Mon Dieu: Canada est Bilingue!

It’s a good thing that old Montreal is so darned charming because doing business there can cause some retailers a headache!  When launching a product or business in Canada it is important to remember that Canada is a bilingual country.  And it can be a PR and legal nightmare if you forget it! 

The Charter of French Language’s goal is to strengthen the status of the French language in Quebec in all spheres of public life, including business and commerce.  You don’t have to have a brick and mortar presence in Quebec in order for the Charter to apply.  It’s safe to say that if your product is available for sale in Quebec in any way (online, through a third party retailer or at your own retail location), the Charter applies.  French should be used in respect of product wrapping, manuals, websites, advertisements, posters, store fronts, etc.   How the French version is displayed (i.e. prominence) varies depending on the medium. 

The Charter contains some exceptions, which can make the application of the Charter clear as mud.  Generally, if an English version of a trade-mark is registered in Canada, you are not required to use the French equivalent.  However, this exception is currently under challenge.

The Office Quebecois de la langue francaise (“OQLF”) is the body tasked with ensuring compliance with the Charter of French Language in respect of commerce and business.  The OQLF cannot sue or impose fines for violations; however, it can refer the matters to the Attorney General of Quebec which can bring the matter before Quebec’s provincial court.  Generally, penal sanctions are awarded for infractions which can range from $600 to $20,000.  The fines are generally imposed per non-compliant product type, as opposed to item being sold.

In November 2011, the OQLF launched an awareness campaign and tightened its grips on storefront signs requiring French to be used, regardless of the above-noted trade-mark exception.  The OQLF targeted a number of national retailers demanding their exterior signage to be changed.  Collectively, retailers such as Old Navy, Banana Republic, Guess and Gap sought declaratory relief from the Quebec Superior Court.  The Retail Council of Canada is also rolling up its sleeves as an intervener.  It looks like Quebec will remain a retailer’s battleground for 2013!

Stay tuned to CanadaFashionLaw for updates on this!