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Quebec’s French-First Law Stokes Business Alarm Over Language Cops

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 12/27/2022 Mathieu Dion

(Bloomberg) -- Businesses in Quebec are looking at all the usual hurdles as they plan for next year: Inflation, supply chains, employee turnover. And then there’s the language police.

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It’s too soon to know how the Office québécois de la langue francaise will enforce the newest pro-French law in the Canadian province, but imaginations can run wild. Will they fine people if they chat with cubicle-mates in the wrong tongue? Raid offices to scour for documents in English?

Officials in the government of Premier Francois Legault say that critics who raise such scenarios are fear-mongering. But Bill 96, which requires Quebec-based companies to serve clients and write contracts exclusively in French in some circumstances, is ambiguous enough that entrepreneurs like Marc Poirier have been left to wonder and worry. 

“My biggest fear is that my business dies out because of a law that prevents me from working with the American market,” said Poirier, chief executive officer of Klever Programmatic Inc., a Montreal-based digital-advertising firm whose clients are all in the US. 

Pro-French rules and regulations are nothing new in Quebec, a province of about 8.7 million that’s home to the largest concentration of French-speaking people in the US or Canada. The country’s unique constitution, drafted in the 1860s, gives provinces a lot of power over language and cultural policy, and Quebec’s leading politicians haven’t been afraid to use it. 

Stores Outside Montreal Kick Off Quebec Reopening © Photographer: Christinne Muschi/Bloomberg Stores Outside Montreal Kick Off Quebec Reopening

The province created the language office, called OQLF, to “fight Anglicisms” in 1961 and made French the province’s sole official language in 1974. For a time in the 1970s and 80s, businesses were were forbidden from posting signs in English or other languages. The rule was later relaxed, but companies must still follow a dense set of regulations to ensure the prominence of French words to customers. That’s why it’s Café Starbucks in the province; KFC is called PFK (for “Poulet Frit Kentucky”).    

Even so, there’s been a notable decline in the proportion of Quebeckers using French at home and at work, spurring Legault’s government into action. It’s restricting immigration to protect the language, and Bill 96 aims at enforcing more use of French in society. Parts of the new law will come into force in 2023. 

The language law will leave customers with the burden of asking for translations, though there is an exception for business that’s done outside of the province. 

French Declines in Quebec Households | Proportion of Quebeckers who spoke predominantly French at home © Bloomberg French Declines in Quebec Households | Proportion of Quebeckers who spoke predominantly French at home

French will have to be “markedly predominant” on the public display of any trademark. Companies with 25 or more employees may have to undergo a so-called “francization program” and report to the government regularly on their French-language practices. Firms looking to recruit someone who speaks English or another language must explain why that’s necessary. 

And the OQLF can be called to verify the compliance of a company’s internal and external communications after a complaint, as well as issue fines of as much as C$30,000 (about $22,000) — more for multiple offenders. Executives and directors who contravene the law can be fined individually as well. 

Those powers are what worry Jack McDonald, president of PreciKam Inc., a manufacturer of high precision plastic parts in Baie-D’Urfe, a Montreal suburb. 

“If a bureaucrat comes here and sees all of this documentation in English, and then insists that it gets translated, that is going to add a layer of complexity at a cost that is probably not sustainable in our case,” McDonald said. 

After Bill 96 passed, executives at more than 150 companies — including dozens of technology firms and startups — signed a letter to Legault warning the law “is threatening to do enormous damage to the province’s economy” because it creates an unpredictable business environment. Pierre-Philippe Lortie, director of government and public affairs at the Council of Canadian Innovators, said Bill 96 is likely to scare off investors. “This is the reality,” he said.

Labor Market ‘Noise’

A main complaint in the business community is the uncertainty about enforcement. 

“The law is not clear,” said Dominique Babin, a partner at BCF Business Law, a Montreal law firm. “It would not make sense to require all companies to serve all their clients in French all the time.” 

Some of the concerns of executives are probably not justified, she said — but businesses just don’t have enough information to know for sure.

Lawsuits challenging Bill 96 are already in the courts, including one by a Montreal school board that claims it interferes with the administration of English schools. In August, Quebec’s Superior Court temporarily suspended provisions requiring French translation by a certified translator for court pleadings drafted in English, deeming it a barrier to justice.

Those unhappy with the law aren’t necessarily opposed to its intent. People who invest in Montreal believe in the value of the French language, said Anne-Marie Hubert, Ernst & Young’s managing partner in Eastern Canada. “They love the fact that we speak French.”

Hubert said EY is confident it will be able to attract workers, though applicants “are asking more questions” these days. But the law is producing “a lot of noise” that’s unwelcome at a time of labor shortages, she said. Among the concerns: immigrants, six months after their arrival, won’t be able to access some government services in any language except French.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault Election Night Event © Photographer: Christinne Muschi/Bloomberg Quebec Premier Francois Legault Election Night Event

The effort to boost the French language is far from a Quebec-only phenomenon. French President Emmanuel Macron’s policy is to promote the language globally, through a network of hundreds of French schools abroad, among other measures. In Canada, the federal government is one of the largest donors to La Francophonie, the alliance of dozens of French-speaking nations that aims to promote the language and culture. 

Within Quebec, Legault’s language law is politically popular with the French-speaking majority, especially outside Montreal. His nationalist Coalition Avenir Quebec party was re-elected with a huge majority in October after making the language protection a key part of its platform. 

“We are a nation surrounded by 300 million English speakers,” Legault said during the campaign. “It will always be a challenge to protect our language.”

The provincial minister who implemented Bill 96, Simon Jolin-Barrette, said everyone should just calm down. 

“We need to stop scaring entrepreneurs,” he said. “Bill 96 cannot govern private relations between a Quebec company and an international company.” And if two employees want to have a conversation at the office in Italian or Russian or English? That’s fine, he said, as long as their right to speak French is respected.

--With assistance from Philip Sanders.

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