What Federal Employers Should Anticipate with Bill C-13 When it Comes to Employees, Pensions and French Language Obligations
This article follows McCarthy Tétrault’s initial publication, Bill C-13’s French language requirements in Québec or regions with a strong francophone presence: Implications for federally regulated entities in Canada (“Bill C-13 Overview”), which summarizes Bill C-13’s key elements.
This publication provides a more in depth review of the obligations of employers and retirement plan sponsors under Part 2 of Bill C-13, which enacted the Use of French in Federally Regulated Private Businesses Act (the “Act”).
The purpose of the Act is to protect and promote the use of French in federally regulated private businesses (also referred to as “federal business” or “business”) in Québec and other regions across Canada with a strong francophone presence. The Act protects the right of employees in federally regulated private businesses to work in French.
Federal businesses include banks; airlines and air transportation; port services; marine shipping; ferries; pipelines (oil and gas) that cross international or provincial borders; postal and courier services; railways or road transportation businesses that cross provincial or international borders, including trucks and buses; and telecommunications, such as telephone, internet, and cable systems (with the exception of the broadcasting sector).
Upon the date it comes into force (date still unknown), the Act will initially be applicable to federal businesses with a workplace in Québec and to employees reporting to such workplaces. The Act's coverage is eventually supposed to expand outside of Québec to regions with a strong francophone presence. The specific definition of "regions with a strong francophone presence" will be determined in the regulations two years after the Act comes into force. Additionally, once the regulations are issued, the Act will not be enforced on federal businesses that have fewer than a certain number of employees, to be specified in the regulations to come.
EMPLOYMENT SPECIFIC OBLIGATIONS
Employment Documentation and Written Communications to Employees: The Act currently provides that employees of a federal business working in Québec have the right to work and be supervised in French. These employees are also entitled to receive all communications and documents from the business in French. This includes:
- Employment application forms.
- Offers of employment, transfer, or promotion. If a federal business releases a job-related advertisement in a language other than French (e.g., English), they must also publish the same advertisement in French. Both versions of the advertisement should be made available at the same time and reach a similar audience size. This requirement applies to all job-related activities, such as recruiting, hiring, transferring, or promoting employees. The purpose is to ensure that both French and other languages are used in job communications fairly and simultaneously.
- Individual employment contracts. The Act distinguishes between employment contracts that are “contracts of adhesion” (i.e., employment contracts in which the content is mostly not negotiable, except for compensation) and those that are not. For negotiable contracts, the employee and federal business can mutually decide that the contract will be exclusively in English. However, in the case of contracts of adhesion, an English version can be provided only if both the employee and the business agree, and if a French version of the contract has already been provided.
- Notices of termination of employment.
- Documents related to conditions of employment (i.e., employment policies and guidelines, handbooks, bonus and commission plans, retirement pension plan booklets, etc.).
- Training documents produced for employees.
- Collective agreements, as well as their schedules and grievances.
In situations where the federal business shares widely distributed communications or documents, French must be given equal prominence and be as widely used as any other language. While multiple languages can be used, French should receive equal importance.
For individual communications, employees have the right to receive communications and documentation in French. However, this does not prevent a federal business from providing communications and documents exclusively in English if both the business and the employee agree.
Finally, it is important to note that the right of employees to receive communications and documents in French remains even after they are no longer employed by the federal business. Therefore, even after termination of employment, the business must still provide documentation and communications in French when requested.
Pensions and Benefits as Conditions of Employment: Pension and benefit-related documentation, including pension plans, other retirement plans, group insurance benefit plans, and employee assistance programs are viewed as components of an employee’s conditions of employment. Accordingly, as noted above, certain documentation related to such conditions of employment must be made available in French.
Federal plan administrators who do not have employees in Québec but have employees in regions with a strong francophone presence will eventually also have these obligations.
Employer Obligations in Recruitment: Employers can require knowledge of a language other than French if it is objectively necessary. This means that if the job demands proficiency in another language, the employer can legitimately make it a requirement. However, the employer must justify this language requirement clearly in job advertisements for such positions.
To justify the language requirement, the business must: (a) assess the actual language needs associated with the job duties; (b) verify that existing staff members with knowledge of the required language cannot fulfill these duties; and (c) limit the number of positions requiring knowledge of another language as much as possible. The obligation to justify the language requirement should not be interpreted in a way as to impose an unreasonable reorganization of the business’s affairs.
Work Instruments and Computer Systems: The Act establishes employees’ right to use regularly and widely used work instruments and computer systems in French.
Trade Unions: A trade union representing employees of a federal business in Québec or a region with a strong francophone presence has the right to receive communications and documents in French. The business is responsible for ensuring the union can exercise this right.
Prohibition on Adverse Treatment: The Act provides that a federal business with workplaces in Québec or a region with a strong francophone presence must not treat employees adversely, which includes dismissing, harassing, transferring, suspending, or imposing penalties on an employee.
As noted above, requiring an employee to know a language other than French is not considered adverse treatment if the business can objectively justify it based on the nature of the work and explains the reasons for the requirement in relevant job advertisements.
OBLIGATIONS RELATING TO THE FRANCIZATION OF ENTERPRISES
Fostering the Use of French: The Act establishes that federal businesses with a workplace in Québec must take measures to foster the use of French in those workplaces. These measures include:
- Informing employees that the business is subject to the Act.
- Informing employees of their language of work rights and the remedies available to them.
- Establishing a committee to support the management group in promoting and using the French language within the business.
Note that the Act provides for certain exemptions and grandfathering provisions.
