Québec’s new French language bill prompts letter of concern from tech business leaders

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Stringent language requirements raise worries over attracting talent and economic damage.

The Canadian Council of Innovators (CCI) has sent a letter to the Québec government protesting Bill 96, warning that the bill is “threatening to do enormous damage to the province’s economy.”

The new bill is subtitled “an act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec.” Passing Royal assent on June 1, the bill introduces a number of requirements around the use of French – including on websites, in marketing materials, and in contracts. The bill also requires that all government officials communicate with new immigrants exclusively in French after six months of their arrival in Québec.

“It will do permanent damage to our province’s economic prosperity.”
– The Canadian Council of Innovators

Technology leaders are concerned the new requirements may squelch business, and even drive companies out of the province.

Some 37 leaders in the province’s technology sector have signed the letter, including Louis Tetû, the CEO of Coveo; Jean-François Côté, the CEO of Sharethrough; and Adrian Schauer, the CEO of AlayaCare.

“You must pause the implementation of Bill 96 and listen to business leaders in the tech sector,” implore the signatories in the letter. “We are calling on your government to work with innovators to come up with a better plan to support French and ensure that Québec’s language law doesn’t end up causing more harm than good for our economy and province.”

Recently, the pace of spending on tech firms has picked up in the province. In Q1 2022, Québec-based startups raised a total of $1.46 billion, an increase of 633 percent from the previous quarter and 440 percent year-over-year.

But the letter warns that momentum could slow because of the new bill. The leaders note that if innovators choose other Canadian cities over Montréal and Québec City, “it will do permanent damage to our province’s economic prosperity.”

The letter stated that a talent drain is already happening, but “it’s not too late to change course.”

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The tech leaders contend that Québec is facing a labour shortage and characterized the scarcity of skilled talent in the tech sector as especially intense. The letter argues that Québec companies rely on global recruitment and immigration to fuel innovation, and that bringing newcomers to Québec will be more difficult under the requirements of the new language law.

Québec’s 2022-23 fiscal budget included $135 million to modernize its vocational training programs “to ensure a larger pool of skilled and qualified workers.” The move follows similar investments made by the Government of Canada and Alberta in recent months. Québec’s budget also committed $290 million towards better integrating immigrants into the province’s job market.

But CCI’s letter signatories don’t believe that will be enough to attract talent in light of Bill 96.

The letter points out that while Québec employers are ready to support the cultural integration of immigrants by bringing French language tutors into the office, those kinds of supports are challenging to acquire.

“If your government wants to ensure that Francophone culture is strong, you must support French language tutoring, welcome immigrants, and help them connect with our province’s culture,” the letter reads.

Patrick Huynh, the CEO of FinTech startup Fiska, told BetaKit: “There’s a very competitive environment for talent these days. In our business, in particular in FinTech, it’s almost impossible to find talent locally with the level of experience that we need.”

Huynh noted attracting foreign talent is an onerous task that becomes that much more difficult with the passage of Bill 96, which he said puts a tremendous amount of pressure on newcomers to learn French within six months.

At one point Fiska tried to arrange for French lessons at its workplace, three times a week at lunchtimes, but was unable to find a teacher. “So I can’t imagine how someone who’s freshly arrived without support being able to build a home, build a life, and at the same time work, kids, and learn a new language in six months, all of that outside of their work hours,” Huynh said.

Huynh added the tech community is simply asking for more support from the government to help companies like Fiska that have a strong desire to integrate and learn French. “Give us a grace period in which we can transition into the new requirements,” he said.

RELATED: Québec’s 2022 budget heavy on R&D, light on addressing tech talent shortage

Stéphane Paquet, president and CEO of Montréal International, is more sanguine about Bill 96. He acknowledged to BetaKit that a handful of potential investors have expressed concerns and are waiting to see the concrete impact of Bill 96 on the day-to-day operations of businesses. However, Paquet added: “We expect the debate surrounding Bill 96 to have a marginal impact on our talent recruitment activities as we are essentially targeting French-speaking talent pools (France, Belgium, French-speaking Africa, Maghreb) and/or candidates who are interested in learning French. Long before Bill 96, our recruitment activities in London and the United States generated unsatisfactory results that prompted us to turn to the above-mentioned talent pools.”

The letter also notes that most Québec-based technology firms work in international markets and with global, multidisciplinary teams. Legal requirements forcing companies to operate primarily in French would impose an extra burden when dealing with global customers and partners, the signatories say.

It’s not an unreasonable concern, and flows both ways. More and more global companies have looked to Québec as a Canadian base, and it’s uncertain how they will react to Bill 96.

For example, Google announced in 2021 that it plans to build a proposed $735 million CAD data centre in Beauharnois, Québec. BetaKit reached out to Google to see if Bill 96 might change those plans, but did not receive a response by presstime.

IBM said in February it was partnering with Québec’s provincial government over five years to launch a new accelerator program. Called the Québec-IBM Discovery Accelerator, the program is meant to establish the province as a leading technology hub in the development of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, semiconductors and high-performance computing.

Other international companies branching into Québec include the Swedish payments company, Klarna, San Francisco-based cloud software startup AppDirect, and the Australian buy now-pay later startup Afterpay.

According to law firm McCarthy Tétrault, under Bill 96 websites, social media, newsletters, catalogues, brochures, and other documents of the same nature need to be in French. Versions of such media in languages other than French may be provided but not on more favourable terms than the French version.

As well, all contracts of adhesion will need to be drawn up in French, with limited exceptions, according to the law firm, which defines contracts of adhesion as non-negotiable contracts that are pre-determined by one party. Businesses must present a French version of such contracts before an adhering counterparty may express a wish to be bound by a version in another language.

CCI President Benjamin Bergen told BetaKit that Bill 96 is an issue that CCI’s members raised directly. “We help people come together around the CCI flag, but this was very much led by the Québec tech sector’s concerns about how the language law will impact their ability to recruit top talent,” he said.

“In terms of what happens next, that’s really for Premier Legault to decide,” Bergen noted. “We hope he’ll listen, consult with tech sector leaders and find a way to implement the law with necessary support so that it doesn’t harm growth in the innovation economy.”

Charles Mandel

Charles Mandel

Charles Mandel's reporting and writing on technology has appeared in Wired.com, Canadian Business, Report on Business Magazine, Canada's National Observer, The Globe and Mail, and the National Post, among many others. He lives off-grid in Nova Scotia.

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