Franchise Review - May 2012: Franchising in Quebec

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[author: Kelly Moffatt]

Update of Quebec Signage Issue

When venturing into Quebec it’s important to be familiar with the Québec Charter of French Language (the Charter), which establishes French as the official language of Quebec and governs use of the French language in a broad range of activities. 

The Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), the Quebec regulator responsible for the Charter, has recently adopted a new approach to interpretation of the French language requirements for exterior retail store signage. This approach has been met with criticism and push back as it is widely perceived as not being supported by the wording of the Charter.

There are certain exemptions to the Charter’s general rule with respect to the use of French.  Of note is the trade-mark exception for exterior store signage. Specifically, a recognized trade-mark within the meaning of the Trade-marks Act may appear exclusively in English (unless a French version has been registered in Canada).  

Based on this exception for recognized trade-marks, retailers in Quebec have typically displayed their English only trade-marks on exterior store signage (unless they determine for business reasons that they prefer to use French or bilingual signage). The OQLF has, however, recently adopted a new approach to interpretation of the relevant provisions of the Charter and is now asserting that the trade-mark exception does not apply to store signage. Specifically, the OQLF is taking the position that in the context of exterior store signage, a trade-mark is not in fact being used as a trade-mark and, as such, the signage needs to include a generic descriptor in French. 

There are some serious issues with the OQLF’s interpretation of the Charter and its application of the relevant provisions of the Trade-marks Act (which is a matter of federal jurisdiction and outside the scope of the OQLF’s authority). While exterior store signage may well be used as a business or trade name, it is also used as a trade-mark (i.e., public recognition of the mark as a source indicator) and, as such, should be entitled to the trade-mark exception.

Last fall, the OQLF launched a multi-media public awareness campaign with respect to its store signage and contacted numerous retailers having a Quebec presence with respect to their store signage requesting that they amend it to conform with the new approach. We understand that many retailers have pushed back and are not planning on making any changes to their signage (absent any amendments to the Charter/regulations). 

There is no word yet on whether the OQLF is moving to take more formal action for alleged breaches against any retailers. Our view is that the OQLF’s interpretation is flawed and that Quebec retailers may continue to display their English-only trade-marks on exterior store signage, but the issue remains in some state of flux pending the OQLF’s next move.