Some fear for Outaouais economy in wake of Bill 96

Some businesses and communities says they're willing to comply with the controversial French-language amendments in Quebec's Bill 96 — but that it may come at a cost.

Municipalities and workplaces express concern about language restrictions

The municipality of Mansfield-et-Pontefract, Que., gets many English-language tourists and cottagers in the spring and fall, according to the community's mayor. (Marielle Guimond/Radio-Canada)

Some businesses and communities in the Outaouais say they're willing to comply with controversial Bill 96 French-language amendments — but warn that doing so may come at a cost.

Bill 96 proposes to revoke any Quebec municipality's bilingual status where fewer than 50 per cent of citizens have English as a mother tongue. 

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

The bill has some Quebec business leaders worried about the potential impacts on the province's economy. Dozens have signed an open letter that was published online Friday, asking the government to put the law on hold. 

"It's a good thing to protect French ... I'm all for it," said Nicolas Roy, a Gatineau, Que., businessman and the CEO of Epsi, a firm specializing in human resources management. 

While he unreservedly supports the principles and foundations of the law, Roy still signed the letter.

 "I think we should better consider the impact such a bill could have on small and medium enterprise," 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. It's also a barrier to recruiting people from outside Canada, he added, as they'd need to successfully learn French within six months of immigrating.

As Quebec businesses already struggling to attract skilled labour stare down a potential recession, Roy said these kinds of obstacles may have devastating impacts.

"It's a burden [that's] very heavy," Roy said.

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

The small municipality about 120 kilometres northwest of Ottawa is "already a French-speaking community" and operates almost entirely in French, Armstrong said. So do its neighbours, Fort-Coulonge and Île-du-Grand-Calumet, she added.

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

"For now, we will continue to serve them in French or English to help them out. Then we'll see what the government is really asking each municipality about that," Armstrong said.

"There's no hiding the fact we have to respect that law."

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

Minister promises to support businesses

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

The government would support the transition to French-only workplaces through Francisation Québec, Boulet said, which will deliver French-language learning services. 

Francisation Québec is set 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 modification of Quebec's Charter of the French Language, Poliquin said, and aspects of the charter have been previously challenged in court.

Poliquin said that he expects Bill 96 to be challenged as well, possibly under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the Constitution Act. 

"Even if certain provisions of the law survive those legal challenges, it doesn't necessarily mean they are good ideas or practical ideas from a public policy standpoint," said Poliquin.

Changes to laws related to Bill 96 laws will gradually come into effect between now and 2025.

With files from Rebecca Kwan, Emmanuelle Poisson, Dan Taekema and Morgan Lowrie