Pardon My French: Get Ready for Stricter Rules on English-Language Trademarks in Quebec

The province of Quebec has always taken its commitment to the French language seriously. Where in France, they have nonchalantly adopted English words like ‘email,’ Quebec has committed itself to inventing French language equivalents (courriel[1]).

A famous example is Canadian race car driver Jacques Villeneuve, who as a play on his name (which translates directly to “New Town”) was subjected to a barrage of complaints to the Quebec French Language Enforcement Office (l’Office quebecois de la langue francaise – OQLF[2]), when he named his bar/club “New Town” rather than “Villeneuve.” He was only exempt from onerous fines because he already owned the English language trademark[3]. Some may argue that Quebec’s French language laws can be burdensome, especially for businesses.

The Current Rule on Common Law Trademarks

Under the Charter of the French Language, the rule in Quebec is that all words in English (or another language) must be translated into French, with the exception of registered trademarks (registered in the Canadian Intellectual Property Office) and common law (unregistered) trademarks. While the rule includes an exception for ‘common law’ trademarks, the burden of proving that a trademark should be recognized as a common law trademark is extremely onerous and must be proven in a court of law. Failure to secure a determination recognizing a common law trademark means that the claimant would be subject to financial penalties from the OQLF. Additionally, there is no automatic recognition of a pending trademark application, only a registered trademark. As such, the general recommendation was to secure a trademark registration rather than place any reliance on common law trademark rights.


Updates to the Rules

On May 24, 2022, the Quebec government passed Bill 96, Amending the Charter of the French Language. This amendment will provide important requirements for English language businesses that sell products or provide services in the province of Quebec.

As of June 1, 2025, all trademarks for goods, their packaging, any inserts, and labeling[4], which display any English (or non-English language) trademarks must be translated to French, and the French must be at least as prominent as the English. The exception is only if there is a registered trademark, but there is no French language trademark registration. Furthermore, it is possible based on an interpretation of the update that having a pending French language trademark application counts as having a French language trademark registration.

Common Law (Unregistered) Trademarks are No Longer Recognized

The new bill replaces the term “recognized” with “registered,” which removes what was once considered an ambiguity as to the recognition of common law trademarks. Arguably, the effect is not significant because as discussed above, the burden of proving common law trademark was such that in most cases it was not a more reasonable alternative to a registration.

Generic or Descriptive Matter in a Registered Trademark Must Now be Translated

If the registered trademark includes a generic or descriptive language for the product, the packaging must also include a French translation for the generic or descriptive term.

Illustrative Examples for Products sold in Quebec
1. A business uses the trademark HELLO, which is a common law, unregistered trademark in Canada. The product packaging must include BONJOUR at least as prominently as the English.

  1. A business has a Canadian trademark registration for HELLO, so it is therefore not required to include a French language translation of the trademark.
  2. A business has both a Canadian trademark registration for HELLO and for BONJOUR. The business is therefore required to use BONJOUR, at least as prominently as the English.
  3. A business which has a Canadian trademark registration for HELLO TUNA FISH must include THON on the packaging, at least as prominently as the English.

Since the language laws are enforced by the OQLF, it is not clear how these requirements will be enforced. The OQLF has authority to issue fines for violations[5].

The requirement to translate descriptive or generic matter may affect filing strategies, to the extent that pre-filing searches will become more important. Trademark owners may wish to consider whether they want to add generic/descriptive matter to a trademark (perhaps to allow it to coexist with other similar trademarks) but require the translation on product packaging, or file for applications that don’t include any generic or descriptive matter.

File for Trademark Protection in Canada – Either Directly or Through Extensions

With the law coming into force approximately 3 years away, the time to take action for businesses that sell products or provide services in Quebec is now. The Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) takes on average between 2-3 years simply to Examine a trademark application, so waiting to file will result in burdensome translation requirements.

As with the current law, pending trademark applications for English words are not suitable substitutes for a trademark registration. Furthermore, while there is a means to expedite examination and registration of a Canadian trademark application, at this time, compliance with French Language laws is not a recognized basis to do so. As such, businesses that currently sell or intend to sell products in Quebec should file their trademark applications now, or be prepared to comply with the trademark translation requirements as of June 1, 2025.

Madrid IR Extensions to Canada – A Benefit
It is interesting to note that Extensions to Canada of Madrid International Registrations are examined more expediently, in compliance with the WIPO rules, namely that Canada has agreed to examine an application within the 18 month designated period (otherwise it is automatically granted). As such, according to CIPO, IR extensions are examined generally between 12-18 months after filing. This can be a way to speed up registration, but only for foreign rather than domestic (Canadian) applicants.

One item of note from the updates to the Canadian trademark law of 2019 is that use is no longer a prerequisite to registration. This means that businesses can plan ahead and file for products for which they are not sure. However, businesses launching products in Quebec must expect to provide translations of pending English applications, and only be prepared to be permitted to change the packaging after registration has been secured.

Enforcement and Fines
Typically, expensive fines are incurred meaning that businesses that do not comply with the law will have to pull their packaging from the shelves and provide complying packaging in Quebec. Any agreements with Canadian distributors will need to account for these requirements to avoid selling products in Quebec if the business does not wish to comply with the language rules.

It is important to remember that it is the public that most often submits complaints to the OQLF for investigation and the issuance of fines. Some francophones take a protectionist view of the French language in Quebec and individuals may be incentivized to file a complaint against a non-complying business. An extreme example is that of a pro-francophone sentiment that resulted in violence when in 2001, 3 locations of the coffee chain “Second Cup” were firebombed by an angry man who was unhappy with the English only signage. In response, the company changed their signs to Les Cafes Second Cup[6].







[4] Signage and commercial advertising has different requirements that are not the subject of this article

[5] $600 – $6000 for an individual and $1500 – $20000 for a business, with fines doubled for subsequent offenses