The use of French in workplaces in Quebec is steadily declining and needs to be addressed immediately, according to the province's language advisory body.
The Conseil supérieur de la langue française (CSLF), which oversees the application of the French Language Charter, is recommending that small businesses be required to enforce the use of French in the workplace.
The current language law makes it mandatory for companies with 50 or more employees to impose French as the language of communication in the workplace. The advisory body recommended that the law be extended to small businesses with 26 to 49 employees. However, the CSLF insisted that "less stringent and more flexible" means be used to enforce the provisions in the law, acknowledging that small companies may not have the financial means to comply.
The advisory body also expressed concern over the increase of bilingualism in the workplace, which, according its president, Robert Vézina, is becoming a "problem" in promoting the use of French, especially among immigrants.
"If we want neo-Quebeckers to be able to work in French, because that is what we ask them to do … and they go to the workplace and are being asked more and more to work in English, that's a problem. That is what we are seeing now," Mr. Vézina said during a news conference on Wednesday.
He explained that knowledge of English shouldn't be mandatory to get a job in Quebec, even though the advisory board recognizes that English has become an essential tool in an increasing number of jobs.
Studies released by the CSLF showed a slight drop in the percentage of francophone Quebeckers in the province between 2006 and 2011 as well as in the number of those who speak French at home.
The studies showed French was used less and less in the workplace, especially in the Montreal region.
For instance, the percentage of employees in private companies who generally use French dropped to 59.7 per cent in 2010 from 70.8 per cent in 1989. In the greater Montreal region, 44.6 per cent of private-sector employees generally worked in French in 2010 and that number dropped to 31.1 per cent on the Island of Montreal, where there is a greater concentration of English-speaking Quebeckers.
"Although the situation has improved since the 1970s the [declining] use of French in the workplace remains a cause for concern," the report said.
However, the study also pointed out that the use of French was more common in private businesses with fewer than 50 employees than in bigger companies. This has left the Quebec wing of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business perplexed as to why small businesses should be targeted if French isn't being threatened in their workplace.
"We have to be careful in the way we analyze the data," said the group's vice-president, Martine Hébert. She added that the increased use of English in the workplace coincided with the free-trade agreements and the expansion of the Internet.
As small companies integrated into the global economy to boost international trade and attract tourists, so did their need to use English, she said. "Is it because English is progressing that French is regressing? That's the problem. English is being used because of the changing business environment."
Ms. Hébert also expressed concerns that the red tape involved in enforcing the language regulations will carry a heavy cost. She said several of her members fear that government inspectors will use a heavy-handed approach in enforcing the law, which could hurt small businesses.
Another recommendation in the report is to improve the knowledge of French among all Quebeckers, because about half of the adult population does not have the proper French language skills to perform their profession adequately. "About half the population of Quebec is not well tooled … to be effective in the workplace," Mr. Vézina said.
The report recommends imposing tougher standards on anglophone students to ensure that they master French before graduating from college. However, the report stops short of making it mandatory for students who attend an English-language college to pass a French-language proficiency test to obtain their diploma.
Next week, the National Assembly begins public hearings on Bill 14, which proposes an overhaul of the French Language Charter, commonly known as Bill 101. Several of the recommendations in the advisory body's report support the changes proposed in Bill 14.
The main opposition parties have threatened to defeat the Parti Québécois minority government's bill if it refuses to introduce significant changes.