New Quebec language rules require store signs to be two-thirds in French

MONTREAL — The Quebec government has published new rules requiring French to occupy most of the space on storefronts and outdoor commercial signs, part of a larger effort to protect the French language in the province.

New regulations published Wednesday say French has to be "markedly predominant" on public signs and commercial advertising, even where the business name is in English. In practice, that means stores like Canadian Tire, Best Buy and Second Cup will have to include generic terms or descriptions in French on their storefronts that take up twice as much space as the English brand name.

"In Quebec, when Quebecers and tourists stroll through the streets, it must be clear: Quebec is a French-speaking nation," Jean-François Roberge, Quebec's minister of the French language, said in a statement. "We must also ensure that companies respect the right of consumers to be informed and served in French."

The new rules, which take effect on June 1, 2025, will enact parts of Bill 96, the sweeping overhaul of Quebec's language laws that passed in 2022. The regulations also strengthen French language requirements on product packaging.

On Wednesday, several business groups warned that companies may struggle to implement the new rules by next June. Michel Rochette, Quebec president of the Retail Council of Canada, noted many municipalities have their own sign bylaws, and businesses only have 11 months left to navigate the various rules.

"The signs are not something that is super easy to change, knowing that cities and landowners have their own rules regarding signage," Rochette said. "So it might be complicated for some merchants to change their signs within that short amount of time."

Under the current rules, Quebec storefronts have to display a "sufficient presence" of French, even in cases where the trademark name is in English or another language. According to the new regulations, however, French must have "a much greater visual impact than the text in the other language." In particular, the space allotted to French text has to be at least twice as large as the space allotted to other languages.

That could mean including a generic term like "clothing" on the storefront of a clothing store with an English name, perhaps alongside a slogan written in French.

The Office québécoise de la langue française, which is tasked with enforcing Quebec's language laws, says it will help businesses comply with the new rules and plans to carry out "awareness-raising activities" to inform companies of the new requirements.

"Obviously we would have liked it to be earlier, but at least we now can start the work to comply with the requirements arising from the regulations," said Alexandre Gagnon, a vice-president with the Quebec federation of chambers of commerce.

Guillaume Talbot-Lachance, a regulatory commercial lawyer in Montreal, said he hopes the government will provide more guidance to help small businesses follow the new rules. "Very often people want to comply with the law. The problem is when they don't understand the law," he said.

However, the business community is pleased that the new regulations do not include a requirement to translate inscriptions on appliances and other products, such as the "wash" or "rinse" labels on a washing machine. That proposal was included in draft regulations published in January, but industry groups complained that it wouldn't be feasible for many companies.

"I am satisfied to see that our demands have borne fruit and clearly demonstrated to the government that it was on the wrong track," said Karl Blackburn, president of the Conseil du patronat du Québec, the province's largest employers' group.

A spokesperson for Roberge said the government has not backed down on the issue, and it will be addressed in a future regulation after more consultation with industry. There is no timeline on that process.

The regulation also imposes new language rules on product packaging. Currently, English trademarks don't have to be translated into French, but the government has argued that companies sometimes include descriptions of their products in their trademark — "lavender and shea butter" hand soap, for example — to get around translation requirements. Under the new rules, that descriptive language will have to be translated into French.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2024.

Maura Forrest, The Canadian Press