bilingual services as per the act.

In this blog post, we will take a closer look at the different aspects of the Official Languages Act, and how organizations can ensure compliance. Additionally, we will examine what resources are available for organizations when it comes to adhering to the bilingualism requirement, and best practices to successfully conduct a bilingual meeting. Lastly, we will discuss what to do if required to handle requests from non-official language speakers, and how live translation technology can help.

Official Languages Act: Your Guide To Compliance

Understanding the Official Languages Act: Implications and Benefits

Enacted in 1969, the Official Languages Act (OLA) aims to promote equality by protecting and preserving linguistic and cultural diversity. It establishes that all Canadians have the right to access government services in the official language of their choice, whether they are English or French speakers. This means, for example, that all federal courts and tribunals must operate in both official languages.

When offering bilingual services, organizations should ensure these are of equal quality, content, and availability even for people whose language of choice is different from French or English. Additionally, for the private sector, there are further voluntary measures that businesses can adopt, such as providing bilingual customer service. Any non-compliance can result in legal charges and tarnish an organization’s reputation.

Beyond the legally binding aspects, complying with the OLA represents a big opportunity to boost a company’s overall success, fostering cooperation and productivity, and maintaining a diverse customer base. It promotes creativity and innovation, improves employee morale, and leads to more effective problem-solving. From an HR point of view too, implementing language accessibility policies leads to employees and stakeholders feeling included and supported, with positive impacts on workforce engagement.

How organizations can best comply with the Official Languages Act

As a legal requirement for Canadian organizations to comply with the Official Language Act, any document (including press releases, manuals, websites, and printed material intended for the public) should always be available in both official languages. This ensures consistency and accessibility of information for all Canadians. Public meetings, regardless of them being on-site or virtual, should also be conducted in both French and English. This means organizations must provide live translation services to accommodate different needs.

Different from the above mandatory measures, providing bilingual customer service falls under the voluntary initiatives that private companies may adopt – but it has proven to be highly impactful to drive business expansion, growth, and client retention, particularly for organizations in the tourism and service industries. Here are some examples of actions to implement:

Provide access to bilingual staff who can communicate in both official languages. For example, a bank can offer bilingual tellers, and an airline can provide bilingual flight attendants.

Ensure language preferences for customers are met in terms of receiving official documents like receipts, contracts, and agreement forms in their language of choice.

Review your website content and marketing material (product labels, leaflets, business cards, and so on) to make it multilingual.

Don’t forget your team: make sure all your learning and development programs are accessible in the language of choice, and that employees have avenues to effectively communicate with each other as well as share feedback with the management.

Resources Available for Organizations to Ensure Compliance with the Bilingualism Requirement

Organizations are not left alone in their path to compliance. The Canadian government provides several online resources, such as policy guidelines and language training courses for federal employees. One example is the Translation Bureau, which offers language services to public authorities. Another useful resource is Canadian Heritage, which administers various official-language-support programs such as language & culture exchanges, resource development funds, and language evaluation services. Non-profit organizations can also access training resources to improve their official language communication skills.

Beyond the resources provided by the government, organizations can also use language translation technologies and simultaneous interpretation services (both human and AI-powered). The advantage of choosing human interpretation lies in the interpreter’s full control over terminology, register, and context of your event. On the other hand, an AI Speech Translator offers a lower price tag, while also enabling organizations to handle unexpected requests in non-dominant languages – we’ll see more on that in the next paragraphs.

Best practices and recommendations when chairing bilingual meetings

As we have seen, complying with the Official Languages Act requires all public meetings and events to be held in both French and English – may they be in-person, hybrid, or fully remote. And while the production of written material can be managed with relatively low difficulties, handling bilingual meetings can easily become a daunting task.

Here are some best practices you can follow to ensure a fluent and engaged bilingual meeting:

When your event starts, remember to give a brief introduction to the event in both the languages. In the same way, do not forget to summarize the key concepts discussed by the speakers, and points raised by the audience once your meeting ends.

Remind your attendees/employees they can participate fully in the meeting and ask questions in the language of their choice. This also implies that each question (and of course, the related answer) must be summarized in the other official language so that everyone can follow the conversation.

All the supporting material and documents prepared – invitation, agenda, and handouts – must be distributed in both official languages at the same time.

If you are taking minutes of your bilingual meeting, make sure these are recorded in both languages.

Conducting bilingual meetings require lots of time – including some additional time set aside some for occasional interruptions, in case your translation is not clear to everyone. This consideration must be top of your mind when setting the event agenda.

If you are thinking this is a lot – you are right. But the benefits of multilingual events go well beyond the challenges. Conducting a meeting in two or more languages adds enormously to common understanding, and optimizes participation of all guests and employees, who are more engaged and productive in the language of their choice And if the event’s schedule is a concern, remember that adding simultaneous interpretations services (human and AI) to your meeting can substantially shorten the timings, while also making sure to avoid any miscommunication and appropriately catch each language’s special nuances. 

How to handle requests from non-official language speakers

French and English are not the sole languages spoken in Canada. In 2021, around 25% of Canadians (roughly one in four) reported to have a different mother-tongue, with Mandarin being the most popular non-dominant language (spoken by 1.8% of Canadian population). And this trend is on the rise.

For organizations, this means they may increasingly receive requests from non-official languages speakers. In this circumstance, it is essential to ensure these customers are not discriminated against and are provided with equal service as the official language speakers would be. This implies that organizations must make fair and reasonable efforts to provide even minimal access to documents or services to non-official language speakers.

Creating a dynamic response plan for managing these requests not only shows your commitment to inclusivity, but also creates a unique opportunity to better understand the needs and preferences of your customers. Offering people printed material in their native language is of course the easiest and most immediate solution that can be implemented. Additionally, to really facilitate communication and foster inclusion, organizations can once again decide to provide translation and interpretation services – for example, in the form of interpretation booths, telephone interpretation services, or language apps (like KUDO AI Speech Translator).

An AI translator can really act as a differentiator here, as a single app guarantees you access to multiple languages, allowing companies to better handle request in languages where live translation was unplanned.


Adhering to the Official Languages Act doesn’t come without difficulties, but it’s doable by investing the time and resources required – and the benefits associated with compliance far outnumber the challenges. Handling bilingual meetings may be particularly complicated, but the right translation service can shorten time and avoid miscommunication.

If meeting the OLA requirements during your events feels overwhelming, get in touch with our experts to see how we can support you!

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Get in touch and see how you can add live speech translation and captions to your meetings – human or AI, on any device or platform.