Robert Libman: Legault should heed Bill 96 message from tech companies

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When tech talent can go anywhere, we cannot afford to impose obstacles. This is one clear example of nationalist politics conflicting with reality.

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“Shooting oneself in the foot” refers to inadvertently sabotaging one’s own interest. Premier François Legault may quickly be coming to realize what the expression really means.

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The National Assembly legislative session ended last week. The summer break is a time that MNAs welcome as an opportunity to take a breather and refresh, away from the fishbowl, acrimony and partisan backbiting. This year of course will be different. With the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s mandate drawing to a close and an October election looming, there will be no rest for the wicked (to use another idiom).

The CAQ’s time in office has been tumultuous, with 126 pieces of legislation adopted, several of which were controversial, such as Bills 96 and 21 on language and “secularism,” respectively. Disturbing shortcomings in many government departments were exposed by the COVID pandemic.

The CAQ government will not be able to count on the summer break for things to simmer down and issues to fade away. It is already being called upon to answer for some of its actions of the past four years, many of which could have severe and enduring consequences. Heat is not just coming from the opposition, but from many sources. Court challenges, coroners’ reports about seniors’ care and tough questions about education and health care will dog the government into the campaign and probably for years to come.

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This week, one of the most significant shots across the bow came from a large group of tech companies. They sent an open letter to Legault saying that Bill 96 could “do enormous damage to the province’s economy.” Their missive — or missile, perhaps — strikes right at the heart of what must be an internal conflict for Legault personally. As much of a nationalist as he is, he also has a proud entrepreneurial background. And in 2013, he published a book titled Cap sur un Québec gagnant : Le Projet Saint-Laurent that outlined his dream of a Quebec Silicon Valley. He conceives of a series of technoparks / living environments running along the St. Lawrence River, creating a valley of innovation and entrepreneurship with thousands of high-tech jobs and 1,000 new companies. This vision served as somewhat of a catalyst for his return to politics and founding of the CAQ with Charles Sirois.

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The business leaders who signed the letter this week represent the type of companies and high-level innovation that Legault dearly wants to attract. They wrote that the six-month language rule for immigrants, after which they could only receive government services in French, could impede the province’s ability to compete for tech talent and worsen existing shortages. The suggestion was that new businesses wouldn’t set up in Quebec and existing firms would have to branch out of the province or even leave.

Dynamic tech companies in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, 3D-animation, environmental science and pharmaceuticals are telling Legault what he doesn’t want to hear. How will he respond? Will he refute what the top minds and business leaders in the tech sector are saying? Will he feel compelled to loosen Bill 96 restrictions? A source in the government merely responded that they will ensure that newcomers have the tools needed to learn French.

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When invaluable tech talent can go anywhere in the world, we cannot afford to impose obstacles.

This is one clear example of nationalist politics conflicting with reality and the proper balance between promotion of French versus coercion. Playing partisan politics in the Assembly or during a campaign is expected. But when Legault’s actions not only sabotage Quebec’s competitiveness, but even his own economic dream, you cannot help wondering how many more times he will be shooting not only himself, but all of us, in the foot.

Robert Libman is an architect and building planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-St-Luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election. twitter.com/robertlibman

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