The impact of Quebec’s new language law on marketing
Quebec’s Bill 96 is intended to strengthen the primacy of French as the language of commerce and business in Quebec. The changes affect businesses operating in Québec, including e-commerce sites run by businesses outside Quebec, and businesses with Quebec employees.
This blog addresses provisions that impact B2B and B2C communications, trademarks, public signage, product packaging and labeling.
The law is taking effect in stages, with some in place as of June 1, 2022 (date the bill received royal assent), and others coming into force over the next 3 years.
Already in place is the requirement that organizations (including not-for-profits and charities) providing goods or services in Québec must inform and serve in French. This affects B2B and B2C communications and extends to websites, social media, newsletters, call centres and more. Those who feel this requirement has been violated can file an injunction.
Bill 96 entrenches and expands francization obligations to ensure that French is the principal company language. This will impact workplace processes, hiring, software, tools, communications and more. A notable change is that Bill 96 requires businesses with 25 to 49 employees to register, by June 1, 2025, with the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF). Francization is already mandatory for organizations with 50 or more employees.
The OQLF will inspect businesses’ language practices, provide francization certification, and require compliance plans for businesses that are deemed not in compliance. The OQLF will publish a list of organizations who have had their certificates of francization denied, suspended or cancelled.
Trademarks, packaging, labelling and public signage
Effective June 1, 2025:
- Only registered trademarks under the federal Trademarks Act, for which no French version exists, will be allowed to appear without an accompanying and markedly predominant French translation. Markedly predominant means twice the size or more of a visual impact.
- The registered trademark will be allowed to appear in a language other than French only if no corresponding French version has been registered.
- For product packaging or labelling, if a registered trademark is in a language other than French and contains a generic phrase or a description, the generic term must appear in French.
- If public signage displaying a non-French registered trademark is visible from outside premises, a French generic term or slogan must appear and be markedly predominant compared to the non-French trademark.
These changes mean that brands will no longer be able to include generic and descriptive terms in registered trademarks to avoid translation into French. For example, a brand may use a registered trademark such as “Glowing Shop” but a registered trademark such as “smooth skin and hydration” must be translated. These changes make this requirement more burdensome on organizations with non-French trademarks.
While 2025 may seem some a long way off, it is strongly recommended that trademark owners act quickly to assess their suite of trademarks, including identifying whether any French versions of trademarks in other languages exist. If new trademarks are needed, applications should be submitted promptly, as there could be a deluge of applications, leading to a longer wait-time for approvals as the deadline for compliance approaches.
At this time, it is unclear how the OQLF will enforce these changes as there is an overlap with the federal Trademarks Act. We will provide more information as it becomes available.
Fines for non-compliance will increase to between $3,000 and $30,000 for businesses, and $700 to $7,000 for individuals. Fines will double for a second offense and triple for subsequent offenses. With each day considered a separate offense, the financial repercussions can be substantial.
Bill 96 impacts employers, contracts and civil administration. As of June 1, 2023, changes are set to take affect for contracts of adhesion and consumer contracts, which could result in contract nullification if the new requirements are not complied with.
With reform on the horizon by the federal government to the Official Languages Act, there may be further implications for companies coming down the pike.
The CMA will monitor developments and provide further guidance in the coming weeks.
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