French language law in Canada: Part 1 - An introduction

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The Charter of the French language (R.S.Q. c. C-11) (the French Charter) was adopted in 1977 by the Québec government to protect the French language. The French Charter gives the French language the status of official language in Québec, thus making the use of the French language mandatory in all spheres of public life in the province, including commerce and business.

This article and the series to follow, will examine the French language requirements for commerce and business in the province of Québec and provide practical guidance on how brand owners can navigate these requirements.

Generally speaking, the French Charter applies to businesses with an establishment in the province of Québec (this includes a P.O. box) and, in certain regards, it applies to businesses selling their goods and performing their services in Québec, without necessarily being established there.

The French language requirements for commerce and business are divided into three categories:

  • Inscriptions on products and accompanying documentation;
  • Commercial publications such as catalogues, flyers, brochures, commercial directories, contracts, invoices, websites, social media; and
  • Public signs, posters and commercial advertising (this includes promotional bags, carts and employee uniforms, etc.).

Listed below are the links to the French Charter as well as to its Regulations outlining rules and exceptions to the language used in the spheres of commerce and business:

Simply put, French language must be used on products, in commercial publications and in commercial advertising. An exception to this rule is the “recognized trademark” exception which provides that recognized trademarks do not need to be translated into French, unless a French version of the mark is registered.

The Office québécois de la langue française (the “OQLF”) is the body in charge of enforcing the French Charter and its Regulations. It has the power and authority to investigate a violation of the French Charter and to refer the matter to the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions, who in turn, may take action against an offender in the Court of Québec and ultimately impose a fine.

All of the above will be further detailed in Smart & Biggar’s French language requirements in Québec Series, which will cover the following topics in more details, including tips and strategies:

  • Inscriptions on products and accompanying documentation; (published July 20, 2020)
  • Language used in commercial publications, including websites and social media;
  • Language used on public signs, posters and commercial advertising;
  • The “recognized trademark” exception and how to make good use of it;
  • The rules governing the language of a business name; and
  • The “exposure” for violating the French language requirements in the province of Québec.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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