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Jun 13, 2022

Enhanced French Language Requirements Under Bill 96: An Update for Employers with Quebec-based Employees and Operations

By Daria (Dasha) Peregoudova, Michelle Lacroix and Madeline Grubert

On May 24, 2022, the National Assembly of Québec adopted Bill 96, An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec (“Bill 96”), amending language laws in the province previously set out in the Charter of the French Language.

While Bill 96 introduced a number of broad, comprehensive requirements, including with respect to civil and judicial administration, this article primarily highlights the important changes that employers with operations in Quebec – including those that are federally regulated – can expect in the short and long term.

Language in the Workplace (Changes effective June 1, 2022)

Effective June 1, 2022, Bill 96 requires that French become the main language for all employment matters in the workplace. This includes all policies, training documents, termination letters and documents related to the hiring processes (i.e. job application forms and postings).

The standard language of employment agreements will also be French. Agreements that are not subject to negotiations (i.e. agreements that must be signed as presented) must first be presented in French, without exception. However, if after examining the contract, the parties wish to be bound by its version in another language, they may do so. On the other hand, agreements that are open to being negotiated (i.e. where the receiving party has input into the terms) are still permitted to be in a language other than French, but only if the parties expressly agree.

Individual employment agreements entered into before June 1, 2022, that are drafted in a language other than French, are not required to be translated into French, unless an employee requests the translation within one year of June 1, 2022, to which an employer must respond promptly.

As a general rule, unless the nature of the employment requires proficiency in a language other than French, requiring knowledge of another language remains prohibited. If an employer does seek a candidate who speaks a secondary language, they are required to demonstrate this need by ensuring that the language skills of their other employees were insufficient for the role. Further, employers are required to restrict the number of positions with this language requirement to as few as possible.

Bill 96 also provides new recourse to employees if they have been victims of harassment or discrimination due to their lack of command of another language. Employees are able to assert a Charter right to express themselves in French in the workplace by filing a claim with the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (“CNESST”). New recourse is also available to patrons wishing to be served in French.

General Contracts (Changes effective June 1, 2023)

Bill 96 will require that all standard form contracts be initially presented in French. Only after the receiving party has reviewed the French version can both parties choose to be bound by an agreement in a language other than French. This change prohibits the practice of drawing up a contract in another language and including a “choice of language” clause, which is often found in Quebec agreements drafted in English, including employment agreements. A violation of this requirement may result in the contract being fully unenforceable.

However, certain contracts typically entered into by sophisticated business actors (e.g. loans, financial instruments and insurance policies) will be exempted in order to ensure Quebec companies are not barred from participation in specific markets where this requirement would impede their ability to conduct business. Furthermore, companies with limited operations in Quebec may be exempted from developing standard contracts in French, so long as the contracts are used in relationships outside of the province.

Francization (Changes effective June 1, 2025)

Effective June 1, 2025, francization requirements will be extended to small enterprises of 25 employees or more, adding further regulatory requirements for employers in Quebec. Companies that meet this threshold will need to obtain a francization certificate attesting that French is the language used at all levels of the business.

Currently under the Charter, companies with 100 or more employees are obliged to have a francization committee, and the Office québécois de la langue française (“OQLF”) may require companies employing between 50 to 99 employees to form such a committee. However, the OQLF will now also be able to order the creation of francization committees within a company employing between 25 and 49 employees if it deems the use of French is not sufficiently widespread at all levels of the business. The OQLF also has discretion to identify businesses with as few as five employees in certain key sectors to which it will offer French language learning services provided by Francisation Québec, a new agency of the Ministry of Immigration, Francisation and Integration.

Implications for Non-French Trademarks

Recognized trademarks in other languages (i.e. registered marks, applications for registration, and common law marks) are currently exempt* from French-language packaging, signage and advertising laws, so long as there is no corresponding French registration for the mark in Canada. 

In accordance with Bill 96, as of June 1, 2025, only registered trademarks will be exempt* from French-language packaging, signage and advertising laws, assuming there is no corresponding French trademark in Canada. Businesses will no longer be able to rely on applied-for marks or common law rights. Non-compliance with the requirements of Bill 96 after June 1, 2025 may result in hefty penalties for individuals and businesses.

*Note there are still French-language requirements for generic descriptions of a mark if a mark is shown on outside signage or if a mark is shown on indoor signage which can be seen from outside.

Takeaways

The effects of Bill 96, with its goal to protect and uplift the French language, is likely to reverberate through all areas of Quebec workplaces in the coming years. While new laws typically take time to set in, given that Bill 96 is effectively a rapid extension/enhancement of existing expectations, businesses with operations in Quebec should be prepared to quickly take the steps necessary to adapt their practices. This is particularly important as the penalties for non-compliance are significant and likely, given the new and increased investigative and enforcement powers.

Please do not hesitate to contact a member of our Workplace Law Group with any questions.

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