Québec’s newly elected minority government appears to be holding true to its promise to bring legislative changes to Québec’s language laws within its first 100 days. On December 5, the Parti Québécois government introduced Bill 14, An Act to Amend the Charter of the French Language, the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and other legislative provisions, in the province’s national assembly.

Although a far departure from the amendments promised during the election campaign, Bill 14 nevertheless expands the scope of the Charter of the French Language (the Charter) by legislating additional French language requirements for small businesses in the province. The bill, if and when it comes into force, will establish new French language objectives for businesses employing between 26 and 49 people for a period of more than six months over two consecutive years.

Among these objectives is to ensure that French is the normal and everyday language of work, and that companies that sell goods or services (or offer them for sale) respect a consumer’s right to be informed and served in French. Where corrective measures may assist a company in achieving these objectives, “francization measures” must be implemented. Such measures may include:

  • Increasing the use of French in meetings and internal communications
  • Implementing work schedules to ensure that people are present during regular business hours to offer consumers quality French services and information
  • Providing increased training for employees in French
  • Using French in communications with customers regardless of the medium used
  • Ensuring that French-language folders, catalogues and other documents are supplied in sufficient quantity to satisfy the needs of French-speaking clientele
  • Any other means to ensure that French is the normal and everyday language of work

To meet these objectives, Bill 14 foresees the possibility for specialized business associations, sectoral workforce committees and other similar entities to develop model francization measures and to request the support of the Office québécois de la langue française (the “Office”) in developing these measures.

While the Charter previously permitted employers to require the knowledge (or a specific level of knowledge) of a language other than French as a condition of employment if the nature of the duties required it, Bill 14 provides for a greater onus to be placed on the employer in this regard. Before requiring knowledge of a language other than French, the employer will be required to thoroughly evaluate the actual linguistic needs of the position, including considering the linguistic skills already required of other personnel to satisfy the needs of the company. The employer must also subsequently and periodically review these needs.

With respect to the established requirement of offering equivalent French catalogues, brochures and commercial publications, all companies must further ensure that such documentation is supplied in sufficient quantity to meet the demands of French-speaking clientele.

Bill 14 also widens the scope of duties and powers conferred on individuals designated by the Office to conduct inspections and inquiries. Under the bill, inspectors appointed by the Office will be permitted to:

  • Examine any products/goods located in the location visited
  • Verify whether signs comply with the Charter’s requirements
  • Take measurements
  • Require the production of any book, account, record, file or other document for examination (or for the purpose of making copies or extracts) if the Office’s representative has reasonable grounds to believe that it contains information relating to the application of the Charter or its regulations
  • Take photographs of the location visited and the equipment, goods or products found on the premises
  • Require the production of relevant documents or information within a given time frame
  • Seize anything that they have reasonable grounds to believe proves the commission of an offence under the Charter or its regulations

Arguably the most notable and alarming amendment to the Charter is the elimination of the Office’s requirement to send alleged offenders formal notice to comply with the Charter prior to referring the matter to the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions. In fact, the proposed provision of the Charter provides that if the Office is of the opinion that a provision of the Charter or one of its regulations has been contravened, the Office must refer the matter to the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions. The Office will therefore no longer have the legal obligation to inform an alleged offender of a potential violation or grant such an offender the opportunity to rectify the situation before penal sanctions are imposed. This proposed new course of action will greatly limit an alleged offender’s right to rectify a potentially non-compliant situation prior to referring a matter to the courts, and will inevitably result in the multiplication of legal proceedings that could unduly burden the judicial system.