On May 13, 2021, the Québec government introduced Bill 96, An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec (the Bill), proposing significant amendments to Québec’s Charter of the French Language (the Charter) to further protect and strengthen the French language in Québec. The Bill received royal assent on June 1, 2022, with various provisions now in force and coming into force by June 1, 2025. This article summarizes the Bill and how it changes the requirements and penalties previously and currently available under the Charter and provides important practical considerations and solutions for brand owners operating or offering goods and services to customers located in Québec.
Background and Status of the Bill
The Charter was first enacted in 1977 to preserve the quality and status of the French language in Québec. Prior to 1977, Québec had no official language. As a result of the Charter, French is Québec’s official language in government, education, commerce, and the workplace. The provisions of the Charter are enforced by the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF). Since its enactment, the Charter has been amended more than six times, each with a degree of controversy.
While the Bill received royal assent on June 1, 2022, the coming-into-force dates of various provisions of the Bill are staggered up to June 1, 2025, including significant amendments governing the use of English-language trademarks on store signage, product packaging, and advertising, and penalties for non-compliance.
The regulations to be adopted under the Bill’s amendments have not yet been made public. Those closely watching the Bill’s implementation hope that these regulations will address significant gaps and ambiguities in the Bill and its amendments to the Charter.
Brand owners with a physical presence in Québec, any enterprise or employer carrying on activities in Québec, and anyone who distributes, sells at retail, rents, offers for sale or rental, or otherwise markets for consideration or free of charge, or who even possesses any non-compliant product, should be aware of these important amendments and changes to the Charter along with their coming-into-force date.
These amendments expand the rights recognized under the Charter, broaden the enforcement powers of the OQLF, narrow the recognized trademark exception for non-French language trademarks, and significantly increase fines and penalties for non-compliance, including a civil remedy for private individuals.
Recognized Trademark Exceptions
Currently, a recognized trademark1 in a language other than French is exempt from many translation requirements under the Charter, provided that a French version of the trademark was not registered. A recognized trademark is currently deemed to include trademarks that are registered, applied for, and/or recognized at common law.2
The Bill significantly limits the recognized trademark exception to apply only to trademarks registered with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO). The registered trademarks cannot have a corresponding French version that appears on the Canadian register.
Importantly, common law (unregistered) trademarks are now excluded from the recognized trademark exception and must be translated.
The Bill also narrows those registered trademarks that qualify for the recognized trademark exception where those registered trademarks appear on product inscriptions. Generic or descriptive terms that are included in non-French language registered trademarks must also be translated into French and appear in French in a markedly predominant manner on the product or on a “medium permanently attached to the product." The Bill does not define what a generic term or description means.
In order to be markedly predominant, the French text (in both space and the characters used) must be twice as large as the text in the other language and overall carry more of a visual impact than the other language.
The amendments to the Recognized Trademark Exception come into force on June 1, 2025.
Public Signage and Posters
Prior to the amendments, public signs and commercial advertising must be in French, but recognized trademarks are currently exempt from the translation requirements. Non-French language trademarks must be accompanied by a sufficient presence of French.
Under the amendments:
The space allotted to French text must be at least twice as large as the space allotted to text in another language, and the characters used in the French text must be at least twice as large as those used in another language.
Any public sign, poster, and/or advertising visible from outside a premise bearing the name of an enterprise that includes an expression in a language other than French must now include a generic term or description that is markedly predominantly in French.
Only registered trademarks (where no French-language version of the mark is registered) are exempt from the translation requirements.
Despite the exceptions noted above, this provision applies to both registered trademarks that are only in a language other than French and business names that include an expression taken from a language other than French.
The amendments regarding public signage and posters come into force on June 1, 2025.
Formerly, the Charter required that catalogues, brochures, folders, commercial directories be offered in French (or in French and another language on terms that are at least equally favorable). The Bill expressly extends this requirement to order forms and any other documents of the same nature that are available to the public regardless of the medium used. These amendments have been interpreted to include websites, social media, digital publications, and post-purchase documents such as invoices, receipts, and other similar documents.
Businesses operating a Canadian website that is accessible in Québec must offer website visitors the option to view a French-language version of that website. Any social media platforms that target residents of Québec and offer goods/services to those Québec residents must be available in French. Paid digital media and contests targeting Canada as a whole should provide all supporting documentation (rules, terms, and conditions) in French and English or should exclude the Province of Québec.
The amendments regarding commercial publications came into force on June 1, 2022.
All inscriptions on a product, its container, its wrapping, or a document supplied with it (i.e., directions for use or a warranty) must be in French. French inscriptions may be accompanied by a translation, but that translation cannot be:
given greater prominence than the French inscription; or
available on more favorable terms.
