Canada: Changes to Québec’s French language laws significantly affect longstanding exemption for English-language trademarks

In brief

On 24 May 2022, the National Assembly of Québec adopted Bill 96, An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec ("Bill"), which significantly updates the "Charter of the French Language" ("Charter") and certain other laws to strengthen the use of French in the Province of Québec. Changes to the Charter and other statutes captured under the Bill will come into force on 1 June 2025, three years after the Bill received assent.

The legislative changes will have significant implications for organizations conducting business in Québec, including those relying on the existing trademark exemptions. In brief, organizations will no longer be able to rely on the broad "recognized trademark" exemption under the Charter, which currently exempts non-French recognized trademarks from French translation in most circumstances. 

Once the changes take full effect in three years’ time, organizations seeking to use non-French trademarks on signage, posters and in commercial advertising will be required to rely on a more narrow exemption applicable only to fully registered trademarks in Canada under the federal Trademarks Act

More significantly, last minute amendments to the Charter will now extend the narrowed trademark exemption to product inscriptions such as packaging and labelling, and regulate the use of generic terms and product descriptions in non-French trademarks in that context. 

As the final version of the Bill containing these amendments has not yet been published, it is possible the final wording will further clarify these new obligations and their practical interpretation, and should be reviewed closely.  

Key takeaways

The Bill arguably represents the most significant change in Québec’s French language laws since the introduction of the Charter in 1977. As it relates to the trademark exemption, once the Bill is in effect:

  • Organizations will only be able to rely on the Charter's trademark exemption from French translation on signage, posters, commercial advertising -- now expanded to include product “inscriptions” such as packaging – if the trademark is a "registered trademark" in Canada, as defined by the Trademarks Act.
  • Organizations will no longer be able to rely on the broader category of "recognized" trademarks, which traditionally included a “trademark”, as defined in the Trademarks Act.
  • Marks that traditionally fell within this broader definition of trademarks under the Trademarks Act, such as pending trademark applications and common law trademarks, will no longer benefit from the trademark exemption.
  • Most recently, the Bill was also amended to narrow the trademark exemption on product packaging. The Bill now clarifies that while non-French registered trademarks may continue to be displayed on product packaging provided that no corresponding French version has been registered in Canada, only registered trademarks qualify for the exemption. In addition, generic terms or product descriptions that are included within a registered trademark in a language other than French will be required to appear in French on the product packaging or on a support that is permanently attached to the product in French.
  • Organizations seeking to rely on the exemptions may need to make significant changes to their trademark and marketing strategies in Québec. 
  • As the final Bill has not yet been released, it will be important to review the final wording closely to confirm the scope of the changes and determine if there is room for interpretation.

Notable changes for English-language trademarks in Québec

Prior to the passage of the Bill, the Charter provided an express exemption for non-French “recognized trademarks” to be used without translation into French on certain types of materials. In practice, this meant that any content falling within the definition of a “trademark” in the Trademarks Act1 (such as common law trademarks and trademarks subject to pending registration applications) on most signage, posters, and commercial advertising, as well as product packaging, labelling and marketing materials, could be depicted in a language other than French, subject to meeting rules for either equal prominence or marked predominance.

Once in effect in June 2025, the newly amended Charter will now limit the trademark exemption to only “registered trademarks”, i.e., trademarks that are registered on the Canadian Register of Trademarks. Additionally, as it relates to product packaging and other product inscriptions, the Charter will now require French translations of any non-French generic term or product description contained within a trademark. In other words, if a registered trademark on a product package includes a generic term or a product description in a language other than French, the Charter will now require that the generic term or product description appear in French on either the product packaging or a support that is permanently affixed to the product. 

At this time, no regulations or guidance have been published to provide direction as to what will be considered a generic term or a product description. However, during a legislative debate on 17 February 2022, Québec's justice minister and minister responsible for the French language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, the sponsor of the Bill, gave the example of a trademark containing highlighted ingredients (“Lavender and Shea Butter”) and product performance claims (“washes away bacteria” and “deeply moisturize to hydrate skin”) as generic terms and/or product descriptions for this purpose.2

Other notable changes for brands operating in Québec

Currently, the Charter requires that the French language have a "sufficient presence" on public signage that is visible outside premises. As of June 2025, the current "sufficient presence" requirement will change to a higher standard of "markedly predominant", even where an otherwise exempt trademark appears in a language other than French.

Next steps

With the passage of the Bill, many organizations operating in or selling into Québec will need to consider the implications for their overall trademark and advertising strategy.

Practically speaking, it may be difficult to obtain a full trademark registration prior to a product and/or service launch, as currently, nationally filed applications in Canada take approximately 38 months to proceed from filing to examination (and at least another 6-8 months from an examination which raises no objections, and approves the application for advertisement for opposition and on to registration if unopposed). The whole process can take four years or more for a mark to register, at least for Canadian national applications. 

On 3 May 2021, however, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) introduced new measures to improve timeliness in trademark examination, in response to higher-than-anticipated filings of trademark applications. These measures included the accelerated examination of a trademark application if it contains statements of goods or services selected from a pre-approved list (as further discussed in our client alert of 24 May 2022). As such, if a nationally-filed application uses CIPO's pre-approved list of goods and services, its examination will be accelerated to about 15 months from the filing date. Therefore, in order to accelerate examination and obtain a registration faster, organizations may want to consider filing applications for goods from CIPO’s pre-approved list.

In light of the above, organizations should specifically consider:

  • Conducting an audit of all trademarks (registered, pending and common law)
  • Developing a trademark filing strategy, keeping in mind timing and the potential use of accelerated examination
  • Prioritizing filing trademark applications for any common law trademarks; 
  • Given the long lead times associated with product packaging, developing a labelling strategy for affected packaging, such as filing new applications or restickering products if necessary
  • Creating and using unique and inherently registrable trademarks and logos in order to increase the chances of getting trademark applications "quickly" through to registration (for example, due to reduced possibility of confusion and/or descriptiveness/non-distinctiveness objections from Examiners). 

Although it is possible the changes resulting from the Bill may be open to some interpretation once the final wording is published, and the enforcement priorities and practice of the Office québécois de la langue française (the Québec agency that enforces the Charter) will only become known over time, for now, the amendments to the Charter are here to stay.3 Organizations will need to take steps now to ensure they are prepared when the new requirements take effect.


1. Under the Trademarks Act, a trademark is defined as "a sign or combination of signs that is used or proposed to be used by a person for the purpose of distinguishing or so as to distinguish their goods or services from those of others, or a certification mark"

2. Journal of the debates (Hansard) of the Committee on Culture and Education, Thursday 17 February 2022, Vol 46 N 16, at 11:50-12:10.

3. Although there remains some possibility of future challenges, the Quebec government immunized the bill against challenge under the free expression provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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