Every business operating in Québec should already be aware that it is a French-speaking province and that given the population it would make sense to operate in French when carrying on business in the province.
We are frequently asked, however, about the requirements of the Charter of the French Language (the “CFL”), particularly about whether specific documents must be translated, and whether websites must be offered in French as well.
The December 20, 2017 decision of the Québec Court of Appeal in 156158 Canada Inc. v. Attorney General of Québec, 2017 QCCA 2055 provides a useful summary of the major provisions of the Charter of the French Language and upholds the validity of all of them, including the relatively recent requirement for French language websites.
The Appellants were businesses run by Anglophones (Québecers whose first language is English, and who comprise approximately 7.5% of the population) who had been charged with various offences under the CFL including:
- Using English-only packaging contrary to section 51 of the CFL;
- Using English-only websites contrary to section 52 of the CFL;
- Using English only signage, or bilingual signing where the French was not markedly predominant contrary to section 58 of the CFL.
The Appellants were all found guilty in the Court of Québec, and on appeal to the Superior Court. The issue before the Court of Appeal was whether the Appellant’s Canadian and Québec charter rights were violated by the French-language requirements in the CFL.
The Court of Appeal reviewed prior jurisprudence, including decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada on the issue, and concluded that while the CFL was indeed an intrusion upon freedom of expression, it was a justified (and therefore constitutionally permissible) infringement. In this respect, the decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada were binding on the Court of Appeal absent a new legal issue not previously considered, or significant developments or changes in circumstance that would have fundamentally shifted the parameters of the debate.
The Appellants had argued that the use of French in Québec was no longer in jeopardy based on linguistic statistics, and that it was now time to revisit past jurisprudence and decide the issue anew. In dismissing this argument the Court of Appeal held that the evidence before the court did not demonstrate that the situation had markedly changed, and that there was conflicting expert evidence on the issue.
While the Court did not directly consider the constitutionality of the individual sections with which the Appellants were charged, among them was section 52 of the CFL, which reads as follows:
52. Catalogues, brochures, folders, commercial directories and any similar publications must be drawn up in French.
While the section does not mention websites, the Office québécois de la langue française (the “OQLF”, known informally as the “language police”) views section 52 of the CFL as applicable to all advertising documents made available to the public. Accordingly, as set out in the publication Information and Communication Technologies in French, any commercial advertising on a business’ website also comes within section 52.
The Québec Court of Appeal’s decision effectively confirms that websites of businesses carried on in Québec are subject to section 52 of the CFL and must be provided in French (or bilingual with French given equal prominence pursuant to section 89 of the CFL).
Every business operating in Québec should be aware of this requirement, and the other requirements of the CFL, and ensure that they comply with same.
Do you require assistance in this area? If so, contact us here