On December 5, 2012, the Parti Québécois, Quebec’s minority government, presented Bill 14, entitled An Act to Amend the Charter of the French Language, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other laws (“Bill”).
As it stands, the Bill is only a proposal, and has not yet come into force. As its title indicates, the current government, led by Pauline Marois, has proposed to amend several laws to achieve its goal of further protecting the French language in Quebec.
The proposed amendments to the Charter of the French Language ("Charter") mainly target semipublic agencies, the language of labour relations, the language of business, the education system and the powers of the Office québécois de la langue française ("OQLF"), amongst others.
We focus below on the main proposals that will impact companies doing business directly with consumers.
Extension of Consumers’ Right to be Informed and Served in French
The Bill suggests that all companies that sell and make goods and/or services available to the public in Quebec must take reasonable measures to respect the consumer's right to be informed and served in French.
Some would argue that this provision is not new in law; however, it is, in fact, a new requirement for companies having 49 employees or less. Currently, the right of consumers to be informed and served in French is indeed recognized as a fundamental right under the Charter. However, this fundamental right is apparently only intended to guide the interpretation of the law and does not trigger any penal sanctions. As such, except for the obligations imposed on businesses with 50 employees or more by francization programs (described below), the failure to respect this right was technically not sanctioned by the current law. The Bill would create a new obligation which could be subject to penal sanctions.
Requiring Sufficient Quantities of French Materials
With respect to catalogues, brochures, flyers, commercial directories and any other similar publications, the Bill does not change the requirement that such documents must be drawn up in French. However, the Bill proposes that such documents must also be available in sufficient numbers to meet demand. Thus, one could be in violation of the Charter for two reasons: (i) catalogues aren’t translated into French, or (ii) catalogues are in French, but aren’t in sufficient quantities to meet demand.
French to be Used Throughout Smaller Businesses as Well
Currently, the francization program, which consists of a set of rules related to the use of French at all levels of a company, only applies to companies having 50 employees or more. The Bill proposes to extend such obligations to companies with 26 to 49 employees. These newly targeted companies will be required to make French the standard and customary language of work, a change that will directly impact consumers.
Products, Signage, Trademarks and Trade Names
No changes are proposed to the inscriptions made on products and commercial signage. Consequently, no change in the treatment of trademarks is suggested. This is the status quo at this level.
Furthermore, there are no proposed changes with respect to trade names, nor has it been proposed to codify the OQLF’s position to the effect that the use of a trademark on a storefront corresponds to the use of a trade name which should be accompanied by a French descriptor (e.g. McDOUGALL’S® Magasin Général). On this subject, we expect a decision to be rendered by the Superior Court of Quebec. Last year, major retailers such as BEST BUY, GAP, OLD NAVY, GUESS, COSTCO, and WAL-MART, filed a motion seeking a declaratory judgment to confirm (contrary to the OQLF’s position), that the use of their English trademarks on their front store signage, without a French descriptor, is compliant with the Charter. This motion was initiated by the retailers further to the launchof the OQLF’s awareness campaign in 2011, aimed at having more French public signage in Quebec.
We will follow the parliamentary proceedings, as well as the decision of the Superior Court of Quebec with great interest. The results of both could have a huge impact on doing business in Quebec.