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Quebec’s Bill 96 amending French language legislation: How Will Your Business be Affected?

On May 13, Bill 96, An Act Respecting French, the Official and Common Language of Quebec was tabled in Quebec’s National Assembly. Bill 96 aims to further promote the French language and reiterate the formal recognition of French as the only official language in Quebec. It clarifies and reinforces the measures currently in force, introduces new requirements and restrictions, and strengthens the role of the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), the governmental body responsible for ensuring compliance with the Charter of the French Language (the Charter).

Here are some of the ways in which we expect Bill 96 will impact employers and businesses operating in the retail and consumer markets sectors:

Conducting Business

Enterprises will have heightened requirements with respect to their communications in French with consumers as well as non-consumers and the Quebec government.

  • Offering goods and services in French: The proposed amendments introduce explicit requirements for businesses to offer goods and services to consumers, as well as non-consumers, and agencies of civil administration, in French. Under the current regime, consumers have the right to be informed and served in French, but the new Bill extends the requirements to non-consumers and explicitly imposes the corollary obligation on businesses to respect such right.

  • Contracts and other documents must be in French:

    • Bill 96 elaborates on the existing requirement that contracts pre-determined by one party, contracts containing standard clauses, and the related documents, must be drawn up in French. The current interpretation of this rule is that parties may execute an English-only agreement as long as it contains a clause whereby the parties agree that only an English version will be drafted and executed. Once the amendments are in force, however, businesses will have to provide a French version of these documents before a counterparty expresses a wish to be bound by a version written in another language.

    • Contracts entered into with Quebec civil administration will have to be drawn up exclusively in French, with few exceptions, regardless of whether the contracting enterprise is operating in Quebec or not.

    • Written documents sent to government agencies by businesses in order to obtain a permit, authorization, subsidy, or financial assistance shall be drawn up exclusively in French.

  • Registering security in French: Bill 96 also proposes amendments to the Civil Code of Quebec that would require all registrations of security on movable property in Quebec to be exclusively in French, i.e. including the description of the relevant collateral being charged.

Public Signs and Advertising

Bill 96 narrows the existing trademark exception relied upon by many national and international businesses to ensure branding consistency.

  • The trademark exception is narrowed:

    • Currently, a trademark recognized under Canadian trademark legislation (which includes both common trademarks and trademarks for which an application is pending) may appear on public signs and posters exclusively in a language other than French, with some additional requirements in respect of public signs and posters displayed outside an immovable. Bill 96 stipulates that such exception can only be used in connection with registered trademarks, provided that no corresponding French version appears in the Canadian Trademarks Database.

    • Moreover, where such trademark exception is invoked for public signs and posters that are visible from outside premises, the French must be markedly predominant (typically means twice as large or otherwise carrying more of a visual impact) over the trademark that is in another language, where the current requirement only requires a sufficient presence of French on the relevant site.

In the Workplace

Bill 96 strengthens and expands on employers’ obligations with respect to communicating with employees and prospective employees in French, employees’ French language rights, and complying with francization requirements. For more information about how Bill 96 will affect employment in Quebec, please read our blog post here.

Non-compliance

Bill 96 proposes drastic amendments with regards to non-compliance of the requirements under the Charter. Currently, the Charter only provides for administrative fines and the potential suspension or withdrawal of the francization certificate, if applicable.

  • Ability to bring a civil action: The amendments would allow people who feel their language rights are violated under the Charter to bring a civil right of action against the offender.

  • Permits and authorizations: Repeated contraventions of the Charter may result in suspension or revocation of government permits or authorizations.

  • Fines will increase: The fines for non-compliance with the Charter will increase to $3,000 to $30,000 for businesses. It provides for the doubling of fines for a second offence and tripling for a subsequent offence, and considers each day an offence persists as a separate offence.

  • Injunctions and court orders: The OQLF will gain the ability to request an injunction to force compliance with the requirements of the Charter, or a court order for the removal or destruction of posters, signs or advertisements that contravene the Charter, at the expense of the offending business.

What’s next?

We expect that Bill 96 will become law around the end of the year, and while we can expect some amendments, we also expect the key objectives of the new provisions to be maintained. Once adopted, the provisions would come into force gradually over a period of three years. We also expect that the government will propose amendments to the Regulation respecting the language of commerce and business.

We will be watching closely as Bill 96 makes its way through the legislative process over the coming months. If you’d like more information about how these changes will affect your business and how you might best prepare, we’re here to help.

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