The debate over bilingualism in Saskatchewan concerns essentially the relationship of Canada's two official languages in the spheres of government, the courts, and education. Its roots predate the establishment of the province. It involves the continuing attempts of Saskatchewan's French-speaking population, the Fransaskois, to maintain their language rights; and also the impact that federal bilingual initiatives, as expressed in the Official Languages Act (1969) and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), has had on provincial support for the French language. When the North-West Territories Act was amended in 1877, section 110 stipulated that “either the English or the French language may be used by any person in the debates of the Legislative Assembly of the Territories and in proceedings before the courts.” An 1886 amendment gave the Assembly the power to “regulate its proceedings and the manner of recording and publishing the same”; such regulations would come into force once proclaimed and published by the Lieutenant-Governor. In 1892, the Assembly resolved that its proceedings be recorded and published in English only. This amendment, however, never received royal assent, and when Saskatchewan became a province in 1905 and the provisions of the North-West Territories Act remained in force, French remained theoretically an official language.

By 1911, however, less than 5% of the population was French-speaking. English was increasingly regarded as a unifying factor, and World War I increased attacks against other languages: this attitude was reflected especially in education, and from 1918 a series of anti-French, anti-Catholic measures, culminating in 1931, saw English legislated as the sole language of instruction, and religious garb and symbols banished from the classroom. French might still be taught as part of the curriculum for one hour a day if a school district requested it, but Francophones had to resort to their own resources in order to preserve French language and culture. This was rendered more difficult by rural depopulation and increasing school centralization. Not until the new federal emphasis on bilingualism and biculturalism in the late 1960s did attitudes begin to change. In 1967, an amendment to the Education Act restored French as a language of instruction for one hour a day. This provision was broadened in 1973 and again in the 1978 Education Act, which provided for schools to be designated in which French would be used as the principal language of instruction, thus opening the possibility of Francophone and immersion schools. To facilitate the organization and curricula of the new designated schools, the Official Minority Language Office (OMLO) was established in 1980.

Since 1982, a number of important developments have taken place. In 1987, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal decided that Francophones had a right to a trial in French, and in the following year it was ruled that they could manage and control their own school system. The Fransaskois had been campaigning for this since 1984, based on Article 23 of the Charter. The Saskatchewan government stalled, however, and it was not until 1993 that the Romanow government amended the Education Act, thus allowing the Fransaskois to manage their own schools. Provincial government action had already been taken in 1988 when the Supreme Court of Canada, ruling on the Mercure case, found that Section 110 of the North-West Territories Act was still valid in Saskatchewan and that all statutes enacted only in English were thus invalid. However, it also recognized that the government of Saskatchewan could exercise its legislative power, which it did, enacting the Language Act (1988). This declared all existing laws valid, even if enacted in English only, and provided for certain language rights that apply to the judicial system. Saskatchewan did not, therefore, become an officially bilingual province, but it did enter into an agreement with Canada to provide increased support for French-language education at all levels. Two years later, the Office of French-language Co-ordination was set up to assist in the provision of services in French. In 2004, the government of Saskatchewan defined its French-language services policy, recognizing that “linguistic duality is a fundamental characteristic of Canada and that Saskatchewan's Francophone community is an important component of that linguistic duality.”

General opinions of non-Francophones on bilingualism in the province have been divided. Many continue to object to the perceived imposition of a federal and provincial policy that they consider unnecessary and wasteful. Others, such as Canadian Parents for French, have welcomed new opportunities in education and championed French immersion schools as a means to ensure future bilingualism and biculturalism. The last few decades have then seen progress, but with a declining Francophone population and a current provincial bilingualism rate of 5.1% it must be concluded that in the 21st century official bilingualism in Saskatchewan faces an uncertain future.

Brian Rainey