Rémy was in an interview with a video game company when he asked the obvious question: would he need to learn French to work in Quebec?
Remy was not from the province and did not speak the language. The company, like many of the major players in the video game industry in Canada, was based in Quebec.
“[So I asked]will that be a problem? said Remy. (Remy is not his real name. CBC News is protecting his identity because he fears professional retaliation for speaking publicly.)
“I was assured that all meetings were conducted in English and that learning French…was optional and not foreseen.”
According to the Quebec Ministry of Industry, more than 11,000 people work in Quebec’s video game industry, which generates nearly $1.75 billion in revenue for the province each year.
But those working in the field say Bill 96, the province’s controversial new language law, puts all that at risk.
Many of these 11,000 workers are newcomers to the province, hired abroad without speaking French. Now, some of them are considering leaving Quebec altogether.
“You see it already, with some people looking at Bill 96 and saying, ‘OK, time for me to pack up and go,'” Remy said.
Skilled workers in high demand
Bill 96 aims to strengthen Quebec’s language laws, with new and expanded rules that affect everything from health care to corporate language of work.
Part of the law states that immigrants who have been in Quebec for six months or more will only be able to access most government services in French.
Remy said if Bill 96 had been passed before he was hired, it “certainly would have had an impact” on his decision to work in Quebec.
He said English is the default language for most of the gaming industry, and some international game developers are learning English just to work in the industry.
Having to learn French on top of that might be a bridge too far for some, when they can easily find jobs in Ontario or Vancouver, where the gaming industry is growing rapidly, he said.
“I just don’t see Quebec companies being able to attract talent if that’s what they have to. [contend with],” he said.
He’s not the only one to see the writing on the wall.
Osama Dorias has worked as a game designer in Montreal for over 15 years and teaches in post-secondary video game programs, including one at Dawson College. He said many video game workers he knows are considering leaving Quebec in the next year.
While he acknowledges that not everyone will actually go, those who do will be hard to replace. There is a global labor shortage in the video game industry, so it was difficult for Quebec companies to hire – even before Bill 96, he said.
“Now [those job seekers] just look the other way, and I don’t blame them,” he said. “It is going to be very difficult for us to compete at world level.
Although Quebec has many college and university programs that produce local talent, they are also being picked up by international companies, he said.
“Even if they are French-speaking, they leave because they have found better jobs in California or Sweden,” Dorias explained.
If Quebec can’t keep its own talent and can’t hire outside the province, that doesn’t bode well for the industry. If studios can’t hire here, they might end up moving their operations elsewhere, he explained.
“We actually have a presence, a global presence as a leader in video games,” Dorias said, “and we’re throwing it all away.”
The industry supports the spirit of the law
Dorias said he used to encourage other game developers to move to Montreal, but since Bill 96 was passed, he said he couldn’t recommend it in good conscience.
“The first question I ask is, ‘Do you speak French? No? Then you’re not welcome. I think you should look elsewhere,'” he said.
“It’s like night and day. I went from advocating for people to move here to warning people to leave.”
Christopher Chancey, Chairman of the Board of the Quebec Video Game Guildwhich represents the province’s video game studios, also has concerns.
He said the guild maintains that French is the default language in the gaming industry in Quebec. In the past, the organization has worked with the government to translate video game terms that had no French equivalent, to reduce anglicisms in the workplace.
“But we have a lot of people who come from all over the world to make video games here in Quebec,” he said. “Our fear is that it sends a message [that Quebec is] does not include other cultures.”
Chancey said he would be interested in seeing the government extend the six-month deadline, an idea from other Quebecers tech companies raised those last weeks.
In the meantime, he said the law posed a “public relations problem” which the government should try to solve.
“I think everyone understands the importance of the French language…I think it’s just a matter of making sure that [newcomers] also feel included,” Chancey said.
Dorias doesn’t feel that. He said he is not optimistic that the government will change its mind.
“I think the intention behind [Bill 96] is to make some people feel unwelcome,” he said, and he expects Quebec to go all-in with the law.
“I hope I’m wrong. I seriously hope I’m wrong.”
All industries must do their part, ministry says
When reached by CBC News, the new Office for the Protection of the French Language stressed that the protection of French is a collective responsibility.
“All sectors must contribute to the effort to ensure the sustainability of our official and common language,” reads the press release.
The ministry added that it will also create Francisation Quebec, a new program that would help newcomers learn French “in the classroom, in the workplace, online and on college and university campuses.”
These are the kinds of things that Remy thinks should happen more. He said he wasn’t offered time during his work day to learn French, so he tried to take part-time classes after his shifts.
Ultimately, he thinks Bill 96 will be effective in creating French-speaking workplaces because it will drive out those who don’t have the time or energy to devote to learning the language.
He should know: he just accepted a job offer in another province.
“I would be lying if I said Bill 96 didn’t play a role,” he said, although the new job also offers better pay and benefits.
Looking back, he said companies had a responsibility to be upfront with their employees, instead of “underestimating the importance of French” when hiring, as they did with him.
“People are going to move here, they’re going to be stressed and they’re going to think it’s just not worth staying here,” he said.
And then, like him, they will leave.