New class action risks under the Québec Charter of the French language
On June 1, 2022, Bill 96 received assent and An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec (the Act) officially became law. Reaffirming the predominance of the French language in the Province of Québec, the Act has a substantial impact on the Charter of the French Language and other legislations. Among other things, it further limits the use of English and broadens requirements regarding the use of the French language in various industries, workplaces, commerce and business, including in commercial advertising and inscriptions on products. To learn more about the main amendments brought by the Act and its impact on businesses, see our dedicated resource page.
The Act also brings a notable amendment to the Québec Charter of human rights and freedoms, acknowledging, at a new section 3.1, the “right to live in French to the extent provided for in the Charter of the French language”.
This amendment in particular puts businesses operating in Québec at greater risk of being the subject of a class action lawsuit in respect of non-compliance with the standards set forth in the Charter of the French Language, notably because of the possibility of a standalone award of punitive damages.
Punitive damages are a form of autonomous sanction intended to punish unlawful business practices and to deter others from engaging in similar behaviour. Article 1621 of the Civil Code of Québec states that punitive damages can only be awarded if provided for by law, which is the case notably under the Québec Consumer Protection Act (CPA) (s. 272) and the Québec Charter of human rights and freedoms (s. 49).
Without the need to prove prejudice, a claim for punitive damages brings new risk in the context of class actions alleging a breach of the Charter of the French Language, (i.e., of the “right to live in French”), potentially giving rise to the application of section 49 of the Québec Charter of human rights and freedoms where the interference is unlawful and intentional. As seen in Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique v Volkswagen Group Canada Inc. or in Service aux marchands détaillants ltée (Household Finance) v Option Consommateurs, standalone punitive damages may be sought and awarded in the context of class proceedings.
Class action risks
In certain circumstances, individuals who believe that their fundamental language rights have been infringed may become inclined to launch class action lawsuits pertaining to violations of the Charter of the French Language.
Businesses operating in Québec whose commercial operations, notably regarding public signs and commercial advertising, are found to unlawfully and intentionally interfere with individuals’ right to live in French to the extent provided for in the Charter of the French language may be at greater risk of a class action lawsuit seeking the award of punitive damages.
In this context, businesses in Québec are well advised to review their commercial practices, including signs and trademarks, to ensure their compliance with the requirements of the Charter of the French Language.
 Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique v Volkswagen Group Canada Inc., 2018 QCCS 174; Appeal dismissed, 2019 SCC 53.
 Service aux marchands détaillants ltée (Household Finance) v Option Consommateurs, 2006 QCCA 1319.