Quebec Premier François Legault stood before reporters earlier this summer in the white-marbled lobby of the Honoré-Mercier building in the provincial capital and, in his folksy-father way, confessed that there are two big reasons he got into politics.
The first: help the province narrow the economic wealth gap it has with its neighbours, an effort he’s pursuing with an almost-obsessive compulsion. The second: protect the French language, something the Premier now considers his personal responsibility as the only political leader in the Americas representing a majority of francophones.
He might soon find those two things are more at odds than he thinks.
Quebec’s most ambitious language law overhaul in nearly half a century is being denounced regularly for its attacks on English language rights as rules related to things such as schooling and access to justice come into force. Those problems are bleeding into the corporate world as well, with some companies reporting difficulties hiring people from outside the province amid questions about the legislation.
The fallout is only beginning to shake out in Quebec’s executive suites and shop floors.
“Some day long into the future, when I’m in my rocking chair, I’ll be able to say it’s our government that stopped the decline of French and set the course in the other direction,” Mr. Legault said in Quebec City in June.
This is not the kind of legislation that is causing companies to decamp en masse to Ontario or elsewhere. There is no sign, for example, of any corporate migration of the kind Sun Life triggered in 1978 when it moved its headquarters to Toronto from Montreal. At the time, the company cited linguistic constraints after the adoption of Quebec’s original French language charter, with its preamble that vowed to make French “the language of government and the law, as well as the everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business.”
But that doesn’t mean this new law, commonly known as Bill 96, is without consequence for Quebec’s economy and private sector. Publicly, the province’s business leaders have voiced support for the logic of reinforcing French. And there is sensitivity to the cultural and linguistic plight of Quebec as a French-speaking island in a sea of English-speakers.
Privately, however, companies are telling their industry associations and lawyers that internal communications have become much more challenging to manage and so too has dealing with the government on language issues. Others are trying to figure out how to stickhandle new rules forcing them to spell out why they require knowledge of languages other than French when bringing on new employees.
Business leaders have also expressed concerns that the expanded search and seizure powers for language inspectors could lead to baseless probes that compromise confidential business information. There are worries, too, that a new requirement for businesses with as few as five employees to publish the language competencies of their staff will result in public humiliation or retribution.
The bill opens the door to lawsuits against businesses that fail to serve customers in French, provide communications in French and post job descriptions in French, according to law firm Osler. The law will also apply to e-commerce sites run by businesses outside Quebec, to the extent these sites sell to Quebec residents, and increases the risk of liability if businesses don’t comply.
Already, retailers such as PetSmart and Otterbox have stopped shipping to Quebec. They are among a dozen businesses that have abandoned the province because of its linguistic policies, either because of a lack of resources or interest, French newspaper La Presse reported in August.
The biggest impact might be in what’s not seen or measurable. Montreal won’t likely lose major head offices or see thousands of workers pack up their desks for Toronto. But anecdotal evidence suggests many highly-skilled workers being lured to Quebec are choosing not to come because they’re unsure about how strictly the language rules will be applied in daily life. Meanwhile, investors in Quebec-based enterprises might ask themselves whether there are better places to park their money.
Such lost business opportunities won’t show up in official statistics. But a silent migration of capital and top talent away from Quebec won’t do much for Mr. Legault’s wealth creation objectives if it happens. The province wants to reduce the gap with Ontario as measured by real gross domestic product per capita to less than 10 per cent by 2026.
Observers warn that if the Premier’s government doesn’t show some flexibility over coming months in implementing what has become a highly controversial law, the trickle of talent rejecting Quebec might snowball into something more significant.
“It goes to the broader issue of government meddling in the affairs of private businesses and even in some cases trying to micromanage them,” says Michel Kelly-Gagnon, founder of the Montreal Economic Institute, a free-market think tank.
MEI chief executive Daniel Dufort adds: “Making a number of Quebec’s small and medium-sized businesses less competitive is no way to help them thrive. Fundamentally, this regulation runs counter to Quebec’s economic ambition to close the wealth gap with Ontario and with Northeastern U.S. states.”
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, Mr. Legault’s government enacted a major update of Quebec’s Charter of the French Language that came into force in June of last year. The bill proposes measures to counter what the ruling Coalition Avenir Québec Party says is a retreat of French and highlights the government’s belief this could one day be an existential matter for French Canadians.