The Committee’s Obligations: The committee supports the promotion and use of French in their Québec establishment and the development of programs to generalize the use of French at all levels of the business. The programs target various aspects of the workplace, such as ensuring that all members of the management group and employees with knowledge of French actively use the language; encouraging the use of French as the language of work and internal communications; incorporating French into working documents, tools, and computer systems used within the business; promoting the use of French terminology; and integrating French into information technologies used by the business.
The Act sets out a complaint mechanism for those who wish to assert their rights under the Act. Employees, including past and potential employees in certain circumstances, may make a complaint to the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada (the “Commissioner”). The Commissioner does not have the power to carry out an investigation on their own initiative. If the Commissioner cannot resolve the complaint or if the nature, complexity, or seriousness of the complaint requires it, they may refer it to the Canada Industrial Relations Board (the "Board").
COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS WITH THE CHARTER OF THE FRENCH LANGUAGE
The Act has been enacted in the wake of Québec’s Bill 96, which amended the Charter of the French Language (the “Charter”) and increased French language obligations in the workplace across Québec.
The Act establishes that a federal business with a workplace in Québec may choose to be subject to the Act instead of the Charter. Notice must be given of the business’s choice to be subject to the Charter or the Act. Based on the Act and applicable legal principles, we are of the view that federally regulated employers who already registered with the Office Québécois de la langue française (the “Office”) will be able to “unregister” and elect the federal regime.
The following key differences may inform the choice to be subject to the Charter or the Act.
- Scope of Application: The employment-related and francization obligations under the Act will apply to all federal businesses. However, the scope of application under the Act may be reduced following the release of the regulations, wherein the federal businesses subject to the Act may be limited to those with a set number of employees. This is in contrast to the Charter which imposes significant general employment-related obligations on all enterprises regardless of the number of employees, in addition to imposing additional francization requirements on enterprises with 50 (25 as of June 2025) or more employees.
- Francization Obligations: The francization obligations under the Charter are more detailed and stringent than those provided for under the Act. The Charter provides specific and comprehensive actions that enterprises must undertake in the francization process, such as registration and certification with the Office if they have 50 (25 as of June 2025) or more employees in Québec. For businesses with 100 or more employees in Québec, a francization committee must be formed, while smaller businesses may need a committee if the Office deems that the use of French is not sufficiently generalized. The Charter specifies the number of times a year the committee must meet, by whom the minutes must be signed, and to whom they must be sent, etc. On the other hand, the Act takes a more general approach, requiring all businesses to form a committee to promote the use of French without the same level of reporting obligations or oversight by the Office. This constitutes a major difference between the two regimes.
- Complaint Mechanism: Under the Charter, employees alleging prohibited language-related practices in the workplace may file complaints with the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST). Conversely, the Act establishes a complaint process for employees to assert language of work rights by submitting complaints to the Commissioner. Under the Act, compliance with francization is regulated through complaints only. While the Office has broad investigation powers, and may investigate on its own initiative, the Commissioner may not carry out an investigation on its own initiative.
- Sanctions for Non-Compliance with Francization Obligations: The Act does not specify penalties or sanctions for non-compliance with francization obligations. In contrast, a failure to comply with the Charter’s francization requirements may lead to administrative sanctions or disciplinary measures, including the suspension or revocation of the certificate of francization and the imposition of fines ranging from $3,000 to $30,000. There are severe consequences for subsequent offences or when an offence continues for more than one day, where each day constitutes a separate offence. Further, businesses can be banned from contracting with the Quebec government as a result of non-compliance with the Charter. These sanctions are outlined in more detail in McCarthy Tétrault’s blog post, Employer Obligations Under Bill 96 An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec.
In general, both the Act and the Charter share similar employment-related obligations. However, they diverge in their treatment of francization obligations, complaint mechanisms, and sanctions for non-compliance where the Charter takes a more comprehensive and specific approach to francization and the Office ensures stricter enforcement for those not complying.
The enactment of the Use of French in Federally Regulated Private Businesses Act under Bill C-13 introduces language-related obligations for federal businesses with workplaces in Québec and, eventually, regions with a strong francophone presence across Canada. Federal businesses operating in Québec should be prepared to meet the language of work obligations outlined in the Act as of its entry into force. Understanding the Act's requirements and being proactive in addressing language-related issues is crucial for businesses having locations in Québec to navigate this new regulatory landscape flawlessly.
We must wait for the regulations to be released for guidance regarding the application of the Act, for further clarity regarding the definition of “regions with a strong francophone presence”, and for specifications on the number of employees required for federal businesses to be subject to the Act.
For federal businesses in Québec, it will be necessary to consider the similarities and differences when making the choice to be subject to Québec's Charter of the French Language or the Act. The latter presents notable differences in scope, application, and enforcement which must be considered when choosing with which jurisdiction to comply.
Regardless of whether an employer decides to comply with the federal or Québec requirements, when Bill C-13 comes into force, employers will always have to plan for and anticipate the French translation of their communications and documentation in order to meet the requirements of the Act which seeks to protect the French language in Canada.
McCarthy Tétrault practices in the field of linguistics and operates with the MT❯VERSION division, which provides legal translation services to all its clients.
The MT❯Version team of professionals provides high-quality legal translation services by leveraging innovative solutions in both project management support and technologically with the assistance of artificial intelligence. We evaluate each translation project according to its content, technical complexity, delivery deadline and size in order to provide you with clear benefits in terms of cost and deadlines while delivering peace of mind.
For further information or a quote, please contact us at [email protected].