New Language Requirements for Trademarks in Quebec

On May 24, 2022, Quebec introduced new language requirements for businesses trying to sell goods and services to Quebeckers. The new rules affect a variety of matters, including trademarks, product labels, advertisements, and signage. The changes for packaging, signage, and advertising come into force on June 1, 2025 and require a trademark registration for all non-French trademarks.

Summary of new rules

1. Signage and Advertising

For some time, Quebec has required businesses to use French as the predominant language in public signage and advertising. However, businesses were allowed to use non-French trademarks as long as signage used sufficient French as well.

The new rules keep the same requirement for French being the predominant language on signs and advertising, but they modify the non-French trademark exception:

  1. Only registered non-French trademarks are permitted;
  2. If a business has registered a French version of its trademark, it can’t use its non-French version in Quebec.

2. Product Packaging

Before Bill 96, Quebec allowed businesses to use non-French trademarks on their product labels. This continues to be the case, but again non-French trademarks must be registered and non-French versions cannot be used where a French version of the mark is registered.

Additionally, if the trademark contains generic or descriptive words in a language other than French, then there has to be a French translation of those words.

3. Penalties

The branch of Quebec’s government responsible for enforcement of these new rules is the Office québécois de la langue française (‘OQLF’).

For non-compliant signage, the OQLF can issue an order for compliance or to cease non-compliance within a certain time. It can also apply (to a judge of the Quebec Superior Court) for an injunction requiring non-compliant signage and advertising to be removed or destroyed at the expense of the business.

For non-compliant packaging, the OQLF can issue an order for compliance or to stop selling the product. The OQLF can issue the order to the non-compliant business, their distributor, or pretty much anyone who is selling the goods. For businesses outside of Quebec that sell their goods through online or technological means, the OQLF can issue an order instructing them to stop selling the product to people in Quebec. 

If a business does not comply with an order issued by the OQLF, they can be issued a fine of $700 - $7,000 (for individuals) and $3,000 - $30,000 (for other entities). If a business is a repeat offender, Quebec’s Minister of the French Language can revoke or suspend any permits or government authorizations (e.g. food handlers certificate or liquor permit) the business has.

Analysis

The new rules have several exceptions and caveats which can depend on the type of goods, whether the goods are perishable and the industry sector. As such, each business selling to Quebeckers should consult the rules themselves or seek assistance from qualified legal counsel to determine how the new rules affect them.

The changes for packaging, signage, and advertising come into force on June 1, 2025. This may seem like a generous amount of time, but that may not be the case considering the new rules require non-French trademarks to be registered in Canada.

Currently, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (‘CIPO’) has a serious backlog for trademark applications. As of September 2, 2022, CIPO is currently examining trademark applications filed more than three years ago in February 2019[1]. Given that Quebec’s new rules come into force in less than three years, businesses that want to use a non-French trademark in Quebec should ensure they have a registration for the mark in hand, already have an application pending or arrange to file a new application ASAP. At this point, CIPO has not designated compliance with the new Quebec rules as a ground to expedite pending trademark applications.

Some businesses who have registered French versions of their trademarks may even want to consider cancelling those registrations prior to June 1, 2025 to permit them to continue use the registered non-French versions.

Finally, businesses should be cognizant of the possibility that these rules may change. Bill 96 is the first major change to Quebec’s Charter of the French Language since its inception in 1977 and has proven to be quite controversial – attracting questions of their constitutionality[2], and economic feasibility[3] and whether they are an unfair restriction on trade.

In particular, non-Quebec businesses with non-French trademarks may have an established reputation in Quebec. If these businesses are unable to continue operating with their trademarks, this could have a significant effect on their goodwill – potentially leaving their market share up for grabs by Quebec competitors that are more likely to already have French trademarks and so are more likely to continue operating uninterrupted.

Further, Quebec is currently in the run-up to a provincial election on October 3, 2022, and it appears that Bill 96 has become a talking point for those seeking seats in Quebec’s Legislature.

Given all of the above, the requirements currently set out in Bill 96 may be subject to change.

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[1] Applications not using the Pre-approved List of Goods and Services.

[2] ‘The Superior Court of Quebec Temporarily Suspends Certain Provisions Of The Charter Of The French Language Introduced By Bill 96’ (19 August 2022) Catherine Cayer < https://www.mondaq.com/canada/trials-appeals-compensation/1222946/the-superior-court-of-quebec-temporarily-suspends-certain-provisions-of-the-charter-of-the-french-language-introduced-by-bill-96 >

[3] ‘Quebec businesses ramp up opposition to Bill 96 ahead of provincial election’ (31 August 2022) Verity Stevenson < https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/open-letter-quebec-businesses-bill-96-1.6568049 >