Québec’s distinct language, culture and legal system present unique challenges for foreign entities considering doing business in Canada’s second largest province. In particular, foreign businesses interested in the Québec marketplace must adhere to the province’s French language requirements.
The Charter of the French Language establishes French as the official language of Québec and governs the use of the French language in a broad range of activities. The Charter sets forth the fundamental right of every person to have all firms doing business in Québec communicate with him or her in French. The Office of the French Language (OFL) is the provincial authority that oversees the use of French in commerce and business. The OFL has stated that a firm that maintains an address in Québec or conducts business in Québec by soliciting Québec residents is carrying on business in Québec and, therefore, is subject to the Charter.
Business Name in French
The Act respecting the Legal Publicity of Sole Proprietorships, Partnerships and Legal Persons and the Charter require companies carrying on business in Québec to have a firm name in French. According to the OFL, the French firm name does not have to be adopted as a French version of the firm’s corporate name. However, generally, this is preferable to avoid situations where, on the one hand, Québec law requires the use of the French firm name alone (i.e., without the English name) and, on the other hand, corporate law requires the use of the corporate name for the same purpose.
Generally speaking, a French firm name may be accompanied by its English version, provided that the French version appears at least as prominently as the English version; however, in some cases, use of the English version of a firm name is only permitted if the French version is “markedly predominant” – meaning that the French text must have a much greater visual impact than the text in another language.
Common Business Applications in French
Similarly, all documents used in common business applications must be translated into French, and the French must be displayed at least as predominantly as the English translation. There are specific instructions in the Charter dealing with:
- Product labelling: Every inscription on a product, its container or wrapping, or on a leaflet, brochure or card supplied with it, including the directions for use and warranty certificate, must be drafted in French. This requirement extends to labels containing, for example, washing instructions and sizes.
- Employment forms, order forms, invoices, etc.: Employment application forms, order forms, invoices, receipts, catalogues, brochures and almost every other document designed for use by employees or customers must be produced in French or in a bilingual version.
- Public signs, posters and commercial advertising: Public signs, posters and commercial advertising may also be bilingual, provided that the French translation is “markedly predominant.” However, large billboards or signs that are visible from any part of a public highway must be exclusively in French, unless they are displayed on the firm's premises. Likewise, signs on public transportation vehicles, such as buses and subways, must be exclusively in French, unless they are used regularly to transport passengers or merchandise both inside and outside of Québec, in which case the signs may be bilingual.
- Websites: Commercial advertising posted on a website must also be drawn up in French. Alternatively, it may be bilingual, provided that the French version is displayed at least as prominently as the English version.
- Trade-marks: As stated above, any “recognized” trade-mark within the meaning of the Canadian Trade-marks Act (which recognizes both registered and unregistered marks) may appear in English only in a business firm's catalogues, brochures, public signs, posters and commercial advertising, provided that a French version of such trade-mark has not been registered.
Language as a Condition of Employment
Employers are prohibited from dismissing, laying off, demoting or transferring a staff member for the sole reason that he or she is exclusively French-speaking or has insufficient knowledge of the English language. An employer is prohibited from making knowledge of the English language a condition of obtaining employment, unless the nature of the duties requires such knowledge. Normally, in Québec, people who work in retail stores and who are dealing with customers need at least a basic knowledge of English to enable them to serve customers in either language.
An enterprise in Québec which employs more than 50 employees must register with the Office de la langue française. If the Office considers that the use of French is not generalized at all levels of the enterprise, the enterprise will have to adopt a francization program.
An enterprise employing 100 or more persons must form a francization committee. Where necessary, the committee will have to devise a francization program and supervise its implementation. Certificates of francization will be issued in each case where the Office is satisfied with the enterprise's linguistic situation.
Penalties for Non-compliance
Any corporation that contravenes the Charter is liable for each offence to a fine of up to $1,400 and, for any subsequent conviction, to a fine of up to $7,000. Recent amendments have extended liability to those distributing, selling by retail trade, renting, offering for sale or rental or otherwise marketing a product, computer software or a publication not in compliance with the Charter.
Employment and Labour Law
Québec's employment laws share many similarities with those of other Canadian provinces in areas such as occupational health and safety, workers’ compensation and pay equity; but, there are some unique aspects to consider. Three major statutes govern employment in Québec.
Civil Code of Québec (CCQ)
Generally, the CCQ governs the employment contract. It provides that the employer has to take measures consistent with the nature of the work to protect the health, safety and dignity of the employee. It also confirms the right of the parties to include a non-competition clause in a contract, provided it is limited as to time, place and type of employment. The CCQ provides that an employment contract will not be terminated by a sale of the business or any change in its legal structure by way of amalgamation or otherwise, and will be binding on any successor employer.
Either party to an employment contract with an indeterminate term may terminate the contract, subject to reasonable prior notice. One of the parties may always terminate the contract, without prior notice, for a serious reason. The CCQ also provides that a “choice of law” clause in an employment contract may be unenforceable if it results in depriving the worker of the protection to which he or she is entitled under the mandatory provisions of the law of the country where the worker habitually carries on his or her work. The “choice of law” cannot be forced upon a worker. Article 3149 of the CCQ provides as follow:
A Québec authority also has jurisdiction to hear an action involving a consumer contract or a contract of employment if the consumer or worker has his domicile or residence in Québec; the waiver of such jurisdiction by the consumer or worker may not be set up against him.
Québec Labour Code
Unionized employees are governed by the Québec Labour Code. The Canada Labour Code and the Québec Labour Code are essentially similar, except that the Canada Labour Code is broader. The latter Code includes issues that are dealt with in Québec under other legislation, such as An Act respecting labour standards or An Act respecting Occupational health and safety. One distinction between the two Codes that may be important is that the Canada Labour Code does not include anti-scab measures.
Labour Standards Act
The Act respecting Labour Standards applies to employees regardless of where they work. It includes employees who perform work both within and outside of Québec for an employer whose undertaking is in Québec. The Commission des normes du travail supervises the implementation and application of labour standards. Any employer who pays remuneration to an employee must also pay a contribution to the Minister of Revenue and file an annual statement. An employer's contribution is equal to the product obtained by multiplying the rate fixed by regulation (not exceeding 1%) by the remuneration, subject to the contribution paid by the employer during the year.
Other employment standards provisions include the following:
- Equal rates or wages have to be paid for the same tasks;
- There is also a minimum wage, determined by regulation, which is currently $8.50;
- Employees must be paid at intervals not greater than 16 days;
- The regular work week is 40 hours. Overtime work entails a premium of 50% of the prevailing hourly wage paid to the employee;
- Minimum annual leave with pay is two weeks after one year of uninterrupted service and three weeks after five years;
- Prior written notice of termination or layoff of one week is required if the employee has worked for more than three months but less than one year. The notice period is two weeks for an employee who has worked between one to five years; four weeks for an employee who has worked between five to ten years; and eight weeks for an employee who has worked ten years or more;
- Sale or concession of the whole or part of a business does not invalidate a claim arising from the application of the Act; the former employer and new employer are bound jointly and severally;
- Work performed by children under the age of 14 is prohibited;
- Labour standards contained in the Labour Standards Act and the regulations are mandatory; and
- Fines between $600 and $6,000 may be levied, depending on the offence.