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Anglophone opponents of Quebec's French-language law Bill 96 protest in downtown Montreal on May 26.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

A significant portion of Quebec’s labour force suffers from what amounts to a skills gap.

The skill in question is French language proficiency. And Bill 96 threatens to widen that gap, without a serious educational investment on the part of the province to address it.

Bill 96 is Quebec’s new language law – amending and updating the old Bill 101 that has defined the use of French (and English) in commerce, public services and education since the 1970s. The new bill includes stricter rules governing the hiring of non-French speakers, and the use of English in the workplace.

The province’s anglophone-rights advocates are, unsurprisingly, beside themselves. The Quebec Community Groups Network called the law “the most significant derogation of human rights in the history of Quebec and Canada.”

The business community – though not nearly so melodramatic – has hardly embraced Bill 96, which lands at a time when employers are struggling with serious shortages of labour and specialized skills. (As we discussed in this space last week, Quebec has an unemployment rate of just 4.2 per cent, the lowest in the country, and nearly a quarter-million job vacancies.)

Many are worried that the tougher rules will make it significantly harder for companies to recruit sorely needed talent from outside the province. The Council of Canadian Innovators, a group made up of CEOs of the country’s biggest tech companies, issued an open letter to Premier François Legault in mid-June – signed by the heads of more than 100 Quebec businesses – urging the government to delay and rework the new law.

“Successful Quebec companies need to rely on global recruitment and immigration to fuel innovation, and bringing newcomers to Quebec is more difficult under the requirements of the new language law,” the letter says.

Nicholas Salter is executive director of Quebec’s Provincial Employment Roundtable (PERT) – a group focused on labour challenges facing the province’s English-speakers, who make up about 14 per cent of the population. In an interview in Montreal last week, he argued that the economic issue here boils down to “a skills gap.”

You have workers who lack the skills – competently giving and receiving communication in French, whether spoken or written – to meet the full requirements of the labour market in Quebec, as defined by law. As the law becomes more stringent, the skills gap for those workers widens.

The result is that English-speaking workers either don’t get jobs, or end up in jobs that don’t take full advantage of their other skills besides language. Mr. Salter notes that 2016 census data showed that anglophone unemployment was two percentage points higher than francophone unemployment. The median after-tax income for anglophones was $2,800 lower. (Statistics Canada will publish updated data from the 2021 census in August.)

“English speakers, if you look at the education data, are as educated if not slightly more educated than francophones, in terms of high school or university completion,” he said. “It’s indicative of the [language] skills gap.”

Rather than push back against the language laws, he believes the better solution lies in a concerted effort to upgrade the French language skills of non-francophone workers. Which, he argues, is something that the Quebec government – despite decades of laws to protect and nurture the French language – doesn’t do particularly well.

“We’ve done a lot of work looking at, ‘Is Quebec a good place to learn French?’ What we actually found out is, the answer is no. There’s a patchwork of programs that exists, but the offerings are fairly inadequate,” Mr. Salter said.

“That’s all the more concerning in a Bill 96 context,” he said.

“Now you’re bringing in a law that increases the amount of presence of French in the workplace, and you haven’t built the [language training] infrastructure. So these structural problems are likely to get worse, in the absence of some significant investment.”

It’s not something that has eluded the Quebec government. Bill 96 does include a plan to set up a new agency, Francisation Québec, to provide French courses for any Quebecker wanting to upgrade their language skills. But the agency isn’t scheduled to launch until the middle of next year – a year after the law has come into force. From the perspective of the health of the labour market, it feels backward.

And it won’t be cheap. To do it right, this would need to be a comprehensive system of free courses for a wide range of worker training and retraining, co-ordinated with the workplace. Mr. Salter even argues that the government should subsidize wages while workers are on course.

But the justification is the economic payoff that would result: unlocking a segment of the work force that has long been under-employed, upgrading labour productivity, and ultimately improving the province’s economic potential.

It’s an argument that should strike the right chord with the government of Premier Legault. His long-standing economic ambition has been to turn Quebec’s economy from underperformer to performer –and specifically, to close the gap of economic output with neighbouring Ontario, whose GDP per capita is about 14-per-cent higher.

This could greatly reduce a barrier that contributes to that gap. It’s cultural policy as sound economic policy – and worth Quebec’s investment to get it right.

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