Opinion: Protect French with training opportunities, not coercion



Bill 96’s enforcement measures on French in the workplace should be delayed, and more support provided for English-speakers seeking to improve their French.

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Is Quebec a good place to learn French? The answer to this question may be surprising: not nearly good enough.

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The Provincial Employment Roundtable’s recent report, titled French-Language Training for the Workforce, found that current French-language training programs are not meeting the needs of English-speaking Quebecers looking to enter, re-enter or advance in the labour market. The report describes the current offering of French-language workforce programs as a “patchwork of programs targeted to specific groups but not broadly accessible to all Quebecers.”

The stakes are high. A survey conducted last year by the Conseil du patronat du Québec revealed that 94 per cent of Quebec businesses face labour shortages. Half of them were forced to turn down potential new contracts because of this scarcity of workers.

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Such an acute labour shortage, and yet Quebec is not tapping into the full potential of the English-speaking community — more than a million strong in the province, representing more than 13 per cent of the entire population. Not only do English-speaking Quebecers have a two-percentage-point-higher unemployment rate than French-speakers, they also earn on average $2,795 less annually. Moreover, a survey the Provincial Employment Roundtable (PERT) conducted in 2021 showed that 67 per cent of English-speaking respondents in the labour market identified a lack of adequate French-language skills as their top barrier to employment over the previous three years.

Enter Bill 96, rife with measures and penalties for employers who fail to comply with its updated requirements for French in the workplace. But where the bill is rich in details for its coercive measures, it lacks important information regarding how the government plans to ensure that all those who need to improve their French will have the opportunity to do so.

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Bill 96 has had a polarizing effect on our public discourse. Most recently, English CEGEPS have been targeted and scapegoated as responsible for the decline of French. However, an important aspect of French-language training is being ignored: the opportunity to learn French throughout one’s career and life.

All Quebecers should have access to meaningful employment. This increasingly requires being able to speak and write in French. Bill 96 establishes Francisation Québec’s mandate as providing French-language learning services to all Quebecers, but makes no mention of how the government plans to do so.

How can we expect that Quebec will succeed in its plan to reinforce French as the language of work without first developing the proper support networks? If Bill 96 moves forward without the necessary reinforcement of French-language workforce programs, a huge part of the labour market will not only potentially continue to be excluded at a time of a major labour shortage, but risk being further alienated.

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It is more important than ever for individuals looking to work in Quebec to have access to free or affordable French-language workforce training. In order for this to happen, policy-makers must invest in establishing a comprehensive system of French-language workforce programs that are widely available, easy to find and designed to tackle the employment issues facing linguistic minorities.

For these reasons, PERT is proposing a five-year moratorium on the bill’s enforcement measures to allow its other measures such as Francisation Québec and the Ministry for the French Language to develop clear and measurable objectives in their goal to promote and strengthen the use of French in workplaces. Only after the necessary infrastructure is built should the government even consider enforcement measures and fines.

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If the government of Quebec is serious about protecting French, it must ensure its resources are deployed toward expanded, targeted and relevant French-language training that is adapted to the needs of workplaces and readily available to everyone who needs it. That’s the way to both promote the French language and build a prosperous and more inclusive future for all Quebecers.

Nicholas Salter is executive director of the Provincial Employment Roundtable (PERT), a non-profit organization that researches the employment landscape for English-speakers in Quebec and provides policy advice to the provincial government.

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