As noted above, generic terms of descriptions that are included in registered trademarks must also appear in French on the product or on a medium permanently attached to the product. The size of these translations is not specified in the Bill. Based on consultations with the government, this provision is designed to capture trademark registrations that cover labels and packaging as a whole and requires that generic terms and descriptions contained within those registered trademarks also be translated into French. The impact of this requirement remains unclear – does this also apply to generic or descriptive terms that have acquired distinctiveness (and therefore become registrable) or only to generic or descriptive terms that are included in design marks covering packaging and/or labels with multiple elements? We are hopeful that the forthcoming regulations will provide further guidance on these new provisions.
The amendments regarding product packaging came into force on June 1, 2022.
Any business offering goods and/or services to the public in Québec must be able to inform and serve clients in French to respect the clients' rights to be informed and served in French.
The amendments regarding customer service came into force on June 1, 2022.
Communications to Employees
Written communications to employees must be in French (i.e., offers of employment, training documents, transfer or promotion documents, etc.).
While employment contracts must be drafted in French, both parties can expressly agree to be bound by a contract in a language other than French after examining its French version (indicating that there must first be an existing French version of the agreement to be provided and examined by the parties).
The amendments regarding communications to employees came into force on June 1, 2022.
Like employment contracts, contracts containing printed standard clauses and their related documents must be drafted in French. Both parties can be bound by the contract’s version in another language only after a French version has been remitted to the adhering party and the adhering party expressly wishes the agreement to be in another language.
The amendments regarding contracts come into force on June 1, 2023.
Businesses employing 25 or more people (formerly 50) in Québec during a period of over six months will have to comply with the Charter’s francization requirements, which include, among other requirements:
using French in internal and external communications;
using French in work tools and documents; and
consulting with the OQLF to obtain a francization certificate.
English or another language may be used so long as a French version is also available and French remains the usual language of the business.
The amendments regarding Francization requirements come into force on June 1, 2025.
Job Postings and Job Offers
Employers advertising a job offer in a language other than French must simultaneously advertise the job offer in French “using transmission means of the same nature and reaching a target public of a proportionally comparable size.”
The amendments regarding job postings and job offers came into force on June 1, 2022.
Increased Penalties & Broadened Powers
The Bill also strengthens the OQLF’s enforcement powers and creates heightened penalties and sanctions for those who fail to comply with the legislation:
Increased Powers of the OQLF
Search and Seizure: The OQLF can now enter business premises, access documentation, and require any information relating to the application of the Charter.
Injunctions: The OQLF can now apply for injunctive relief to carry out the provisions of the Charter.
Orders: The OQLF may issue orders in case of a breach of the Charter (i.e., removing products from store shelves).
Penalties and Sanctions
Civil Right of Action: The Bill provides for a civil right of action for anyone whose language rights are infringed by a Charter violation.
Contract Annulment: Any party injured by a contract that violates the Charter may have the agreement annulled.
Orders: Like the former Charter, a court may, on application by the Office, order the removal or destruction of any signs, posters, or advertisements that do not comply with the Charter at the offender's expense. The order may also be directed against the owner of the advertising equipment or whoever placed the poster, sign, advertisement, billboard, or illuminated sign.
Quantum: Fines will be increased to range from CAD 700 to 7,000 for individuals and between CAD 3,000 to 30,000 for legal entities. Fines for a second offense are now doubled, and fines for subsequent offenses are tripled.
A court may also impose additional fines not exceeding the financial benefit realized by an offender as a result of infringing the Charter, even if the maximum fine has been imposed.
Length: Each day an offense persists can now be considered to constitute a separate additional offense.
While the Québec government has yet to provide draft regulations, which we hope will clarify the Bill’s amendments, one thing is clear: business owners and trademark owners alike operating in Québec must assess their current business practices, advertisement strategies (including digital advertisements and websites), online operations, and employment practices to confirm their compliance with the current and upcoming Charter amendments.
Although many of the amendments do not come into force until 2025, we recommend businesses and persons using trademarks in Québec in languages other than French consider registering their marks on an expedited basis. CIPO currently faces a significant backlog, and it may take up to three years to examine a trademark application. Given that many of the provisions regarding registered trademarks take effect in June 2025, applications filed now that are not expedited through examination are unlikely to proceed to registration before the coming-into-force date and will not benefit from the amendments applying only to registered trademarks.
If you have any questions about this article or if you need assistance navigating the Charter, the Bill’s amendments, or expedited examination with the CIPO, please feel free to contact any member of our Canadian Intellectual Property team.
1 Pursuant to the Canadian Trademarks Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. T-13.
2Québec (AG) c 156158 Canada Inc. (Boulangerie Maxie’s), 2015 QCCA 35.