Game over? New language law puts Quebec's video game industry at risk, insiders say
Bill 96 will make it harder to attract talent during skilled labour shortage, sector fears
Remy was interviewing with a video game company when he asked the obvious question: would he need to learn French to work in Quebec?
Remy wasn't from the province and didn't speak the language. The company, like many of the major players in Canada's video game industry, was based in Quebec.
"[So I asked], is that going to be a problem?" Remy said. (Remy is not his real name. CBC News is protecting his identity because he fears work reprisals for speaking publicly.)
"I was assured that all meetings are held in English and learning French … was optional and not expected."
According to Quebec's Industry Ministry, over 11,000 people are employed in the Quebec video game industry, which generates nearly $1.75 billion in revenue for the province every year.
But those who work in the field say Bill 96, the province's controversial new language law, is putting all of that at risk.
Many of those 11,000 workers are newcomers to the province, hired from abroad with no French. Now, some of them are considering leaving Quebec entirely.
"You already see it, with some people who are looking at Bill 96 and saying: 'OK, it's time for me to pack up and leave,'" Remy said.
Skilled workers in high demand
Bill 96 aims to strengthen Quebec's language laws, with new and expanded rules that touch on everything from health care to the working language of businesses.
One part of the law stipulates that immigrants who have been in Quebec for six months or more will only be able to access most government services in French.
Remy said that if Bill 96 had passed before he had been hired, it "definitely would've had an impact" on his decision to work in Quebec.
He said English is the default language for most of the gaming industry, and some international game developers learn English just to work in the sector.
Having to learn French on top of that might be a bridge too far for some, when they can easily get a job in Ontario or Vancouver instead, where the gaming industry is rapidly growing, he said.
"I just don't see Quebec companies being able to attract talent if that's what they have to [contend with]," he said.
He's not the only one who sees the writing on the wall.
Osama Dorias has worked as a game designer in Montreal for more than 15 years and teaches in post-secondary video game programs, including one at Dawson College. He said many video game workers he knows are considering leaving Quebec in the next year.
While he acknowledges that not everyone will actually go, those who do will be hard to replace. There is a global labour shortage in the video game industry, so it's been difficult for Quebec-based companies to hire — even before Bill 96, he said.
"Now [those job seekers] are just looking elsewhere, and I don't blame them," he said. "It's going to be very hard for us to compete on a global level."
While Quebec has a lot of college and university programs churning out local talent, they're also getting scooped up by international companies, he said.
"Even if they're francophones, they're leaving because they got better jobs in California or in Sweden," explained Dorias.
If Quebec can't keep its own talent and can't manage to hire from outside the province, it doesn't bode well for the industry. If studios can't hire here, they might end up moving their operations elsewhere, he explained.
"We actually have a presence, a global presence as a leader in video games," Dorias said, "and we're throwing all of that away."
Industry supports spirit of the law
Dorias said he used to encourage other game developers to move to Montreal, but since Bill 96 passed, he said he can't in good conscience recommend it.
"The first question I ask is: 'Do you speak French? No? Then you're unwelcome. I think you should look elsewhere,'" he said.
"It's like night and day. I shifted from being an advocate for people to move here, to warning people away."
Christopher Chancey, the chairman of the board of the Guilde du jeu vidéo du Québec, which represents video game studios in the province, also has concerns.
He said the guild supports French being the default language in Quebec's gaming industry. In the past, the organization has worked with the government to translate video game terms that didn't have a French equivalent, to reduce anglicisms in the workplace.
"But we have a lot of people coming from everywhere around the world to make video games here in Quebec," he said. "Our fear is that this is sending out a message [that Quebec is] not inclusive to other cultures."
Chancey said he'd be interested in seeing the government expand the six-month time limit, an idea other Quebec tech companies have raised in recent weeks.
In the meantime, he said the law has a "PR issue" that the government should try to address.
"I think everyone understands the importance of the French language … I think it's just a question of making sure that [newcomers] feel included as well," Chancey said.
Dorias doesn't feel that way. He said he's not optimistic the government will change its mind.
"I think that the intention behind [Bill 96] is to make certain people feel unwelcome," he said, and he expects Quebec to go all-in with the law.
"I hope I'm wrong. I seriously hope I'm wrong."
All industries must do their part, ministry says
When reached by CBC News, the newly formed Office for the Protection of the French language underlined that protecting French is a collective responsibility.
"All sectors must contribute to the effort to ensure the sustainability of our official and common language," the statement read.
The ministry added that it will also be creating Francisation Québec, a new program that would help newcomers learn French "in the classroom, in the workplace, online and on college and university campuses."
It's the sort of thing Remy feels should be happening more. He said he hadn't been offered time during his work day to learn French, so he tried to do part-time classes after his shifts.
In the end, he thinks Bill 96 will be effective in creating French workplaces — because it will push out those who don't have the time or energy to devote to learning the language.
He should know: he just accepted a job offer in another province.
"I'd be lying if I said Bill 96 didn't play a factor into it," he said, though the new job also has better pay and benefits.
Looking back, he said companies have a responsibility to be upfront with their employees, instead of "underselling how important French is" when they're hiring, like they did with him.
"People are going to move here, they're going to get stressed and they're going to think it's just not worth staying here," he said.
And then — like him — they'll leave.