Bill 96, which was adopted by the National Assembly on May 24, has certainly been an interesting topic in recent weeks as many questions regarding its effects on Quebec businesses arose. Indeed, numerous changes to the Charter of the French Language (hereinafter, the “Charter”) are to be expected on several levels, and some of these changes have a direct impact on the world of business. Does your company comply with these changes? Are you equipped to deal with them? Read this short 7-point guide and discover the extent of these upcoming changes or already in effect, so that you can make the necessary adjustments to comply with the Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec, known as “Bill 96”.
Communications with the public
1. LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY REQUIREMENT UPON HIRING
BEFORE Bill 96 : Under the old Charter, it was possible to require a future employee to know a language other than French, provided that the employer was able to demonstrate that this knowledge was necessary for the performance of the employee’s duties.
Effective June 1, 2022 : The burden will now be higher for the employer, as it will have to show that it has taken “all reasonable means to avoid imposing such a requirement.” An employer who has taken all reasonable steps is then, within the meaning of the bill, deemed to:
- have “assessed the actual language needs associated with the duties to be performed” ;
- ensured that the language skills already required of other employees were insufficient for the performance of those duties” and;
- to have “restricted as much as possible the number of positions to which tasks are attached that require the knowledge or a specific level of knowledge of a language other than the official language”.
More concretely, this can be translated into the need to disclose, in a job offer for example, the reasons why knowledge of a language other than French is required. A person who believes that he or she is unfairly required to know another language may file a complaint with the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST) within 45 days of the event. All job offers must also be published in French.
Also, the reform of Bill 101 will have the effect of lowering the minimum threshold of employees to 25 to determine which businesses will be required to participate in the generalized francization program. At the moment, these requirements only apply to companies with 50 or more employees, but this threshold will be lowered in June 2025. If you are concerned by this obligation, certain francization steps must be taken, starting with the registration of your company with the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF).
2. NEW REGULATIONS REGARDING PUBLIC SIGNAGE
BEFORE Bill 96 : With respect to registered trademarks, the Charter as we know it allows for the public display of a registered or common law trademark in a language other than French, provided that the French language is given “sufficient” space on the sign.
Effective in June 2025 : The new criterion for French signage will no longer be its sufficient presence, but rather a “markedly predominant” display. Thus, under the present Regulation defining the scope of the expression “markedly predominant” for the purposes of the Charter of the French language, the space devoted to the text in French and the size of the characters must be at least twice as large as the text in another language. However, it is possible that a new regulation will redefine this expression to make it more relevant regarding signage. In any case, there is a good chance that your signage will no longer be compliant after 2025 and will have to be modified to avoid penalties.
Another peculiarity is that whereas in the past, unregistered trademarks, i.e. common law trademarks, could be displayed or appear on packaging in a language other than French, this privilege will now only be granted to trademarks duly registered with CIPO under the Trademarks Act. If you have not yet registered your trademark, it may be appropriate to do so in the near future so that you are not limited in the display of your products and services.
3. INTERNET, SOCIAL NETWORKS AND MARKETING
Do you like to take advantage of the visibility that social networks offer to promote your products and services with social media posts? Well, if you are used to doing it only in English, there will be some changes to make to the management of your Instagram or Facebook page. Indeed, Bill 96 specifies that “regardless of the medium“, all commercial publications (brochures, order forms, etc.) must be written in French, which then includes publications on the Internet.
Of course, it is always possible to publish in English, but a French version must be accessible in a way that is “at least as favorable”. In concrete terms, you will have to systematically adapt your content in both languages if you want to advertise in English.
4. CUSTOMER SERVICE
The right to be served in French in Quebec already exists under the present Charter, but Bill 96 is intended to provide clarifications that reinforce this right. Indeed, while the general interpretation of the present Charter seems to refer only to the right of consumers to be served in the official language, the new Act specifies that even businesses that do not serve consumers (businesses that do B2B, for example) must be able to serve their clients in French. Since June 1st, businesses that offer their services only in English must make the necessary changes in order to be able to offer support and service in French.
