After much media coverage about anticipated changes to the Charter of the French Language (the “Charter”), the Québec government tabled Bill 96: An Act Respecting French, The Official and Common Language of Québec (the “Bill”) on May 13, 2021 in the National Assembly. If passed, the Bill will amend the existing Charter with the aim of further securing the position of the French language as the ultimate language throughout Québec in many areas, including with respect to business and work-related dealings.
This newsletter is intended to highlight some important changes that relate to the use of intellectual property, in particular trademarks, displayed on exterior signage in Québec.
Among the changes being proposed are amendments designed to fortify French as the language of communication in the workplace, including employment contracts, internal communications, training and documentation as a whole, which must be conducted or drafted in French first and foremost with some exceptions upon request, subject to certain conditions. Specifically, the Bill confirms that any employment offers and contracts must be transmitted and drawn up in French, subject to certain exceptions. Moreover, employers under federal jurisdiction operating within the province would also be subject to the amended Charter.
The Bill also seeks to regulate linguistic ability and requirements for employees with respect to knowledge of other languages, placing the onus on employers to demonstrate that the tasks and the nature of the work necessitate the ability to work in a language other than French. Furthermore, for jobs that require knowledge of another language, the Bill provides the conditions that must be met by employers in order to demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable means to avoid such a requirement.
The francization rules for registration with the Office Québécois de la langue française (“OQLF”) and establishment of the required French language environment in the workplace would be expanded to encompass businesses with twenty-five to forty-nine employees, instead of the present 50 employees, thereby capturing many companies that were previously excluded from these requirements. This new rule would come into effect three years after the adoption of this Bill as Québec law and would also entail accelerated deadlines for compliance, bringing them to three months instead of the previous six months.
Additionally, although the obligation to create a francization committee would remain at workplaces with 100 or more employees, there would be changes to the composition and establishment of such a committee. Also, the OQLF would have a discretionary power to impose the same obligation upon businesses with at least twenty-five employees.
The Bill also provides for employees of selected businesses having at least five employees to benefit from programs offering French language learning services. Such services are intended to allow those individuals to acquire sufficient French language skills.
Provisions concerning the use of any language other than French on signage would also see important changes. The Bill aims to bolster the French language by ensuring its predominance on exterior signage that includes words in a language other than French. Trademarks that are registered in Canada in a language other than French and for which there is no registered French version may continue to be used on signage, provided that a French element, descriptor or slogan is also present and is markedly predominant. This requirement could prove very costly to businesses as they may need to invest in new signage once again after having done so in response to the previous round of changes implemented only a few years ago.
The OQLF would also see its role reinforced by the proposed changes. The Bill would widen the scope of the OQLF’s powers, allowing it to engage in monitoring the implementation of the new rules in order to fulfil its newly expanded role. More frequent reporting requirements, higher sanctions against individuals and businesses and the ability to regulate complaints and ensure compliance are a few of the anticipated amendments to the OQLF’s powers. In addition, the Bill would allow for a new private right of action, giving individuals the ability to seek relief from the courts for certain contraventions of the Charter. It also seeks to amend other laws, including the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Consumer Protection Act, to recognize the general right of Quebecers to use French and live in French, and to be informed and served in French.
To summarize, the proposed modifications to the Charter under Bill 96 reflect the current government’s desire to promote and preserve the French language. As a result, businesses in Québec may be required to make significant adjustments to their business and workplace dealings should Bill 96 eventually be passed into law.
The author wishes to thank Articling Student Emily Cruz Isgro for contributing to the article.