The Quebec government is giving companies in federally regulated sectors one month to begin complying with new requirements to guarantee the use of French in their workplaces.
The move comes as Ottawa's plans to modernize the country's Official Languages Act, which will include new rules for federally regulated companies, are still being debated in Parliament.
Federally regulated sectors include banking, telecommunications and transportation, which were not under the legal purview of the Quebec government until the recent adoption of a new language law known as Bill 96.
According to political scientist Stéphanie Chouinard, who is an expert on language issues, the Quebec government is taking action while Ottawa continues to face criticism for its much-delayed plans to modernize federal language laws.
"Quebec is currently benefiting from a vacuum, which is to say that as long as the federal government has not issued the new directives that are called for under C-13 with regard to the language requirements of companies under federal jurisdiction, there is a possibility for Quebec to take action," said Chouinard, who teaches at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario.
New provincial rules
According to information obtained by Radio-Canada, the provincial Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) sent a letter last Friday to more than 800 companies telling them to begin developing a formal plan to allow employees to work in French.
The OQLF has asked all companies under federal jurisdiction to provide the name of a contact person and their number of employees within 30 days.
Companies with 25 to 49 employees have three years to finalize the process, while those with 50 or more employees are given six months. Smaller companies will not have to develop a plan.
The Quebec government extended the scope of its language laws to companies under federal jurisdiction with the reform of the Charter of the French language, which came into effect last month.
The minister responsible for French in Quebec, Simon Jolin-Barrette, argues that his government has the authority to impose new obligations on all businesses located in the province.
"Quebecers have the right to earn a living in their language, namely French. It is a fundamental right and it is non-negotiable," said a spokesperson for Jolin-Barrette, Élisabeth Gosselin-Bienvenue.
Under Bill 96, companies have to provide human-resources information and other documents in French to their employees, provide training opportunities in French, post job openings in French and limit the number of positions that require employees to speak any language other than French.
A looming legal battle
A lawyer who helps companies comply with the Charter of the French language recently predicted that this case could end up in court.
"There is clearly scope for some conflict with federal legislation in the employment sphere, and one would expect that the federal Justice department could intervene in such cases to preserve federal jurisdiction," said Alexandre Fallon, a lawyer at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt.
Federal officials told Radio-Canada that they will "defend" Ottawa's area of jurisdiction over federally regulated companies.
Many federally regulated companies in Quebec proactively comply with the province's French-language requirements and have obtained a francization certificate from the OQLF.
However, it remains unclear how companies will react to Quebec's effort to enforce mandatory language rules over federally regulated sectors.
Among the companies that will be affected by the new measures, the railway company Canadian National (CN) said it is analyzing the provisions of Bill 96 that affect companies under federal jurisdiction.
Air Canada said that it is already governed by the federal Official Languages Act, while adding that its subsidiary Air Canada Vacations is under provincial jurisdiction and is already registered with the OQLF