Quebec's new language Bill-96 proposes drastic amendments to French language laws

7 minute read
14 May 2021

On May 13, 2021, the Quebec government introduced Bill 96 - An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec (the "Bill"). The Bill, which proposes significant amendments to the Charter of the French Language (the "Charter"), affirms French as Quebec's only official language, introduces new fundamental French language rights, and strengthens provisions governing the use of French as the language of business and commerce in the province.

The Bill creates new requirements governing the use of French in numerous sectors, ranging from education to immigration, commerce and business. Businesses operating in Quebec should be aware of the following notable aspects of the Bill:

  • Trademarks Exclusively in a Language Other Than French – Pursuant to Quebec's French language laws, a "recognized trademark" within the meaning of the Trademarks Act may appear exclusively in a language other than French provided no French version of the mark has been registered. Bill 96 intends to dramatically restrict the current "recognized trademark" exception for marks appearing on public signs, posters and commercial advertising.
    • In order for a trademark to appear exclusively in a language other than French on public signs, posters and commercial advertising, the mark must be registered within the meaning of the Trademarks Act. Despite the current case law, common law marks would no longer meet the "recognized trademark" exception threshold.  Consequently, consideration should be given as to whether businesses currently relying on the exception for common law trademarks should consider further trademark protection and registration.
    • Public signs and posters visible from outside premises bearing a trademark in a language other than French must be markedly predominantly in French.
  • Additional French Language Requirements for Outdoor Signage – Bill 96 would further amend Quebec's outdoor signage requirements, previously amended in 2016 to require a "sufficient presence of French". Under Bill 96, the "sufficient presence" requirements would be replaced by the more onerous requirement that French be "markedly predominant"; public signs and posters visible from outside premises on which appear an enterprise's name that includes an expression taken from a language other than French must be markedly predominantly in French.
  • Application to Additional Businesses – Bill 96 would extend the province's French language requirements to federally regulated businesses currently exempt from the application of the Charter. The Bill would also extend francization requirements – currently applicable to businesses with 50 or more employees in Quebec – to businesses employing 25 persons or more in the province.
  • Customer Service – The Bill provides that businesses that offer goods or services to consumers in Quebec must respect their right to be informed and served in French. Businesses offering goods and services to the public other than consumers (i.e. businesses) in the province would be required to inform and serve said clients in French as well.
  • Commercial Publications – While the Charter currently requires that commercial publications be offered in French, or in French and in another language under equivalent conditions, Bill 96 expressly extends this requirement to electronic publications, stating that this requirement applies to such publications "regardless of the medium used". The Bill further provides that such publications may not be made available to the public in a language other than French if the French version is not available on terms that are at least equally favourable.
  • Contracts and Related Documentation – Under the Charter, contracts of adhesion, contracts containing standard clauses and related documents must be drawn up in French, and may only be drawn up in another language at the express wish of the parties. Bill 96 reinforces the requirement that another language may only be used if the parties both agree thereto by requiring that the parties explicitly express their wish to be bound by the non-French version of the agreement "after examining its French version". Consent will therefore only be valid where a French version of the agreement is provided to and examined by the parties.
  • Use of French in the Workplace – Bill 96 calls for increased use of the French language in Quebec workplaces – notably by clarifying the requirements pertaining to written documentation and communication with employees. The Bill also establishes measures aimed at preventing discrimination based on the use of French or an employee's inability or lack of command of a language other than French.
  • Increased Non-Compliance Penalties and Rights of Action – Bill 96 drastically increases certain consequences and rights of action for non-compliance with the province's French language requirements. Firstly, it expressly establishes a civil right of action for anyone whose language rights are infringed by a Charter violation. Moreover, anyone injured by a contract concluded in violation of language requirements may have the contract annulled. While the minimum and maximum fines for a first offence remain largely unchanged for most types of offences, fines are doubled for a second offence and tripled for a subsequent offence. In addition, the Bill would consider each day an offence persists to constitute a separate offence. It is also worth noting that the Bill enables the Office québécois de la langue française to apply for injunctions relating to the carrying out of the Charter. Finally, under the Bill, a business could be ordered to remove signs, posters, or advertisements that do not comply with the Charter.

While it is not yet known when the provisions of Bill 96 may come into force, Gowling WLG is closely monitoring the progression of the Bill and will provide further updates as these become available. Should you have any questions on how these changes affect your business, feel free to contact the authors, Melissa Tehrani and Julia Kappler.

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