The leaders of dozens of Quebec-based technology companies are warning Premier François Legault that the province’s new language law, known as Bill 96, will make it hard to recruit talent and threatens to do “enormous damage to the province’s economy.”
Bill 96 was adopted last month and aims to strengthen Quebec’s language laws, with new and expanded rules for businesses, harsher penalties for violations and limits on who can access certain government services in English.
One part of the law stipulates that immigrants who have been in Quebec for six months or more will only be able to access most government services in French.
In a letter published Tuesday, more than 30 executives called on Legault and the province to delay implementation of Bill 96 until there is better French-language support, such as tutoring, available for workers.
“We have team members who come from South America, who come from Europe. We need to give them more time and more support,” said Lloyd Segal, president and CEO of Repare Therapeutics, a Montreal-based biotechnology company that develops cancer drugs, and one of the letter’s signatories.
“These phenomenal researchers who embrace coming to Quebec — and everything about coming to Quebec. They can go anywhere and we don’t want to lose them.”
Until now, some of the province’s French-language requirements for businesses only applied to companies with more than 50 employees. But under Bill 96, those rules will also apply to smaller companies with more than 25 people on staff.
Repare has more than 50 employees, so it had already been subject to French requirements since it started operating in Quebec six years ago.
The problem now, Segal said, is that the new law could make his company less attractive to the talent it needs, noting that Repare is already competing with businesses around the world in the face of a labour shortage across the tech sector.
WATCH | Head of the Council of Canadian Innovators explains the calls to delay Bill 96:
Benjamin Bergen is the president of the Council of Canadian Innovators, the organization behind the letter. He acknowledges the importance of protecting Quebec’s culture, but said the law was prepared hastily and will make it harder for domestic companies to grow.
“You’re actually damaging your own culture and your own economy,” said Bergen.
‘Duty to protect our common language’
Legault has said that strengthening the province’s language laws is a question of survival when it comes to the French language in Quebec.
“We are proud to be a Francophone nation in North America and it’s our duty to protect our common language,” he said in May, when Bill 96 was adopted.
His Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government has said the law won’t be applied for another year, as the province works to set up a new French language ministry to develop language policies for the public service, municipalities and government organizations.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the minister responsible for the French language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, said the government will put tools in place to support new immigrants and help them learn French.
There are several parts of the legislation that will touch businesses and many companies are now looking for guidance on how to comply, said Brittany Carson, a partner in labour and employment law with the Montreal-based firm Lavery.
For instance, companies with more than 25 employees will need to ensure the use of French is generalized in the workplace — a requirement that previously only applied to larger businesses, with more than 50 employees.
The Office québécois de la langue française, or OQLF, which enforces the French-language charter, will be looking to ensure communication with staff, training materials, policies and contracts are all in French, said Carson.
“What does that mean for the person sitting in New York City, who’s managing employees here in Quebec? Obviously, the Charter is not going to force them to speak French,” she said.
“I think that companies are going to have to start thinking about making sure that they’re respecting the fundamental right of their Quebec employees to work in French.”
Despite fielding many questions from clients, Carson said she hasn’t heard of anyone considering leaving Quebec because of the stricter rules, in part because many larger companies have already been subject to the province’s French language rules for decades.
Montréal International, the city’s economic promotion agency, said it has received an influx of calls from investors about Bill 96, with questions and concerns about immigration and French requirements for employees.
But Stéphane Paquet, the agency’s president and CEO, said in a statement that he doesn’t expect the debate around the new law to drive talent away.
“Investors consider multiple factors when evaluating their options for investing in a city, including the current economic climate and the existing ecosystem,” he said, adding that the agency’s recruitment activities currently target mainly French-speaking talent pools.
For his part, Segal said he is hopeful the Quebec government will help businesses comply and clear up uncertainty about how the law will be applied and enforced. He has no plans to move his company outside of Quebec, but worries other companies will be dissuaded from setting up here.
“I have deep concerns as one of the builders of our biotech community here in Montreal that, without more certainty, we are almost certainly going to lose new businesses that are being formed.”