Language rights have been a point of contention in the province of Quebec for decades. In 1977, Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language in Quebec passed into law, establishing French as the province's official language in everyday spaces.
Now, the Quebec government has recently passed a new piece of legislation that will further solidify the primary use of the French language in these spaces.
The National Assembly of Quebec adopted Bill 96, An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Quebec, on May 24, 2022. Bill 96 further amended Quebec's French Language law to reinforce the dominant use of French in the province.
The adoption of Bill 96 has widespread implications for the public and the private sectors in Quebec. It will affect various commercial activities such as signage and commercial advertising, employment-related documents, product packaging, and labelling. I want to highlight the noteworthy effects of Bill 96 on private businesses operating in the province, focusing on issues that may impact Ontario-based businesses conducting limited business or having a small presence in Quebec.
Private Party Contracts:
Beginning June 1, 2023, private party contracts will be subject to a number of requirements mandating the use of the French language.
Contracts of adhesion (where the terms of the contract are not up for negotiation) that take place in Quebec must be provided in French, free of charge, and at the first instance.
Providing the contract of adhesion in a language that is not French may lead to its annulment on application to court without the need for a demonstration of damages.
Contract negotiations can be in a language other than French, so long as no one charges a fee to the other party for requiring a French version of the contract and no coercion has taken place to commit the contract to a language other than French.
Employment contracts for employees in Quebec that are contracts of adhesion must be provided in French. However, if the parties are negotiating the agreement freely, the employment contract may be in a language other than French. Still, employers should be wary of providing a contract in a language other than French and consult legal counsel before doing so, as employment contracts are rarely freely negotiated.
Employees have the right to carry out their daily activities in French. All communications with employees must be in French, except where the employee has expressly requested that they be communicated with in a language other than French.
An employer cannot require an employee to have knowledge of another language as a condition of employment, transfer, or promotion except in very specific circumstances. Thus, employers should consult legal counsel prior to making knowledge of another language a condition of employment, transfer, or promotion.
Finally, when posting job advertisements, employers must post French-language versions of the advertisement in the equivalent medium (digital, print, etc.) that reaches an audience of at least equal size to the non-French advertisement.
Use of French in Business:
All customers (including business-to-business customers) and non-customers that interact with a business in Quebec must be served in French.
Goods, packaging, and documents provided to customers and non-customers, including advertising and digital materials (such as websites and social media), must include a French language version at least as prominent as the non-French version, and the translation must be accurate. Accordingly, if translating from another language to French, a certified translation should be strongly considered to ensure accuracy and compliance with Bill 96.
Over the next three years, the scope of Bill 96’s French language protection provisions will expand to include the following:
- Mandated certification of the sufficient general use of the French language in businesses with 25 or more employees;
- Mandated French language usage in non-registered/common law trademarks; and
- French language text size guidelines for non-registered/common law trademarks.
The Office québécois de la langue française ("OQLF") has substantial rights of inspection and sanction to enforce compliance with Bill 96, including the right to enter premises at any time, to inspect electronic data, and to collect evidence of non-compliance. If a business is in breach of the provisions of Bill 96, it will be subject to the following sanctions:
- Administrative sanctions prohibiting the business from entering into government contracts or suspending business permits; and
- Penal sanctions:
- fines ranging from $700 to $30,000 for direct contraventions of Bill 96;
- fines ranging from $2,000 to $250,000 for reprisal;
- for subsequent offences, fines are subject to double and triple in quantum; and
- director liability is presumed.
With the substantial administrative and penal sanctions available to the OQLF to enforce compliance with Bill 96, businesses operating in the province of Quebec must take heed of these new and upcoming French language requirements and should consult legal counsel when conducting business there.