MONTREAL -- Small businesses in Quebec already struggling with the toll of the pandemic are worried about the government’s sweeping new reforms to the French language charter and what it will mean when they get back up and running normally again.

Under Bill 96, tabled Thursday by the CAQ government, the law would enhance French-language requirements that will mean businesses with 25 to 49 employees will have to obtain French certification. Under the current charter, the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) can form a francization committee to help companies with 50 to 99 employees to help with their francization process to make French the language of business. The government hopes to expand that to more small businesses with the proposed legislation. 

To give them time to adjust, businesses will get a three-year grace period until the new rules come into effect.

Along with obtaining a francization certificate, if the bill becomes law, businesses would also be obligated to provide services and information in French -- and will get a call from the (OQLF) if they get a complaint from the public. The OQLF will be responsible for receiving and investigating complaints under the new law.

George Bakopanos, owner of the Topaze restaurant in Pointe-Claire, said he’s concerned about what will happen if the level of French in his eatery isn’t good enough for some customers.

"If we have to instruct all our employees to speak French, and they have some difficulty speaking [it] maybe the customer will say, 'Oh, this person doesn't speak French up to par.' What’s the extent of this new language law? Do we have to speak perfect French? It doesn't make sense," he said.

“We already have enough problems … we have enough to worry about than watching what language the person is speaking.”

The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB) shares his concerns.

After the government unveiled Bill 96, dubbed An act respecting French, the official and common language of Quebec, the organization said it is worried about the impacts on small businesses that are already weakened by the pandemic.

“While the bill offers a three-year transition period, it will still impose new obligations and paperwork on small businesses. Small business owners need regulatory relief so that they have more time to focus on their business,” said François Vincent, CFIB's vice-president for Quebec, said in the release.

“On the face of it, that's not what this bill will do for them.”

A recent survey of Quebec businesses showed that a majority -- 56 per cent -- were against the expansion of French in the workplace for some companies. More than 700 members were surveyed last month, with many reporting English was still essential to their job.