Ottawa proposes to guarantee right to work in French in federally regulated companies

·3 min read

Ottawa says it intends to guarantee the right to work in French within all federally regulated private businesses with more than 50 employees in Quebec and in predominantly French-speaking communities across Canada.

The measure is among 56 proposals to modify the Official Languages Act that were introduced Friday by Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly in a working paper titled, "English and French: Towards a Substantive Equality of Official Languages in Canada."

The federal government says the growth of digital technology and international trade is encouraging the use of English, and it's time to reinforce the place of French in Canada. Ottawa says it will create a group of experts to analyze the 56 proposals and come up with recommendations before an eventual bill is tabled in the House of Commons.

Revitalizing the French language in the country "is a priority" for the Liberals, Joly said in an interview with The Canadian Press, ahead of the document's release. She said the working paper is "ambitious, it is a reform that is robust and it will continue to be a priority. This is not a consultation document, it is a game plan." Joly says her plan is to table legislation this year.

The right to work in French within federally regulated companies such as banks and railways is a demand nationalists in Quebec have been making for years.

Ottawa says about 73,000 people in Quebec work in federally regulated companies that employ at least 50 people and that are not covered by the province's language law, known as Bill 101.

"The Government of Canada considers it important to act upon these companies to promote and protect the use of French as a language of service and work," the working paper says.

Joly is proposing to modify the Official Languages Act to oblige those employers to communicate with employees in French in Quebec and in parts of the country that are mostly French-speaking. The law would also prohibit discrimination against an employee who does not have sufficient knowledge of English.

Another one of Joly's proposals is to enshrine into law the requirement that Supreme Court of Canada justices be bilingual. The federal Liberals had already promised to appoint only functionally bilingual judges, but Joly says the law should be amended to ensure future governments do the same.

The working document also commits to increasing immigration to maintain the demographic weight of francophones outside Quebec at around 4.4 per cent of the country's population.

Joly's proposals were generally well received on Friday. Jean Johnson, president of a minority languages group, Federation des communautes francophones et acadienne, said he hoped a bill is adopted before the next election.

Sen. Rene Cormier from New Brunswick, who is head of the Senate committee on official languages, said he hopes to meet with Joly "as soon as possible" to talk about the process to update the country's officials languages law.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 19, 2021.

Catherine Levesque, The Canadian Press