Quebec's government has proposed legislation to bolster the status of the French language on the job.
Bill 96 would make French the predominant language in Quebec's workplaces, said Alexandre Fallon, an attorney with Osler in Montreal. If passed, employers in the Canadian province will have to demonstrate compliance with language regulations within three months or they could face fines.
Fallon said he anticipates the bill will become law sometime before the end of 2021.
"The proposed amendments to the Charter of the French Language in Quebec—if adopted—would be the most significant overhaul to the charter since it was first introduced in the 1970s," Fallon said. "This will result in new requirements and new risks for companies operating in Quebec."
According to the 2016 Canadian Census conducted by Statistics Canada, French is the main language of approximately 7.2 million Canadians, or 20.6 percent of the Canadian population. Most native French speakers in Canada live in Quebec.
Currently, businesses with 50 or more employees in Quebec have to follow specific rules to make sure French is the language of work. The bill proposes to generalize the use of French for all companies in Quebec employing at least 25 people, stated Chantal Larouche, president of GP Conceptal in Montreal.
Communicating with Employees in French
Businesses in Quebec need to comply with the following provisions to operate in the province if the bill passes, Fallon explained:
- Employee communications. All written communication from an employer in Quebec—including bonus letters, employee benefits like pension plans, handbooks, memos, paystubs, performance evaluations and training documents—must be available in French. Employers have one year to provide French documents to all staff.
- Employment offers. Employers need to provide a French language version of an employment contract before a potential Quebec-based employee can request to have the agreement drawn up in English. The accuracy of the French translation is important, as an employee could invoke the French or English version of a contract in case of a discrepancy, explained Sven Poysa, an attorney with Osler in Toronto.
- Job postings. Employers and human resource departments in Quebec must post fully bilingual—French and English—advertisements on jobs sites like LinkedIn and Indeed, as well as on provincial job boards or on employers' websites, Fallon said. The French language advertisement must reach a target audience of the same size as the English advertisement.
- Recruitment and hiring. Employers and HR departments in Quebec need to keep all records of hiring practices that adhere to language changes. Companies located in Quebec will have to justify if a job position needs language skills beyond French, including English, said Antoine Aylwin, an attorney with Fasken in Montreal.
"These significant amendments to the charter will ensure that French is the language of work in businesses employing more than 25 people in Quebec," Fallon said.
A September 2021 survey conducted by the Federation of Workers of Quebec found that around 73 percent of workers polled want to protect the French language in the workplace.
Bill 96 also establishes that an employee can file a complaint with Quebec's labor standards board—the Commission des normes, de l'équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail or CNESST—if employers do not communicate in French, said Julien Ranger, an attorney with Osler in Montreal.
"Employees will also have the right to work in an environment free of discrimination or harassment while communicating in French," Fallon said.
How Quebec Employers Should Prepare
Employers in Quebec should review and refresh their paperwork in preparation for Bill 96. In the coming months, Poysa explained, employers should carry out a gap analysis to:
- Identify which documents need updating and translating, including offer letters, employment contracts, company policies and job applications.
- Assess actual language needs of employees' tasks in French versus other languages, including English.
- Draft bilingual templates of standard agreements or clauses.
Fallon said Bill 96 would introduce a slew of complications for HR departments in Quebec, especially at small- and medium-size companies.
If an HR department does not have a fluent French communicator, it may need to hire outside vendors for help with payroll and translating documents into French, Fallon said. HR may also need to educate senior leaders about bilingual e-mail communications—for instance, a CEO at an entity covered by Bill 96 would have to draft messages to employees in French.
Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.