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People take part in a protest against Bill 96 in Montreal on May 26.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Quebec’s most sweeping language law overhaul in nearly half a century is raising alarm among the province’s homegrown technology companies, whose executives say the reinforcement of requirements for immigrants and businesses to use French threatens to do enormous and lasting economic damage.

The leaders of 37 Quebec-based tech companies are calling for a freeze on the implementation of the controversial language legislation, Bill 96, until Premier François Legault’s government has put in place French-language tutoring and other tools businesses need in order to comply with it.

Without those supports, the executives say, the industry’s top talent simply won’t move to Quebec and the province’s companies will shift a portion of their future investments and staffing elsewhere.

“If the best and brightest innovators, technologists, and business builders gravitate to Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver and Halifax instead of Montreal and Quebec City, it will do permanent damage to our province’s economic prosperity,” the leaders say in an open letter to Mr. Legault, which they released on Tuesday. “This is already happening, but it’s not too late to change course.”

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The warning is one of the most significant yet from the business community about the legislation, which stands to affect a wide swath of daily life in Quebec, from how people receive medical care to how courts operate. That leaders of some of the province’s fastest-growing companies are willing to speak out about it publicly suggests Mr. Legault’s government, now gearing up to win re-election in October, has not addressed their concerns about Bill 96′s possible fallout.

The executives include native French speakers like Louis Têtu, of enterprise software firm Coveo Solutions Inc. CVO-T; Eric Boyko, of Stingray Digital Group Inc. RAY-A-T; and Germain Lamonde, of EXFO Inc., a Quebec City vendor of telecommunications testing equipment and software. In the letter, they say they are not against the spirit of the legislation, but are calling for better planning to make sure the law doesn’t create more problems than it solves.

Several of the businesses whose leaders are objecting to the law’s implementation have received funding from the province, either through tax credits or through the government’s Investissement Québec arm, which provides subsidies, equity injections and credit. Others have received venture capital from the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the province’s public pension-management giant. A Caisse spokeswoman said the organization would not comment on Bill 96.

“This is an existential crisis for Quebec technology companies,” said Ben Bergen, president of the Council of Canadian Innovators, which counts as members 19 companies that signed the letter. “By the government moving forward with this tight restriction they really are potentially dealing a blow to the Quebec tech ecosystem.”

The Quebec government passed Bill 96 in late May in a bid to correct a language pendulum it says is swinging too far away from the use and adoption of French in daily life. The new legislation includes measures to make French “markedly predominant” in commercial signage, and compels companies with 25 to 49 employees to meet French-language certification obligations under the same stringent standards that previously applied to companies with 50 to 99 employees.

Under the new law, the government will set up a new administrative unit within Quebec’s immigration department called Francisation Québec. Its responsibilities will include co-ordinating and offering French learning services for people who aren’t able to function in Quebec’s common language. But the unit isn’t slated to launch until June of next year, according to the website of OQLF, Quebec’s language enforcement agency.

“In reality, Bill 96 is already imposing a mandate to learn French without offering additional support,” the tech leaders say in their letter to the Premier. “By the time your government creates Francisation Québec, the law will already have discouraged global workers from choosing Quebec as a new place to build a life and grow a family. This has a direct impact on the competitiveness and attractiveness of Quebec’s most critical sectors and most promising companies.”

Many corporate leaders in the province have expressed support for reinforcing French, even as they warn that the new legislation could saddle companies with additional costs and complicate their hiring efforts at a time when Canada is facing an acute labour shortage. Among the most crucial changes is that immigrants who settle in Quebec won’t be able to deal with the government in any language other than French once they’ve been in the province longer than six months.

Tech leaders say that has thrown recruiting efforts into chaos, especially since companies can’t access proper language training even if they are willing to pay for it themselves, because demand for those services has outstripped supply. Without that backstop, Quebec companies will begin to look at opening offices in other parts of the country and relocating staff, Mr. Bergen said. He said some might weigh leaving Quebec outright.

Montreal cancer drug developer Repare Therapeutics Inc. RPTX-Q illustrates the situation. The company announced earlier this month that it had struck a major deal with pharmaceutical giant F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG to develop and commercialize the Montreal startup’s drug camonsertib. The agreement is hugely important for the company.

Repare’s chief executive, Lloyd Segal, said he’d love to lure more international experts to Quebec to work on that deal. But the clarity he was able to offer those people in years past about their work and living situations – in other words, how they will function in French – has now become blurred, he said. And so Repare might have no choice but to hire more people for its Boston office instead of its Montreal headquarters, he said.

Quebec used to be the best place in the world to grow a technology company because of its diversity and its highly educated and technology-proficient population, Mr. Segal said.

“The risk here is a quiet exodus of some of the most valuable growth businesses that Quebec can ever create,” he added. “Nobody will advertise that they made a choice to add 20 people in Toronto or Boston or Vancouver. You won’t read about it in the paper. Memos won’t be leaked. It’ll just happen.”

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