Bill 96 is one of two major actions the government has taken to protect French. The other is a new policy announced in May requiring economic immigrants to Quebec to know French before they arrive. More measures are on the horizon as well.
There appears to be wide consensus that some kind of update to 45-year-old legislation was in order. But many people believe the new rules go too far. And they question why the government is using such strong-arm tactics to enact change. The proposed legislation invokes the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Constitution to shield it from court challenge.
“The French language is precious. Bill 96 is not a bad thing. It’s the approach that was taken that is the problem,” National Bank Bank CEO Laurent Ferreira said in a statement to The Globe and Mail Friday.
“The entire regulatory burden makes it complicated for businesses. And that’s one of the things that talent and investors look at when comparing different places of business. We want to grow. We want to do more together to attract talent and investment, while promoting the French language and the multicultural character of Quebec.”
In an interview Thursday with The Canadian Press, he told the wire service: “We’ve hurt ourselves,” with the legislation. “We’ve scared the talent and the capital.”
Among the changes, the new law compels companies with 25 to 49 employees to meet French-language certification obligations under the same stringent standards that previously applied to companies with at least 50 to 99 employees. Some provisions in the law are already in effect. Others, such as a tightening of the use of languages other than French on signs, posters and commercial advertising, will start in June, 2025.
One crucial change is that immigrants who settle in Quebec won’t be able to deal with government agencies and departments 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, particularly for high-level talent they want to attract from the United States.
The government insists the rules won’t affect health care, for which English speakers will still be able to access service in their native tongue. But new gatekeeper messages popped up on government websites this summer asking people seeking English services to indicate they are entitled to them.
It’s an honour system and their answers are not verified, meaning they can still access the service. In person, however, it’s sometimes another story. There are reports of anglophones in line at the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ) motor vehicle agency being ignored by overzealous employees who mistakenly believe they no longer have to provide any service in English, even to people with established language rights.
Repare Therapeutics Inc. is among the rare companies speaking openly about its experience dealing with the legislative changes. The Montreal-based cancer drug developer, which has raised $500-million from investors to date, last year 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 critically important for the company.
Repare’s CEO, Lloyd Segal, has said he’d love to lure more international experts to its Montreal headquarters to work on that deal. But the clarity he was able to offer such experts in years past about their work and living situations – in other words, how they will function in French – has become blurred. And so Quebec has become a tougher sell.
“We haven’t seen the kind of growth that we were seeing before in Montreal,” Mr. Segal said in an interview. “We have a harder time hiring people from outside Quebec, particularly anglophones from the U.S. and allophones from Europe.”
A handful of recent new hires have gone to Repare’s office in the Boston suburb of Cambridge instead of its Montreal base, while other potential hires rejected the opportunity. The company had 80 people in Cambridge at last count versus 25 three years ago, and the U.S. site has grown faster than the Montreal site over the past year, Mr. Segal said.
In a presentation to a conference on Bill 96 impact organized by the English Montreal School Board in April, Mr. Segal said his company’s investors want to know that when they attend a board meeting that it can be conducted in English, and that the minutes can be written in English. That’s unclear, he suggested. He also said it’s unclear whether he can hire English-speaking staff to serve his investor partners.
Quebec is making employers justify that knowledge of another language than French is necessary for positions in which they make that a criterion for hiring or continued employment. Companies will have to demonstrate they have assessed the actual language needs related to the duties for specific jobs. They’re also being asked to limit, as much as possible, the number of positions requiring such language skills.
The government is acting to reset corporate hiring and competency practices it says are now out of whack. It points to recent research that found that more than 60 per cent of businesses on the island of Montreal required job applicants to be proficient in a language other than French to get hired. The suggestion is that such requirements have become almost a reflex and they are hurting the rights and job prospects of unilingual francophones.
But the changes make things more complex for exporters who need staff who can speak different languages in order to sell their wares. And for many companies scaling up their business and aspiring to expansion beyond Quebec, English is essential.
Companies such as Repare – high-growth, high-tech and mostly focused on markets outside Quebec – remain in wait-and-see mode, Mr. Segal said in an interview.
“I think there’s some very substantial reason for optimism but also anxiety about how long it’s taking to get clarity on how the laws are going to be applied to companies like ours,” he said. “I can’t get investors to support my growth in Quebec if the perception is that there is risk here.”
The situation is particularly messy for Quebec companies with stakeholders located outside the province, legal experts say. One of the most common issues is how Quebec-based employees interact with management and colleagues located elsewhere.
