Quebec election: Legault says language law 'balanced' amid criticism from businesses

·4 min read

MONT-SAINT-GRÉGOIRE, Que. — Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault remained undeterred Wednesday amid renewed criticism of his language law reform by business leaders who say the legislation will make it harder to recruit talent and will cause enormous damage to the economy.

On Day 4 of Quebec's election campaign, the CAQ leader said that the government must balance economic growth with the protection of Quebecers' language and culture.

"I think (it's) a balanced bill and it’s important to have a balanced bill; it’s important to protect French, and French will always be vulnerable in North America," Legault told reporters Wednesday during a campaign stop in Mont-St-Grégoire, Que., southeast of Montreal.

Nearly 160 CEOs and other top executives at Quebec companies signed an open letter calling for the implementation of Bill 96 to be suspended. Published by the Council of Canadian Innovators, the letter said the law "imposes an unrealistic deadline" on new immigrants to learn French and creates an additional regulatory burden for small companies.

Pierre-Philippe Lortie, with the Council of Canadian Innovators, said the law may push people who are interested in Quebec to look for work in other parts of the country at a time when the province already faces a shortage of technology workers.

Bill 96, he said, risks leading fast-growing technology companies to delay investments, expand offices in other provinces or hire remote workers. "I don't think that's to the benefit of Quebec if we only hire outside and don't have human presence in Quebec to tackle the new challenges we have, so it could potentially do enormous damage," he said in an interview Wednesday.

The law, adopted by Legault's government in late May, extends certain provisions of Quebec's language charter to businesses of 25 or more employees. Those provisions had only applied to businesses with 50 or more employees. The bill also requires new immigrants to communicate with the government exclusively in French after they've been in the province for six months.

Legault said most governments provide information to newcomers in the local language, adding that immigrants can get help with translation if they need it.

For businesses, Legault said, there will be a three-year transition period. "They’ll have the time to adjust," he added. "It’s important to have the two objectives: yes, create wealth, but yes, also protect French.”

First published in June with 37 signatures, the letter by the Council of Canadian Innovators has since been signed by 122 additional executives. Signatories include Louis Têtu, CEO of Quebec City-based software company Coveo, which employs more than 700 people; Eric Boyko, CEO of Stingray, which owns several music television channels and more than 100 radio stations; and Antoine Amiel, CEO of glasses retailer New Look.

Lortie said the CEOs support the goal of promoting the French language and want to work with the government on language education programs.

Dominique Samson, vice-president of external affairs at financial data company Flinks, whose CEO signed the letter, said the bill is a "massive hurdle" for recruitment.

"Montreal is competing globally for talent, for investors, for everything," he said in an interview Wednesday, adding that Bill 96 is "isolationist."

Samson said his company, which employs around 200 people, has 35 open positions, adding that knowledge of software languages is more important than what languages the candidates speak. Because the company was already subject to Quebec's existing language law, and is largely francophone, Samson said the additional compliance requirements won't be significant for Flinks. He said he worries, however, about the effect it will have on smaller companies.

During the stop in Mont-St-Grégoire, Legault promised to cap increases in government-set hydro rates, daycare fees and university tuition at three per cent a year. The town is in the electoral district of Iberville — a riding the party won in 2018 but then lost after its member joined the Conservatives.

Claire Samson, who was booted from the CAQ in June 2021 after it learned she had donated $100 to the Conservatives under leader Éric Duhaime, gave the Conservatives their only seat in the legislature.

Meanwhile, the Parti Québécois on Wednesday promised to help Quebecers fight inflation with a temporary and targeted allowance of $1,200 for people making less than $50,000 and of $750 for people making between $50,000 and $80,000.

The left-of-centre Québec solidaire party promised an additional $5.3 billion for public transit projects in the Quebec City region, while Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade, during a stop in St-Agapit, Que., south of Quebec City, encouraged people who say they were the victims of sexual misconduct by Win Butler, the leader of Montreal-based band Arcade Fire, to make formal complaints.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2022.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press