Law Requiring Primacy of French in Workplace Concerns Some Quebec Employers

By Rosemarie Lally, J.D. August 11, 2022
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As of June 1, employers in Quebec became responsible for ensuring that all written communications to employees are in French. The new law delineates the circumstances when English is a permitted option.

Bill 96, amending the Charter of the French Language to make French the predominant language in workplaces throughout Quebec, contains wide-ranging provisions requiring the use of French in the workplace, business and commerce, the justice system, and civil administration. Most new provisions applying to the workplace became effective June 1; other provisions will be phased in over three years.

Not all of the requirements are completely new, noted Tania Da Silva, an attorney in DLA Piper's Montreal office; some have simply been tightened to prevent employers from continuing to use loopholes to first provide the documents in English. 

For example, the Charter already required employers to provide employment agreements to their Quebec employees in French, unless the parties agreed to contract in another language. However, "many employers would simply use their English employment contract that contained the 'language clause' until an employee requested to have a French version, in which case they would translate it," Da Silva said. "Bill 96 says that the French must be provided first in all cases, and then the version in another language—usually English—can only be provided if after having reviewed the French version, the employee asks for it in the other language."

Workplace requirements under the new law include:

  • All written communications to employees relating to employment, including offers of employment, transfer or promotion, bonus letters, performance evaluations, employee benefits, handbooks, training materials, and post-termination documents, must be available in French.
  • Employees may only be bound by employment agreements in a language other than French if they first examine the French version and then expressly state they wish to be bound by the agreement in another language. Individually negotiated employment agreements can be drawn up exclusively in a language other than French if expressly desired by the parties.
  • Generally, requiring knowledge of a language other than French as a condition to be hired, promoted or transferred is prohibited, unless the employment duties specifically require such knowledge.
  • Employers in Quebec must post fully bilingual—French and English—advertisements for jobs using the same means of transmission; for example, online jobsites or employers' websites. The French language advertisement must reach a target audience of a proportionally comparable size as the English posting.

Additionally, the law extends existing "francization" rules under the Charter that require businesses employing 50 or more people to work with the Office québécois de la langue française (the OQLF) to arrive at a satisfactory level of French in the workplace. If the OQLF determines that French has not been generalized at all levels of a business, it will require the employer to implement an approved francization program. These rules are extended to Quebec businesses employing at least 25 workers effective June 1, 2025.

Employer Concerns Related to the New Law

"From an employment perspective only, the issues that I foresee are mostly related to the increased cost of doing business in Quebec in light of the increased translation requirements and the lowering of the threshold of employees for the francization requirements to apply," Da Silva said. 

Specifically, "many global employers are concerned that all employee communications pertaining to working conditions, such as a company newsletter, a letter from the CEO or a code of conduct, must be translated into French," said Robert Boyd, an attorney with Cain Lamarre in Montreal.

Arianne Bouchard, an attorney with Dentons in Montreal, said many employers fear the new translation requirements will pose business—as well as financial—burdens. For example, a time-sensitive business e-mail sent to employees throughout Canada and the U.S. working on a joint project will have to be translated, potentially slowing down the project and hampering team communication.

Another employer concern is that the need to justify making knowledge of a language other than French a job requirement for a new position will require a more exhaustive analysis of the whole work team, Bouchard said. If bilingual capacity already exists in some team members, it could be argued there is no reason to require that a new hire be bilingual.

Recommendations for Employers

Da Silva suggested that employers get employment agreements translated to French as soon as possible. If some employees prefer to receive other communications in English, employers should confirm this preference in writing and keep a record of this. An employee may withdraw this request at any time, necessitating that the employer draft communications to them in French going forward.

It's also important to remember, she said, that "even if employees request to receive communications in English, employment application forms, documents relating to conditions of employment and training documents produced for employees in Quebec must still be available in French."

Bouchard recommended that employers take the following steps in preparing for the demands of the new law:

  • Review the law and the amended Charter of the French Language as soon as it is published.
  • Work with the HR, internal communications and management teams to assess all workplace documents to determine what needs to be translated.
  • Even if employers feel they can't meet all obligations at once, they should act immediately to understand the scope of their obligations, including meeting with legal counsel.

Looking ahead to the June 1, 2023, compliance deadline for the translation of all employee documents into French, Boyd suggested employers designate a manager to be responsible for implementing the required changes, ensuring compliance with requirements regarding job postings in French and assessing the need for English-speaking hires.

Rosemarie Lally, J.D., is a freelance legal writer based in Washington, D.C.

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