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Proposed Changes To The Official Languages Act Could Create Onerous Obligations For Some Employers

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Overview

Labour, Employment and Human Rights Bulletin | Federal Sector Update

On June 15, 2021, the federal government introduced Bill C-32, An Act to amend the Official Languages Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts (the “Proposed Act”) in the House of Commons.  If passed, the Proposed Act would impose significant obligations on federally regulated private businesses that operate in Quebec or other regions with a strong Francophone presence.  These proposed legislative changes are taking place against the backdrop of renewed discussions regarding the importance of protecting and promoting the French language in the province of Quebec and beyond. 

Main Features of the Proposed Act

The aim of the Proposed Act is to promote substantive equality between French and English and to recognize that language equality can only be achieved by protecting French.

The following features of the Proposed Act are likely most relevant to federally regulated private businesses:

  • Private companies under federal jurisdiction with operations in Quebec and/or other regions of the country with a strong Francophone presence would be required to protect and promote the use of French as a language of work and customer service;
  • The Commissioner of Official Languages (“Commissioner”) would be given enhanced powers to ensure compliance with the Proposed Act, including entering into compliance agreements, issuing orders, publishing recommendations, findings and investigation summaries;
  • The Commissioner would be empowered to receive complaints from employees of federally regulated private businesses operating in Quebec or other regions with a strong Francophone presence with respect to new rights and employer duties regarding the language of work; and
  • The Commissioner could refer employee complaints with respect to language of work to the Canada Industrial Relations Board if resolution through the Office of the Commissioner is not possible.

Obligations Under the Proposed Act

Communications with and Services to Consumers

The Proposed Act would provide consumers in Quebec and other regions with a strong Francophone presence the right to communicate with and obtain available services in French from a federally regulated private business that carries on business in Quebec or the region.  These businesses would be required to ensure that consumers are able to exercise those French language rights.  This duty would apply in respect of oral and written communications.

Language of Work Rights

The Proposed Act would give employees of federally regulated private businesses who are assigned to positions in a workplace in Quebec or a region with a strong Francophone presence the right to:

  • carry out their work and be supervised in French;
  • receive all communications and documents from their employer, including offers of employment or promotion, notices of termination of employment, collective agreements and grievances, in French; and
  • use regularly and widely used work instruments and computer systems in French.

In addition to ensuring that the rights of French speaking employees are protected, federally regulated private businesses with workplaces in Quebec or other regions with a strong Francophone presence would be required to adopt measures to foster the use of French in those workplaces.  These measures would include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • informing employees that the employer is subject to the Official Languages Act;
  • informing employees in those workplaces of their language of work rights and available remedies; and
  • establishing a committee to support the management group that is responsible for the general direction of the business as a whole in fostering French and its use within the business.

The Proposed Act would prohibit adverse treatment of an employee based in Quebec or other regions with a strong Francophone presence for:

  • the sole reason that the employee does not have sufficient knowledge of a language other than French;
  • exercising language of work rights under the Proposed Act or making a complaint to the Commissioner; or
  • the sole reason that the employee does not have sufficient knowledge of French, provided the employee occupied or was assigned to a position in the workplace on or before the date the new requirements come into force.

Requiring an employee to have knowledge of a language other than French would not amount to adverse treatment if the business is able to demonstrate that knowledge of that language is objectively required by reason of the nature of the work performed by the employee.

Takeaways

The Proposed Act could potentially impose new and fairly onerous obligations on many federally regulated private businesses.  Some of the obligations in the Proposed Act also appear to be more onerous than the obligations provided for in the Quebec Bill 96, which aims to amend the Quebec Charter of the French language.  These include, for example, the right to be supervised in French and the obligation to establish a committee to support management in fostering French and its use in the business regardless of the number of employees. Also, it is important to note that the Proposed Act gives the option to federally regulated private businesses to choose whether they are subject to the Quebec Charter of the French language or, alternatively, to the Official Languages Act, in respect of workplaces in Quebec.  However, the Proposed Act is in the early stages of the legislative process. It is currently at second reading in the House of Commons and therefore, these obligations may be revised. We will continue to monitor the progress of the Proposed Act.

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