A growing number of businesses in Quebec are calling for the government to repeal parts of the French-language law enacted by Coalition Avenir Québec earlier this year, as the party seeks re-election on Oct. 3.
The number of signatories of an open letter against the law, first published in June, has more than tripled in recent days. The letter warns the legislation, known as Bill 96, could "do enormous damage" to the province's economy.
Business leaders say they're concerned about the tightening of language laws in Quebec deterring future employees from wanting to work in the province.
The letter highlights an element of Bill 96 that says immigrants will need to communicate with government agencies in French after six months of living in Quebec.
Experts have said that it's nearly impossible to become fluent in a language within six months.
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 at least 25 people on staff.
François Legault, who is the leader of the CAQ and is seeking re-election as premier, defended the law Wednesday morning on the campaign trail.
He said Bill 96 gives businesses three years to comply with all of the law's provisions.
"They'll have the time to adjust," Legault said, adding protecting French was the priority, in addition to creating wealth for the province.
He cited statistics showing a little more than half of Montrealers work in French.
"We have to be careful about the language of the people working in Montreal," Legault said.
When the letter was published in June by the Council of Canadian Innovators, more than 35 tech executives had signed it. Wednesday, that number had risen to 159.
The executives — many in the province's burgeoning tech sector — include Carl Goyette of GURU energy drinks, Lloyd Segal, president and CEO of Repare Therapeutics, a Montreal-based biotechnology company that develops cancer drugs, Louis Têtu of software firm Coveo Solutions and Germain Lalonde of telecommunications company Exfo.
Pierre-Philippe Lortie, CCI Quebec's director of government affairs, said the letter appears to have tapped into an uneasiness about some of the specific measures in the law.
"We agree with the objective and the spirit of Bill 96, which is to increase the use of French in the private sector," Lortie said.
He said the six-month clause and the one-year delay before the creation of Francisation Québec, the government agency expected to oversee businesses' adherence to the law, are two main areas of the law that have caused concern among CCI members.
Difficult to recruit
Lortie added that Bill 96 could push companies to focus their growth efforts on other markets amid Quebec's labour shortage.
"We are hearing that it is indeed very difficult to find highly skilled talent and with that law it may create another layer of insecurity just to find that talent," he said.
Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois also commented on the letter, saying his party would remove the six-month clause if elected.
Before the law was adopted in May, Nadeau-Dubois and other members of Québec Solidaire had expressed concerns about the legislation — but still ended up voting in favour of it.
"We are going to correct the problems in that Bill 96," Nadeau-Dubois told reporters Wednesday, calling the six-month clause "absolutely inapplicable."
"And it honestly lacks compassion for people who choose Quebec, who want to build Quebec with us, who want to learn French, but we have to give them time to do so.
Nadeau-Dubois said his party would also refund the costs of learning the language and would focus on providing lessons at work.
"You can't ask an immigrant who has two jobs, who works nine to five, six or seven days a week, to go take a French course on a Wednesday night. This is not realistic," he said.