The province of Quebec operates under a different legal and language structure than the rest of Canada, and our client companies often request information that will help them do business in that jurisdiction.
Earlier this month, the Government of Quebec gave assent to Bill 96 – a law that, as per Borden Ladner Gervais LLP (BLG), “imposes new French language obligations affecting the language of work, commerce and business, contracts, signs, communications between the Government and business, education, the courts, and more.” In this post we’ll examine Bill 96, its potential impacts on business and the workplace, and the response to its implementation.
What is Bill 96?
In 1977, the Quebec government adopted the Charter of the French Language to “preserve the quality and status of the French language” in that province, making it the official language of government, education, commerce, and the workplace.
Bill 96, formally titled An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Quebec, was adopted by the Quebec legislature on May 24 and given assent on June 1, 2022. And as BLG notes, it “significantly… [paves] the way for major changes to the Charter… and other laws, such as the Civil Code of Quebec and the Consumer Protection Act (Quebec).”
What does it change?
Bill 96 has a number of impacts on its non-French speaking residents. As per the law, government agencies can provide services to Quebec newcomers in a language other than French, but only for the first six months after their arrival – meaning that immigrants to that province will have six months to learn French. Services in English will be restricted to those who attended English schools in Canada outside of Quebec, or those who are eligible to attend English schools in that province.
The bill also significant impacts to the workplace, including:
- Quebec businesses with 25 to 49 employees will be subject to the same francization rules as those with 50 to 99 employees, meaning that those businesses will have to generalize the use French across all levels of the organization,
- The businesses noted above will also be required to set up a francization committee if required by the Office québécoise de la langue française,
- The Office can also impose French language learning services to businesses with five or more employees, and
- As per BLG, “Employers will have to comply with new rules regarding the drafting of employment documentation and offers to fill a position, as well as the requirement of knowledge of a language other than French from an employee or a candidate for the position.”
How might this affect U.S. companies?
In commerce and business matters:
- All civil administration contracts must be drafted exclusively in French; in certain cases (i.e., Aboriginal agreements) a version in another language may be attached to the French version. Contracts may be drafted in a language other than French only in very limited circumstances,
- Communication between a business and civil administration agency regarding permits, subsidies, or financial assistance will need to be made exclusively in French, with few exceptions,
- Standard contract clauses designed for clients and suppliers must first be provided in French before they can be requested in another language,
- Businesses offering goods and services to consumers must respect their right to be served in French, with goods/services offered to “a public other than consumers” served in French by default, and
- French will be the predominant language on exterior signage (even when expressions from other languages are part of the business name).
Penalties and sanctions for contravention can include suspending or revoking permits, nullified contracts, clauses deemed unintelligible, and fines ranging from $700 and $7,000 for individuals and $3,000 to $30,000 in other cases. As per BLG, “These amounts will be doubled for a second offence and tripled for any additional offence. For each day that the offence continues, fines are applied. In addition, directors and executive officers of a company will see their fines doubled in comparison to the fines applicable to other individuals.”
While most of the requirements came into force when Bill 96 received assent, some provisions are subject to three month, one year, and three year transition periods; Torys LLP has more information about these timelines.
Bill 96 also uses the notwithstanding clause – Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – to override the Constitution and shield itself from court challenges.
What is the reaction?
Bill 96 was designed as an update to Quebec’s language law, and “enshrine the paramountcy of the French language in Quebec.” It passed in that province’s legislature by a vote of 78-29. As per Quebec Premier Francois Legault, “We are… proud to be a francophone nation in North America and it’s our duty to protect our common language, and I invite all Quebecers to speak it to love it and protect it.” Simon Jolin-Barrette, Quebec’s Minister of the French Language, said he considers the law “responsible and moderate.”
Reaction from business sectors has been far less enthusiastic. The Canadian Council of Innovators sent a letter to the Quebec government, warning that Bill 96 is “threatening to do enormous damage to the province’s economy.” Their letter also states that Quebec companies rely on global recruitment and immigration to fuel innovation – something that will be very difficult to do under the new law. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has put the cost of implementing Bill 96 for a 50-employee company between $9.5 and $23.5 million. Other organizations, including the Quebec Retail Council and Quebec Manufacturers and Exporters, have also called for changes to the law. And a committee of high-profile Quebec lawyers are planning to challenge Bill 96 at the United Nations, with one referring to it as “the most gratuitous use of power I’ve ever seen.”
We always recommend our clients engage with legal and translation resources in Quebec to avoid misinterpreting and/or contravening that province’s laws. The Éducaloi website recommends consulting a lawyer or notary to clarify Charter issues and redirects to JurisReference, a legal resource that refers prospective clients to Quebec lawyers with experience in a broad variety of fields (including language matters). Initial 30-minute consultations can be had for a fee of $30, plus applicable taxes.
We also recommend monitoring our blog and social media feeds for regular updates on this matter (and others).
UPDATE: While confusion still surrounds the implementation of Bill 96, Simon Jolin-Barrette (the provincial minister who implemented the bill) said in a Bloomberg article that “Bill 96 cannot govern private relations between a Quebec company and an international company.” The bill’s intent is not to deter foreign business, but we will still follow this issue for any updates.