[co-author: Helen Schweitzer]
The Quebec Government made waves when they tabled Bill 96 – An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Quebec, on May 13, 2021. The bill amends the province’s Charter of the French Language by instituting some broad and significant changes to Quebec’s language laws. Once passed, Bill 96 would affirm French and significantly strengthen French as the first language of commerce in Quebec.
Some changes might seem innocuous at first, but critics warn of the dramatic impact it would have on organizations that do business with citizens of Quebec. Some of the most influential aspects of Bill 96 are its changes to trademark exclusivity and use of French in the workplace.
What about my trademark? – Substantial Restrictions with Limited Exceptions
Under the Trademarks Act, Quebec’s language laws allowed for a trademark (e.g., a logo on an advertising poster) to be exclusively in another language so long as there were no versions of the mark registered in French (the “recognized trademark” exception). The courts eventually allowed businesses to show advertising posters in a language other than French, but under Bill 96, this exception is substantially narrowed. For example, if a business displays a trademark name in English using the current recognized trademark exception, they 1) need to make sure that the trademark is “markedly predominant” in French and 2) may need to register for an updated trademark.
French in the Workplace
Bill 96 aims to reduce the number of job postings that require knowledge of a language other than French by elaborating on the French-language requirements for written documents and communicating with employees. For example, the bill specifies that when an employer is hiring, they must prove that the job requires knowledge of a language other than French if they are to include it in the job description.
Under Bill 96, a business that offers goods and services to Quebec customers must respect the consumer’s right to be informed and served in French. The bill’s sponsoring Minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, did his best to defend this provision by assuring the public that the common “Bonjour-Hi” greeting is still acceptable.
As it stands, Quebec’s provincial Charter requires commercial publications to first be offered in French, or in French, and another language. Bill 96 takes this a step farther to include electronic publications by expanding the Charter’s wording so that it applies to all content regardless of what publication medium is used.
Bill 96 reinforces the requirement that another language, such as English, may only be used in commercial agreements if both parties both agree to it. However, that consent will only be valid where a French version of the agreement has been provided and reviewed by both parties.
What happens next?
Consultations on the Bill are scheduled for fall 2021, and Quebec’s national assembly (L’Assemblée Nationale du Québec) could amend Bill 96 through various stages of the public bill consideration process. Ottawa has said that, for now, Quebec has the power to pass Bill 96, as Québec cites section 45 of the 1982 Constitution Act. Section 45 states that a province can exclusively make laws in its own legislature to alter its own provincial constitution, so long as it does not impact other provinces. Based on this, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is unlikely to challenge the legislation despite criticisms from Québec language groups concerned about the bill’s impact.