5. EMPLOYEE COMMUNICATIONS
The new Bill 96 also provides additional clarification and requirements regarding communications in French between an employer and its employees. At what levels must you use French in your internal communications and documents? Here are the main cases that came into effect on June 1, 2022:
- Internal written communications with employees or staff must be in French, even for communications following the end of employment. Exception: The employer may communicate with the employee in writing exclusively in another language if the employee expressly requests it.
- Any individual employment contract must be written in French. Exception: The contract may be drafted in a language other than French if this is the express wish of the parties. Note: if the employment contract is an adhesion contract, the parties can only be bound by it in another language if the adhering party has first read the French version before expressly requesting the version in another language.
- Any offer of transfer or promotion must be made in French.
- For all the following documents, they must be available in French under conditions at least as favorable as those in other languages:
- Employment application forms
- Documents related to working conditions
- Training materials produced for company personnel.
Contracts and other legal documents
6. CONTRACTS OF ADHESION
BEFORE Bill 96 : The Charter as we know it already requires that contracts of adhesion (as well as contracts with standard clauses) be drafted in French, but it is possible to offer them in a language other than French by simply adding a language clause, for example. As a reminder, a contract of adhesion is qualified as such when “the essential stipulations were imposed or drawn up by one of the parties, on his behalf or upon his instructions, and were not negotiable”. Insurance policies or contracts for telephone or internet services are good examples of contracts of adhesion.
Effective in June 2023 : It will no longer be sufficient to add a language clause to a contract of adhesion in order to be able to distribute it in a language other than French, as the new Act now requires that the membership contract can only be offered in another language if it has first been given to the adhering party in French. Thereafter, if it is the express wish of the parties, it will be possible to do business with a contract that is not in French.
What does this mean for your existing membership contracts? If a French version already exists, you should communicate this version to your clients first. For those who specifically request an English version later, it would be appropriate to keep track of these exchanges or compile them in a register for this purpose. It is essential to meet these conditions, otherwise your contracts may be null and void.
7. INTERACTIONS WITH GOVERNMENT AND THE LEGAL AUTHORITIES
One of the objectives of the bill is also to reaffirm the French language as the language of the Administration, i.e. the government and its agencies. The watchword is quite simple: everything must be done in French. Although the law provides that exceptions may exist, none has yet been specified. Thus, we can understand that for all interactions such as permit applications, grant applications or any other type of contract with the Administration, the exclusive use of French is required, as of June 1, 2022.
The same will apply in court. As of September 1, 2022, any pleading in Quebec filed by a legal person (such as a corporation, for example) must be in French. If you still wish to file the deed in question in English, you will have to provide a certified translation by a certified translator, at your expense. These are therefore potential additional costs to be anticipated in the management of your company.
Also note that starting in September, it will be mandatory to register a security with the Registre des droits personnels et réels mobiliers (the RDPRM) in French only.
As you will have noticed from this article, many changes are to be expected in connection with the recent adoption of Bill 96. Failure to comply with these obligations could result in complaints and, in the event of a violation, you could be subject to penalties increased by the new Act. Indeed, fines of up to $30,000 for a first offense are to be expected.
To have a better idea of the effective date of all the above-mentioned changes that potentially affect your business, we offer you the following short chronological summary:
June 1, 2022:
- The burden on employers who require knowledge of a language other than French upon hiring is increased.
- Internal written communications, offers of employment or promotion, individual employment contracts and other documents are subject to new francization requirements.
- It is now clear that customer service and support must be available in French, not just for consumers, but for any party who does business with a company.
- Interactions with the public Administration must be done in French.
September 1, 2022:
- Court proceedings and the registration of security interests in the RDPRM must be done in French. This obligation only applies to legal entities and translation options are available at their expense.
June 1, 2023:
- For contracts of adhesion and contracts with standard clauses, a French version must always be offered before choosing to contract in another language. A contract of this type that is only offered in a language other than French may be null and void.
June 1, 2025:
- Only trademarks that are properly registered with CIPO will be able to take advantage of the French language exemption in their product signage and packaging. New requirements regarding the use of French in signage will also come into effect on this date.
- The obligation of generalized francization of businesses will concern, as of this date, businesses with 25 employees or more.
This concludes this article compiling the changes to be expected for your business in connection with the recently adopted Bill 96. More details on some of the provisions are to follow in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we invite you to consult our other informative blog posts and do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.