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French language supporters take part in a demonstration in Montreal on May 21, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Quebec’s most ambitious language law overhaul in nearly half a century is weighing heavily across the province’s corporate landscape as many business leaders express support for reinforcing French even as they warn the proposed legislation could saddle companies with new costs and complicate their hiring efforts at a pivotal time.

The most visible changes will come to commercial signage, for which Premier François Legault’s government has mandated that French must be “markedly predominant” even as it relates to trademarks. He gave the example of retailer Canadian Tire, which will need to amplify the French descriptor of its business as a Centre de Rénovation to make it bigger than its namesake English banner.

But most effects of the legislation will be felt by companies in the months ahead in ways that won’t be immediately obvious. Some business groups say it will mean more administrative work, and therefore higher costs, as they try to adhere to the Charter of the French Language, which will now apply to a wider swath of enterprises. Others say it will make hiring more onerous as companies are forced to spell out why they require knowledge of languages other than French when bringing on new employees.

Why Quebec’s Bill 96 is a gift to Alberta’s Jason Kenney

“As a society, we’re trying to do something here for which there’s no textbook,” said Michel Leblanc, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, who supports the objective of the law. “How do you maintain a language that is key to your social identity alive and thriving in an environment where English is the international language of business and where you are an island in North America?”

The Legault government introduced the proposed law, known as Bill 96, earlier this month 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 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.

Many Quebec businesses owners are questioning why the government would make language an issue again at a time they’re trying to rebuild after a public-health crisis that’s already lasted 14 months. “There’s no need for this right now,” said Harry Schick, a Belgian immigrant who owns the Swiss Vienna Pastry shop in Montreal’s Pointe-Claire suburb. “Do you need the aggravation? Do you need an inspector in? Do you need them coming to tell you how to treat a customer? I don’t think so.”

Mr. Leblanc frames it in wider terms. “The business community wants linguistic peace in society,” he said. And when public perception is that existing laws don’t allow people to live and work in French to the extent they want, as is the case now, the government has to do something to create that peace, he said. There is, at the very least, an apparent consensus that some kind of update to 45-year-old legislation was in order.

What’s been announced, though, has already created anxiety and resistance.

More than half of small businesses in the province, 56 per cent, oppose the move by Mr. Legault’s government to subject them to francization, according to a recent survey of members done by the Quebec arm of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Business owners aren’t against protecting French per se, but they wonder how much more administrative work will be required, said federation vice-president François Vincent.

Under the new law, companies with 25 to 49 employees will now be subject to French certification obligations under the same standards as companies with 50 to 99 employees. Adherence includes proving internal and external communications at a business is happening largely in French. Companies with more than 100 employees are subject to additional obligations. Federally regulated businesses, such as banks and airports, are currently exempt from the language law, but that would change under the proposed bill.

“People are asking whether there isn’t another way than just more paperwork for an auto garage in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean to prove it’s operating in French,” Mr. Vincent said. “Compliance is inversely proportional to the size of your business. The smaller you are, the bigger the burden.”

On the face of it, Bill 96 will add pressure to private enterprises of all sizes. Employers with 25 employees or more will now have just three months, down from six, to submit an analysis of their linguistic situation to the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) for the purposes of obtaining a francization certificate. And employers required to make compliance changes prior to being issued a certificate will also have just three months, down from six, to engineer a francization program and communicate them to the government.

Additional limitations are also being imposed on using business and consumer contracts not written in French. And parties wanting to register security on movable property in Quebec, or enforce security, would have to use French. That specific change might cause additional delays and costs to Quebec companies operating in multiple jurisdictions, or multinationals operating in Quebec, that are seeking financing, because they typically negotiate financing documents in English, according to an analysis by law firm McMillan LLP.

The bill also raises the stakes by “drastically increasing certain consequences and right of action for non-compliance with the province’s language requirements,” say lawyers at Gowling WLG. Anyone who feels their French language rights have been infringed – including, for example, a café patron dealing with an English-speaking server – can launch a formal complaint and launch a civil lawsuit.

The government says it wants to help companies adhere to the law rather than automatically imposing penalties, and it will give them the tools to comply. Nevertheless, it is using carrot and stick approaches. While the minimum and maximum fines for a first offence remain largely unchanged, fines will be doubled for a second offence, tripled for a subsequent offence and each day of infringement will be considered a separate offence. Corporations and other organizations would face penalties between $3,000 and $90,000 for a single offence.

One major issue is Quebec’s move to make 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 by the OQLF, the province’s language watchdog, 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 that are hurting the rights and job prospects of unilingual francophones.

Employers worry the new rules will complicate hiring and lead to increased legal costs because anyone who feels they were unjustly denied a job on the basis of language will be able to seek redress. Exporters such as aerospace companies, whose biggest market is the United States, and pork producers, who count China as a major destination for shipments, need staff who can speak different languages in order to sell their wares. The same is true for tourism and restaurant companies, which need to communicate with non-French customers.

“You can’t just dump this on the desks of small business owners and leave them to figure this out,” said Véronique Proulx, head of the Manufacturiers et Exportateurs du Québec, which represents about 1,100 manufacturers. “There is lots of concern about this.” Government should provide resources to help companies navigate the coming changes, she said.

Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who also has responsibility for the French language, says the government “won’t be dogmatic” in applying the law. “We don’t want to prevent companies from requiring knowledge of other languages upon hiring when it’s necessary,” he told reporters in mid-May. “You’ve got customers overseas, suppliers overseas, it’s normal to have that skill. But internally, inside the company, in talking with your colleagues, that has to happen in French.”

Mr. Leblanc and others reject suggestions that the language reforms will spook investors and dampen corporate interest in setting up in Quebec. The province has had rules on French in place for more than four decades, he said, so “it’s not like it’s new. It’s already factored in” when they invest.

Language is just one element among others in that calculation, said Enda Wong, a business lawyer with McMillan who advises companies on regulatory compliance issues. She said among the other things companies will weigh is the financial support Quebec offers to the private sector, as well as its business law, which was modernized in 2011 to make it easier for companies incorporate in Quebec through measures such as abolishing resident director requirements.

“You can go to other jurisdictions and they might not have this sort of [language] legislation but they have other hurdles,” Ms. Wong said. “Quebec remains a great market.”

The proposed legislation invokes the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Constitution to shield it from court challenge. The Legault government has not yet released a cost analysis on the potential impact of Bill 96 measures, but it has said a three-year grace period will apply after the new rules take effect.

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