If your company is doing (or planning to do) business in Quebec, it’s critical that you understand Bill 96 and your language obligations, or your company could be subject to noncompliance actions or fines. Bill 96 is designed to promote the use of French language in Quebec. It’s arguably one of the most consequential bills in Canada’s recent history, and impacts, not just every business interaction in Quebec, but every individual’s daily interaction.
On May 24, 2022, the Québec National Assembly voted to pass Bill 96. The purpose of the Act is to respect French as the official and common language of Québec, and more formally and consistently recognize French as Quebec’s only official language. These changes are designed to clarify the linguistic requirements for citizens, students, customers, workers, employers, businesses, and government officials who are living, working, and/or studying in Quebec.
On June 1, 2022, Bill 96 received “Royal Assent,” meaning it was approved and became law. Some sections were immediately enforceable, while others are subject to specific “transition periods.”
Essentially the bill is a major overhaul of its predecessor, Bill 101 (the Charter of the French Language). These days, if you or your employees are in Quebec, you’d be hard pressed not to notice the impact of Bill 96 on your business communications. The new, far-reaching regulations add additional clauses to existing amendments, and alter the wording of various regulations related to French language use in business, education, publications, commerce, marketing, the courts, and more.
It’s in your firm’s best interests to familiarize yourself with, and comply with the new requirements — which encompass everything from client and employee communications and contracts, to public signage, websites and online blogs.
Bill 96 – more than just a number
In addition to respecting the French language as the official language of Quebec, the Bill also simplifies the legal process for the reporting and penalizing companies and businesses that don’t service people in French. The new, far-reaching requirements don’t just target Quebec based business. In addition to increasing the risk of liability and penalties if businesses don’t comply, the rules also apply to ecommerce sites run by businesses outside the province if they sell products or services to Quebec customers.
There are 5 main areas in which the bill has affected changes in business interactions:
- All businesses must inform, communicate, and serve their Québec clients (both consumers and non-consumers) in French.
- All businesses must communicate with Quebec employees in French.
- Stricter standards for hiring employees in Québec, in terms of publishing job postings and offers in French, and limiting situations where bilingualism, (knowledge of a language other than French) is required as a condition of employment.
- A new private right of action for all Québec residents to seek injunctive relief, damages and punitive damages for violations of the Charter’s provisions.
- Reduce the threshold at which businesses become subject to the obligation to undergo a “francization program” in half from 50 to 25 employees in Québec.
Bill 96 effects. The good, the bad and the ugly
Many of the new French requirements imposed by Bill 96 have already come into effect as of June 1, 2022. These include:
- Customer Service including websites, brochures, catalogs, pamphlets, call centers, etc. If your firm has more than 5 employees, companies and customers who believe you have violated this right can file an injunction demanding you serve them in French.
- Employment Documents such as transfer offers, promotion paperwork, employment agreements, applications, training documents, communications with former employees, individual workers etc. must be completed in French.
- Job Postings – employers who post job opportunities in Quebec in languages other than French must simultaneously post the offer in French through the same communication channel to a similarly-sized target audience.
- Employee Language Proficiency – Quebec employers cannot require existing or future employees to have proficiency in any language other than French.
- Inscriptions: Packaging and Labelling on products, inserted instructions and warranties must be written in French. Alternatively, businesses must provide a French version alongside the non-French text. When non-French language is used on an inscription, it cannot be more prominent or available on more favorable terms than the French version.
- Expanded authority to OQLF (the Quebec Board of the French Language), who is in charge of enforcing Bill 96’s new language requirements. This department can now:
- Conduct investigations to verify whether businesses are complying with regulations
- Enter any location at any reasonable time (except private homes) in which activities are regulated by Bill 96 or where records and/or property relevant to Bill 96 are held)
- Take pictures of locations and objects where inspections are being carried out.
- Access data relevant to enforcing Bill 96 stored on electronic devices, computers, or other storage units during inspections to analyze, process, copy, or print the data
- Apply to file an injunction with a Superior Court of Quebec judge
- Issue and enforce non compliance penalties. Fines for noncomplying businesses can range from $3,000 to $30,000. Fines double for a second offense, and triple for ensuing offenses. If noncompliance carries on for more than a day, each subsequent day constitutes a separate offense)
- Other consequences of noncompliance can include the suspension or cancellation of company permits or certificates
- The Quebec court can also rule to remove or destroy exterior commercial advertising (e.g., posters, signs, ads, billboards) that do not comply at the expense of the corresponding business
Additional rules & effective dates
Additional Bill 96 amendments came into force on September 1, 2022
- Court pleadings filed by businesses in a Quebec court must be written in French or accompanied by a Certified French Translator who is a member of the Quebec Order of Certified Translators, Terminologists and Interprets (OTTIAQ). All associated fees must be paid for by the petitioner)
- Property rights & protection must be in French even if all parties want to proceed in English. All applications for registration of rights on movable (e.g., automobiles) and immovable (e.g., buildings) property must be submitted in French. Corresponding documents that accompany these applications must also be in French or accompanied by a certified translation (referenced above).
