Why French Matters


French spoken most often

Every day I come across food brands sold in Canada without French on their packaging. Not only is it illegal, it’s a missed opportunity. Here’s why.

In today’s highly competitive market sales are hard to come by, so every customer counts.

The stats

English and French are Canada’s two official languages. 21.4% of Canadians choose French as their first official language, according to Statistics Canada. That equates to almost 8 million consumers, and they don’t all live in Québec. Every province and territory have Francophone representation, totalling 1 million outside Québec. An additional 2 million Canadians are English/French bilingual.

Québec is a huge market with a headcount of 8.5 million, representing 24% of the Canadian population. It’s also a culinary mecca where food is celebrated.

Alienating the French-speaking demographic is short-sighted, and the absence of French demonstrates a lack of cultural sensitivity and respect.

It’s the law 

As a key communication vehicle for brands, packaging needs to entice, inform and sell, within the law. Health Canada food labelling regulations require that mandatory information is presented in English and French, in equal prominence. What that means is that both languages must stand out equally. This is achieved by using the same fonts, type sizes and colours. 

Further, Québec’s Charter of the French Language requires that all labelling appear in French, and English text cannot be more prominent. 

Accuracy is important, as the French Canadian language has unique words and expressions. Hence international French is not appropriate. Close attention is needed to ensure the proper use of accents, capitalization, punctuation and numeric values to avoid costly errors and miscommunication. Therefore, I highly recommend consulting with a certified translator.

A Caveat

French is Québec’s only official language. The Québec government has taken great pains to ensure French is “the common language” for business and life, by strengthening the Charter of the French Language through recent amendments in Bill 96. 

This adds a layer of complexity when conducting business with the Québec market. The legislation extends beyond companies operating within Québec. It also affects businesses outside the province that market to Québecers. Think e-commerce.

Business documents including contracts, invoices, as well as marketing materials, websites and advertising must all be in French. As well, customer service activities, business services and employee relations must be provided in French.

Trademarks are also affected. Unregistered non-French trademarks are not permitted. This necessitates registration of English trademarks. Once registered, they can be used with the following provisos:

  • There can be no corresponding registered French trademarks.
  • Descriptions or generic terms in English trademarks must be translated into French.
  • Signage and advertising that is “visible from outside premises” must have “markedly predominant French”.

Alternatively, registered French trademarks can be used in lieu of English versions.

As some of the wording in the statutes is vague, legal advice as to interpretation and risks is recommended.

Conducting business with Québec requires accommodations akin to dealing with a non-English-speaking country. All departments within a business are affected. Consider it a cost of doing business. 

Is the investment worth it? Brand owners must decide whether it aligns with their business goals and strategies.

More on Canadian labelling regulations from the Food Biz Blog.

As a CPG food consultant, Birgit Blain helps clients think strategically to build a sustainable brand. Her experience includes 17 years with Loblaw Brands and President’s Choice®. Contact her at Birgit@BBandAssoc.com or learn more at www.BBandAssoc.com

© Birgit Blain 2023

This article appeared in Food in Canada magazine.

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