The federal government is planning to use an upcoming reform of the Official Languages Act to draft new rules on the use of French in federally regulated companies in Quebec, sources tell Radio-Canada.
The measures would form Ottawa’s response to growing pressure from the Quebec government to protect the rights of French-speaking workers in federally regulated sectors such as banking and telecommunications. As it stands, companies in these sectors do not fall under the federal Official Languages Act or Quebec’s Charter of the French Language.
Federal sources insist that Ottawa has no plans to cede any new powers to the Quebec government over these companies. They said that the federal government is moving toward enshrining new protections for French-speaking workers in federally regulated companies as part of a long-awaited reform of the Official Languages Act.
“We won’t let the provincial government do this for us,” said a federal official.
Liberal officials and caucus sources said that while there is a need for a new approach to language issues in Ottawa, no one wants to provide broader powers over language to the Quebec government or change the overall approach to minority language rights.
Language rights a government ‘priority’
Sources said that plans to reform the Official Languages Act are circulating in the upper echelons of government but have yet to be adopted by cabinet. Formal proposals are expected to be released to the public in early 2021 in the form of a white paper that would form the basis for subsequent legal changes.
In its throne speech in September, the Trudeau government described defending the rights of francophones outside Quebec, and of Quebec’s anglophone minority, as a “priority.” The speech also stated for the first time that the federal government has a responsibility to “protect and promote” French across Canada — including in Quebec.
The key issue for the Quebec government is the status of the roughly 135,000 employees working in federally regulated sectors in the province. While many companies in these industries voluntarily adhere to the province’s rules on the use of French in the workplace, they’re not under any legal obligation to do so.
In recent weeks, Quebec’s National Assembly and six former premiers have called on these federally regulated companies to abide by the same requirements imposed by the Charter of the French Language — more widely known as Bill 101 — on provincially regulated companies. Among other things, the charter calls on companies with more than 50 employees to obtain a certificate stating that French is their normal language of business.
One federal source said that, overall, federal officials see the change as largely “symbolic,” given that the workers affected make up only a small portion of the entire workforce in Quebec.
“In practical terms, it won’t be much of a change,” said another official.
Any attempt by the Quebec government to impose its language law in areas of federal jurisdiction likely would lead to a legal battle with the federal government. Many Liberal sources said they hope to settle the issue in Quebec ahead of the next election, in order to focus on the economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to changing the Official Languages Act, federal officials said the government also intends to take action on immigration policy and regulation of large internet companies to fulfil its promise to protect the French language in all provinces.