June 1, 2023 rules – time to play catch up
Contracts: As of June 1, 2023, business contracts and other related documents must be written and provided in French first. This includes insurance contracts, leases, co-ownership declarations and more.
The signing party to the agreement can request to have the contract drawn up in another language only after being offered a French version first. This is the only way the signing party is bound to the non-French contract, and if this is followed, other documents related to the agreement can be exclusively written in the desired language. Contracts that violate these rules are not valid.
Contracts: government contracts must be drawn up exclusively in French or they can be invalid, regardless of whether damages occurred because of the violation.
Written documents such as permits, authorizations, subsidies and financial assistance documents that are submitted to Quebec government agencies by both a business or an individual must be written exclusively in French.
Providing products & services: Government products purchased under a supply contract by the Quebec government must follow the new French product packaging and labeling rules. All services purchased by government agencies for Quebec government officials must also be in French. However, some services intended for the public may also be offered in languages other than French.
Just around the corner – June 1, 2025 amendments
Trademarks: Packaging, labeling and public signage in Quebec must be translated to French, including common law trademarks and pending and unregistered trademarks. If a registered trademark includes non-French terms or product descriptions, they must appear in French somewhere else on the product or provide a permanent support for French speakers.
Advertising in exterior spaces in Quebec, French text that accompanies a non-French registered trademark must be “markedly predominant” in comparison to the trademark (i.e., twice as big).
Advertising and publications. Bill 96 only allows advertising, publications and other documents targeting the public to be worded in a language other than French, if there is a French version available under conditions that are at least equivalent to, if not more favourable than, the version in the other language.
This marks a shift from the previous rule, which stated that while commercial advertising and publications such as catalogues, brochures, social media and websites intended for the public, had to be in French, they could be accompanied by versions written in other languages. Moving forward however, if an English (or other language) version is provided, it cannot be done under more favourable conditions than those of the French version.
e-commerce. Another thing to keep in mind is the new prohibition for ecommerce sites that sell products or services that are not in compliance with Bill 96. This is important because it seems to be directed at online platforms and marketplaces that are owned by foreign companies that sell products and software with packaging, instructions or warranty certificates that are not compliant. These had not previously been subject to the Charter rules and there were no provisions specifically aimed at these foreign companies. Typically, the Office only intervened when a company operating this type of website was established in Québec.
From now on however, when a company sells technological services that include a contract for the purchase or payment of an item that doesn’t comply with the new Charter provisions, they can be ordered to refuse the sale to customers from Québec.
Moreover, an online company who sells products with instructions printed in English only, but makes the French version available on their website and downloadable, could be in violation of the Charter.
Obviously, this is all venturing into somewhat murky waters because it’s not clear how this will be enforced effectively, considering foreign companies are not necessarily subject to the Charter.
Time to get francizated
The province’s new “francization” process impacts thousands of businesses that had previously been exempt. This process gives the OQLF the right to inspect a business’s operations and reviews its compliance plans.
Your businesses could be subject to increased scrutiny if you don’t follow the new language laws. Also, for the first time ever, Bill 96 leaves the door open for members of the public and employees to seek legal remedies for breaches.
For starters, businesses in Quebec with 25 or more employees must formally register with the OQLF and comply with the Francization requirement, meaning French must be the company’s predominant language.
Within 3 months of registering, businesses must conduct an evaluation of their firm’s language practices. If they pass inspection, they are awarded a certificate and must submit a report every 3 years to OQLF on their francization progress.
Conversely, if companies are deemed non-compliant, they must complete and submit a francization program to the OQLF within 3 months, submit reports on the program every 12 months, and share and update employees on the program’s implementation. Moreover, the OQLF will publish a list of organizations with denied, suspended, or canceled certificates of registration or francization.
Companies with more than 100 workers must form a francization committee and consult the OQLF on how committee members will be elected. If the OQLF deems it necessary, it can also order companies with 25 to 99 employees to form a francization committee.
Committee meetings must be at least once every 6 months, with minutes taken and distributed to all members.
Bill 96 non-compliance could be costly
Bill 96 provides harsher and more extensive penalties than the current ones. It also gives the Office broader, stronger powers of inquiry and inspection, and increases the potential fines for violations.
- Individuals are liable to fines of $700 to $7,000
- Companies are liable to fines of $3,000 to $30,000
For a second offence, fines are double, and triple for subsequent repeat offences. Plus, each additional day the offence continues is considered a separate offence. A company that repeatedly violates the Charter could even have its permit or license suspended or revoked.
Fluent Translations helps minimize your risk
It’s clear that the consequences for non-compliance to Bill 96 can impact not only to your company’s bottom line, through substantial fines, but also its reputation if permits are frozen or revoked.
Your company might have some extra work to do to comply with all the latest French language requirements laid out in Bill 96. First and foremost, you need to ensure your Quebec customers and business clients are served and supported in French. As well, your communications with your office and employees in Quebec must be primarily in French, and you need to provide proper and effective written documents in French whenever required.
Fluent Translations is very familiar with the details of Bill 96 and helps you navigate the French linguistic challenges it has brought about. We’re proud to support you every step of the way to becoming Bill 96 compliant in the fastest, most cost effective, and efficient manner.