Business groups are worried the Quebec government's proposal to beef up language laws will become an added burden for smaller companies struggling to stay afloat long enough to make it to a post-pandemic recovery.
On Thursday, the CAQ government tabled a wide-ranging bill that, if adopted, would beef up the province's language laws, affecting the education, immigration and court systems as well as workplaces.
Bill 96 would essentially make French the only language needed to work in the province.
There are exceptions, but some companies might need to explain why their employees need to be able to speak English.
The proposed legislation would also lead to an enhanced complaint system as well as the creation of a French Language Ministry and the role of a French Language commissioner.
"Elsewhere, when a company feels that its employees need to speak English, we don't ask that company to justify and explain [what they're doing]," said Michel Leblanc, president and CEO of the Montreal Chamber of Commerce.
"Are we heading toward a situation where, at any moment, a company will find itself in court because of the use of French or English [at work]?"
Leblanc says he understands the need to protect the French language and to make sure English is not arbitrarily in the workplace but he's concerned about how the law would be applied.
"If I am in retail, or the restaurant business and I want teams that are able to work with tourists, I am okay if I want eight waiters who can speak English? Or does it have to be only one waiter, and each time there's a table with anglophones, [someone] will say 'sorry, I can't help you, let me go get my colleague'?" Leblanc said.
"This is about the organization of labour, the possibility to hire staff depending on my needs."
Simon Jolin-Barrette, the province's minister responsible for the French language, says the government "won't be dogmatic" in its approach.
"If the job you have requires you to interact with clients or suppliers overseas, of course some employees will need to master languages other than French," Jolin-Barrette told Radio-Canada's Tout un Matin. "But we've seen the reports, in the last few months, with unilingual Quebecers with diplomas who can't find work on the island of Montreal. It's not acceptable."
English not required
The bill would also force businesses with 25 to 49 employees to register with the Office québécois de la langue française and obtain a French certification.
Right now, that rule only applies to businesses with at least 50 employees. If the bill becomes law, businesses will have three years to conform.
Small to medium businesses would also be required to make French text predominant on all commercial signage that includes non-French-language trademarks.
Alex Winnicki, co-owner of Satay Brothers, a Singaporean restaurant in Saint-Henri, says he's worried about the potential costs of correcting his restaurant's signage.
"I can't believe that this is on anybody's priority list right now," he said. "To hire a French-speaking person in every job in Quebec, I think, is going to make our job market a lot less attractive for a lot of people."
Denis Hamel, vice-president of the province's largest employers' group, the Conseil du patronat du Québec, says the additional paperwork will weigh down businesses that are facing a labour shortage.
"Promotion of the French language, which we support, shouldn't be in contradiction with the knowledge of other languages, which we also support," Hamel said.
"We need experienced people, people with skills, and the knowledge of other languages is part of the skills we need in this 21st century."