November 22, 2000

Language police should leave small biz alone

Every time the Quebec government starts talking about protecting the French language, small business owners get nervous. The province has a long history of using fears of assimilation as a club to impose onerous regulations on business owners - especially those who speak English as a first language.

Many are thus watching the province's latest public consultation on the state of the French language with trepidation. The "Larose Commission" - headed by former union boss and long time Parti Québécois supporter Gérald Larose - has a broad mandate. "Everything is on the table," said a commission spokesman. This could include a toughening of the province's language legislation Bill 101.

Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard set up the commission as a way to calm hard-liners at the Parti Québécois convention earlier this year. But these commissions often take on a life of their own and the estates general - which will file its report next spring, begins its work mired in credibility problems.

"I don't think that this is a genuine exercise," says Brent Tyler, a Montreal lawyer who has taken the Quebec government to court on a variety of rights violations caused by over-zealous legislation. "Just the choice of (the commission's) chairman, and the composition of its members should tell you where it is heading."

Almost all of the commissioners either work in government or the public sector. Those from the private sector work in businesses that rely heavily on either government contracts or subsidies. Commissioners were vetted as reliable by Parti Québécois hacks, and none are line managers from the aerospace, pharmaceutical or other high technology industries.

It is thus likely that the commission will ignore the needs of businesses, particularly those in the new economy. In fact those who follow Quebec's political scene can almost write the commission's report beforehand. It will likely conclude that the French language is threatened and that tougher legislation is needed to stem its decline.

But language legislation has been a disaster to the province's fortunes. With fabulous geographic advantages and a huge endowment in natural resources, Quebec is a chronic under-performer. Per capita GDP is far lower than the Canadian average making the province a big recipient of regional transfer payments.

Much of this is due to a massive brain drain sapping the Quebec economy. According to Matthew Stevenson, an analyst for William M. Mercer, Quebec's net loss of residents to the rest of the country since 1963 has been more than 600,000 people. The vast majority of these have been anglophones, and most had education levels significantly above the provincial average. Stevenson concludes in a recent essay in Policy Options that the province loses as many citizens to the rest of Canada, as Canada as a whole loses in permanent migrants to the United States.

Much of this has to do with the province's language legislation, which by imposing stifling regulations on corporate communications, signage and who companies may hire, has made it impossible for businesses to operate in English.

Companies with more than 49 employees must obtain a francization certificate which can often result in considerable administrative and compliance costs. Ironically this provision often affects smaller businesses more than their larger cousins. For big investors with money to spend on lawyers and lobbyists, the province is often willing to grant exemptions from its francization requirements.

Bill 101 also restricts the use of English on signage. Inspectors from the Office de la Langue Francaise - the language police - comb the streets of Montreal looking for violations. There is an elaborate complaints system set up that encourages snitches to inform on their neighbors and employers anonymously. In short, the business climate is not nearly what is could be, especially for those operating in the new economy where English is a must.

Talk about toughening Bill 101 inevitably leads to suggestions that the government francization program be extended from businesses with more than 49 employees to encompass those with between 10 and 49 employees. This would be a big mistake. Such a measure would only add a new layer of bureaucracy and compliance headaches to one of the province's most productive sectors.

Quebec government backers talk about a language consensus but this is a pipe dream. It's like five farmers in a room with a chicken tying to decide what's for lunch. Just because the farmers give the chicken a vote before eating him, you can't call it a consensus. Similarly Quebec's anglophones massively oppose the legislation, but their opposition is ignored.

The real problem affecting the language is poor French instruction in Quebec schools. This has caused a drastic deterioration in language quality, to the point that the Quebec dialect is often incomprehensible to international French speakers. This quality deterioration has made Quebec French a far less attractive and useful language.

If the Quebec government wants to improve the quality of French, they should confront the militant teacher's unions and the education department bureaucrats who condone this incompetence, and they should keep the language police out of small business.

E-mail can be sent to Diekmeyer at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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