Bill 96, An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec (“Bill 96”), assented on June 1, 2022, made significant changes to the Charter of the French language (the “CFL”), seeking to promote the use of the French language in Québec and to further affirm that the only official language of Quebec is French. Among other important business-related changes made to the CFL, Bill 96 will require many business owners to make changes to the way they use and display their non-French trademarks. These pertinent amendments to the CFL will come into force on June 1, 2025.
The general rule in Québec with respect to product inscriptions, which remains unchanged under the amended CFL, is that inscriptions on products, on its container or its wrapping, or a document or object supplied with it, must be in French. While non-French inscriptions may appear alongside the French, there operates an equivalency rule that provides that non-French inscriptions must not be given greater prominence or be available on more favourable terms in relation to the French equivalent. There is currently an exemption under the CFL for trademarks, whether registered or the subject of pending applications, and common law trademarks, provided that there is no corresponding French version registered. The exemption allows non-French trademark inscriptions to be used on a product, its container or its wrapping, or document or object supplied with it, without complying with the translation requirements (the “Recognized Trademark Exemption”).
However, as of June 1, 2025, the Recognized Trademark Exemption will only be available for inscriptions on products that are registered with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (“CIPO”) within the meaning of the Trademarks Act (the “Act”), and where there is no corresponding French version appearing on the register. This means that, unless your non-French trademark is registered under the Act by June 1, 2025, and there is no corresponding French version appearing on the Trademarks Register, your trademark must be changed to include a French version. Common law or pending trademarks will no longer benefit from the Recognized Trademark Exemption. Bill 96 also broadens the definition of “corresponding French version” to include any French trademark “appearing” on the registry, whether registered or not.
Moreover, even if the product inscription enjoys the benefit of the Recognized Trademark Exemption, Bill 96 may still impact your use of the trademark. If the registered trademark contains a generic term or a description of the product in a language other than French, you must translate these into French on the product or on a medium permanently attached to the product. While this is consistent with the general equivalency rule, it is not entirely clear whether the equivalency rule also applies to these translations.
Public Signage and Commercial Advertising
The general rule in Québec with respect to public signs and posters and commercial advertising, which remains unchanged under the amended CFL, is that public signage and commercial advertising must be in French. While non-French may appear on public signs and in commercial advertising, French must be “markedly predominant” in relation to the non-French equivalent. The “marked predominance” requirement is met if the text written in French has a much greater visual impact than the text written in non-French. The Recognized Trademark Exemption also operates to allow non-French trademarks to be used on public signage and commercial advertising, without complying with the translation requirement; with the caveat that, when a non-French trademark is displayed outside an immovable, the CFL requires it to be accompanied by “a sufficient presence of French”.
Similar to product inscriptions, with the coming into force of the amendments to the CFL, the Recognized Trademark Exemption will only be available to registered trademarks with no corresponding French version appearing on the register. Even if your trademark has already been registered and there is no corresponding French version appearing on the register, Bill 96 may still impact your use of the trademark as it provides that the French must be “markedly predominant” on public signs and posters visible from outside premises, doing away with the “sufficient presence of French” benchmark in this context. This change applies to both registered non-French trademarks and business names that include an expression taken from a language other than French.
Failure to Comply
The Office québécois de la langue française (“OQLF”), the body responsible for overseeing compliance with the CFL, may issue an order to a party that fails to comply with the CFL or a regulation thereunder to either comply or to cease contravening it, for example by ceasing to sell a product with non-compliant inscriptions. The OQLF may also apply directly to the Superior Court for injunctive enforcement of those orders. There are also administrative sanctions empowering the OQLF to request that the Minister of French Language suspend or revoke a permit or authorization provided to a business for repeated contravention of the CFL; as well as penal sanctions imposing increased fines pursuant to Bill 96 for failure to comply, which are subject to being doubled for a first offence or tripled for subsequent offences. Importantly, Bill 96 also amends the Charter of human rights and freedoms to contain a new “right to live in French to the extent provided by the Charter of the French language”, providing for a private right of action for all Québec residents, which may result in injunctions, damages, and punitive damages for violations of the CFL.
We advise that you promptly seek trademark registration of any non-French trademarks you intend to use in Québec, so that you can rely on the Recognized Trademark Exemption. While June 1, 2025, may seem far away, there is a significant backlog of pending trademark applications in Canada. As such, we highly recommend that you obtain legal advice to help you navigate the trademark registration system and register your non-French trademark in a timely manner.
Even if your non-French trademark has been registered with CIPO, we suggest that you review your product inscriptions to ensure that any generic or descriptive terms are written in French and consider how you will affix these translations on a medium permanently attached to the product. Also, if you have a public sign displaying a registered non-French trademark or business name including a non-French expression, that is visible from outside, French must be added and appear in a markedly predominant manner. These new language rules may have significant cost implications and, depending on the location of your business, further require you to obtain a permit. For example, Montréal requires a permit application to be submitted to the applicant’s borough before replacing or changing any commercial signs.
As the current French language requirements in the CFL are subject to various exemptions prescribed in its corresponding regulations, we are expecting upcoming amendments to these regulations. We also expect further guidance from the OQLF on how the amendments to the CFL should be interpreted. As such, we will continue to monitor the adoption of Bill 96.
To learn more about the impact of Bill 96 on your business in Québec and how we can help, please contact the author or one of the lawyers in our Intellectual Property + Technology Group.