The Charter of the French Language regulates the use of foreign languages, including English, in commercial signage in the province of Quebéc. The Charter provides that a language other than French can appear on public signage used by companies doing business in Quebéc, provided that the French language is at least as predominant. However, section 25 of the Charter provides an exception in favour of trade marks and authorizes the use of foreign language (including English) trade marks on commercial signage, provided no French translation of the mark has been registered.
The question is often raised as to whether a common law trade mark benefits from the exception provided by the Charter, or whether the exception only applies to registered trade marks. In a recent decision, the Criminal and Penal Division of the Court of Quebéc held that a trade mark need not be registered in order to be recognized as a trade mark.
In Quebéc (A.G.) v. St-Germain Transport (1994) Inc., 2006 QCCQ 7631, the defendant, St-Germain Transport (1994) Inc. (St-Germain), was charged with contravening the Charter, because, inter alia, of the use of the phrase COAST TO COAST SERVICES in English only on its trailer trucks. St-Germain argued that the phrase COAST TO COAST SERVICES was used by the company since the 1970s as a trade mark for its services, namely interprovincial and international transportation of goods.
The Court recognized that it is not necessary to register a trade mark in order to claim that one is using a word or phrase as a trade mark. The Court indicated that use of a word or phrase in association with services for a certain period of time can establish a property right to a trade mark. It is the responsibility of the user of the trade mark to demonstrate such use and the goodwill associated thereto. In this case, the Court was satisfied that St-Germain had used the phrase COAST TO COAST SERVICES as a trade mark to distinguish its services. Therefore, St-Germain could benefit from the exception to the use of the French language in commercial signage, as provided by section 25 of the Charter.