Under the previous language law, companies could address individual employees in French or English, and it was only when they were addressing groups of employees that it had to be in French. Now, even individual correspondence on routine daily business functions has to be in French. Employees can give consent to be addressed in English, but such consent can’t come from the company.
Practical application of the law remains a challenge, says Chris Semerjian, a lawyer who works at Fasken in Montreal. “It is adding complexity to businesses,” he said. “But people are playing the game. Businesses are playing the game, and they’re trying their best.”
A complaint by an employee can trigger an investigation by Quebec’s Office de la langue française (OQLF), the government agency responsible for enforcing the province’s new French language charter. If a company is found to be in breach of the law, it can face fines or even injunctions suspending its dealings with the government.
So far, however, the OQLF has wielded more carrots than sticks in its dealings with corporate Quebec. “The overall attitude is to help business be compliant and not punish businesses that are not compliant,” Mr. Semerjian said. “But this may change at any moment.”
The Legault government isn’t blind to the fallout to business from the language bill. When TV and film production groups pressed the government to amend the law shortly after it was passed to exempt their industry from a requirement that companies with more than 25 employees have to operate entirely in French, the government agreed. Quebec hosts several major Hollywood shoots a year that often hire hundreds of people, and it would be impractical for English-language productions to conduct business in French.
Mr. Segal says the CAQ government understands business more than most governments, and he’s confident that it will apply the law in ways that support growth of its most important industries. But some technology companies aren’t waiting to find out.
Ben Bergen, president of the Council of Canadian Innovators, a business group focused on helping high-growth Canadian technology firms scale up globally, says some of his member companies have opened up satellite offices in provinces such as Nova Scotia and Ontario to hedge their bets as the legislation plays out in practice. He says he’s also received inquiries from companies asking whether other provinces might provide them with financial support to relocate their operations.
“The climate is very difficult” in Quebec, Mr. Bergen said, adding the chief problem is hiring top talent. “If you’re going to move to a new jurisdiction and within six months you’re not going to be able to access essential services, potentially, or your family is not going to be able to access essential services, that just becomes a really big obstacle and a concern.”
There are other flashpoints as well.
As of June, small companies with five to 49 employees are required to declare the proportion of their work force that is unable to communicate in French, with the results accessible on the government’s public registry of businesses. The declaration will be made on an existing form, which business groups say is positive. Still, it is new information to be used for an unknown purpose, and that is raising questions.
“What will be done with that info? It’s going to be public so will it be to shame people?” said François Vincent, Quebec vice-president for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. “Is it so government can better support companies that need it? We don’t know. But one thing’s for sure: It’s yet more time required to fill out forms.”
Michel Leblanc is the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal. He says the last year has shown the OQLF isn’t out looking for illegal behaviours and mistakes. Instead, he says the watchdog has tried to help companies comply with the new legislation, and has even streamlined processes when told by businesses they’re too burdensome. It’s co-operative instead of adversarial, he said.
There will be things to monitor as the law works its way through society in the months and years ahead, Mr. Leblanc said. But so far it hasn’t been the disaster predicted for Quebec Inc. “People were expecting some form of catastrophe,” he said. “It’s not happening.”
Still, the government is steering in the wrong direction with the legislation, says Arvind Jain, professor of finance at Concordia University. Mr. Jain, who was educated in the U.S. and has lived in Quebec for four decades, says the province’s challenge is to close the wealth gap not only between itself and its neighbours, but also between different social classes of its own population.
“This strategy is not going to achieve that,” Mr. Jain said. “You’re basically driving professionals away from this province. And professionals of all kinds, whether they are in medical, in engineering, in sciences, they’re not going to come here if the language laws are as bad as they are.”
Mr. Jain predicts tough recruiting ahead for Concordia’s own professor corps, particularly if the six-month cutoff for public services is upheld and enforced. Years ago, you could tell prospective candidates that they would have time to learn the language to the best of their ability. “We can’t say that any more to them,” he said. “No sensible person is going to say I will move in that circumstance.”
The language law is going to make it very difficult to attract high quality professionals to the province, Mr. Jain said. Even if the government does find ways to reassure newcomers, it has already set a new tone, he said.
“People look at a lot of things” when they move, he said. “One of the things is ‘How happy am I going to be living in this place?’ And they’re going to realize that it’s not going to be as easy as it could be somewhere else.”