Some fear for Outaouais economy in wake of Bill 96

Some businesses and communities in the Outaouais say they are ready to comply with the controversial French-language changes to Bill 96 – but warn there may be costs.

Bill 96 proposes removing the bilingual status of any Quebec municipality if fewer than 50 percent of its citizens speak English as their first language.

Jurisdictions without this status may only offer services in French, with a few exceptions.

The bill has some Quebec executives worried about the potential impact on the province’s economy. Dozens have signed an open letter published online on Friday urging the government to suspend the law.

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“It’s a good thing to protect the French … I’m all for it,” said Nicolas Roy, a Gatineau, Que. businessman and CEO of Epsi, a company specializing in human resources management.

Although he fully supports the principles and principles of the law, Roy signed the letter nonetheless.

“I think we’d better consider the impact that such a law could have on small and medium-sized businesses,” he said.

A “very heavy” burden

The bill’s strict language requirements make Quebec a less attractive place to work compared to other provinces, Roy said. He added that this is also a barrier to recruiting people from outside Canada, as they would need to successfully learn French within six months of immigrating.

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As Quebec businesses are already struggling to attract a skilled workforce as they face a possible recession, Roy said those kinds of obstacles could be devastating.

“It’s a burden [that’s] very difficult,” said Roy.

In the western Quebec township of Mansfield-et-Pontefract, the law could affect the many English-speaking tourists and cottagers who arrive each spring and summer, Mayor Sandra Armstrong said.

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The small community about 120 kilometers northwest of Ottawa is “already a French-speaking community” and operates almost exclusively in French, Armstrong said. So does its neighbors Fort-Coulonge and Île-du-Grand-Calumet, she added.

Still, providing services to English-speaking tourists is vital to the local economy, Armstrong said.

“For now we will continue to serve them in French or English to help them. Then we’ll see what the government is really asking of each community,” Armstrong said.

“There is no hiding the fact that we must respect this law.”

Attorney Gabriel Poliquin says he expects several elements of Bill 96 to be challenged. (CBC / Radio Canada)

Minister promises to support companies

Quebec Immigration and Labor Minister Jean Boulet was in Outaouais on Friday and, when asked about the impact of Bill 96 on small and medium-sized local businesses, said they would be supported while the law is applied.

The government would support the transition to all-French jobs through Francisation Québec, said Boulet, which will provide French language learning services.

Francisation Québec is scheduled to take effect on June 1, 2023.

Still, Bill 96 “may go too far in a constitutional sense,” said Gabriel Poliquin, a lawyer with Ottawa law firm Olthuis Van Ert.

The bill is a significant change to Quebec’s French language charter, Poliquin said, and aspects of the charter have previously been challenged in court.

Poliquin said he expects Bill 96 to also be challenged, possibly under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the Constitution Act.

“Even if certain pieces of legislation survive these legal challenges, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good ideas or practical ideas from the public’s perspective,” Poliquin said.

Legislative changes related to Bill 96 bills will come into effect gradually through 2025.

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