Do Canadian websites have to be in French?

Canada is a bilingual country where both English and French are official languages. This means that several public communications have to be in both languages. So, do Canadian websites have to be in French?

Canadian websites don’t have to be in French. This only applies to the federal government and related agencies’ websites. However, all websites of organizations carrying out commercial activities in Quebec also have to be French. Some provinces and nationwide businesses also have French websites.

However, English-only websites are the most common in the country. Even in Quebec, where websites have to be in French, those websites usually have an English version first. Here, we discuss whether Canadian websites must be in French and why some must be in both English and French.

Bilingual Requirements for Websites in Canada

The Official Languages Act of 1969 makes Canada an officially bilingual country. By virtue of that, it became compulsory for the federal government’s websites and related agencies to be in both English and French at all times. But there’s no mention of business organizations. So, private organizations don’t have to serve clients in another language apart from English. This applies to every province except Quebec.

Federal Government funded and supported non-profit organizations also have to be bilingual. This is generally a challenge for these organizations as they have to translate all content into French. This usually means extra cost.

Even though having a website in French and English can be costly, most major companies are happy to do it. It’s a sign of cultural sensitivity and good corporate citizenship. These are qualities that most businesses need to attract more customers and maximize reach.

Quebec Policy on French Websites

In Quebec, those carrying out commercial activities have to provide content in French. Article 5 of the Charter of the French Language provides for this. It states that “Consumers of goods and services have a right to be informed and served in French.” Article 52 also requires that online content is in French when it’s meant for Quebec residents or aimed for commercial activity within Quebec.

This Charter applies to organizations with a physical presence in the province and those with only an online presence as long as it’s an economic one. This rule makes it compulsory for any website in another language to also have a French version. Furthermore, the French version must have the same accessibility as the other language version. In most cases, the other language is English.

Organizations can’t put outdated or useless French content on their website to pass the Charter test. This means that every content on the other language version must also be French. Such include substantive information, terms and conditions, FAQs, privacy policy, shipping or return policy, or purchase agreement. It’s also compulsory that users switch between the English and French content without any hassle. This rule isn’t surprising because Quebec places more premium on French than any other language.

The law on bilingual content in Quebec also applies to organizations’ social media pages. The Office québécois de la langue française is the agency responsible for enforcing Charter 52. It stated that based on Good linguistic practices for enterprises (GLP), any corporate organization’s social media content of commercial nature targeting residents of Quebec also has to be available in French. This generally applies to Twitter and Facebook pages. But the shares, retweets, and users’ comments don’t have to be in any other language. However, if Quebec residents comment in French, the business has to reply in French.

Even though business organizations operating in other provinces don’t have to be in French, most big ones with a national reach or target use both languages. They do this to maximize their access to the population since many people also speak French. However, not all websites and social pages accessible in Quebec need to be French. It’s only those that offer products and services to consumers in Quebec.

The Court Decision on French Requirements for French Websites

The French language requirement for commercial activities is a very strict law with fines attached for violation. A landmark legal case is 156158 Canada Inc. v. Attorney General of Québec, 2017 QCCA 2055. In that matter, eleven Montreal-based businesses were fined for having their website solely in English, advertising solely in English, and packaging their products in English. The trial court, Superior Court of Quebec, and Court of Appeal upheld the fine.

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the business’s argument that being asked to use French predominantly with another language violates freedom of expression. It held that corporations don’t enjoy the right of Liberty which is a basic human right. Such a right doesn’t support a business’s right to operate without constraints.

It also stated that the provisions of the French Charter don’t affect the right of businesses to enjoy their property peacefully. They could advertise whatever they want in any language of choice as long as they include a French version. This case further confirms the constitutionality of the Quebec requirements for French on Websites.

Why does Quebec have the Language Rule?

There are two major reasons for the language rule in Quebec. They are:

1.   Proper Communication to the Whole Population

The French language rule in Quebec exists to ensure that businesses in the province cater for the French-speaking population. Quebec is a predominantly French-speaking province which means for businesses to meet the needs of most of the population, it has to provide French content.

2.   Preservation of French Language

Another reason for the French language rule is to protect the province’s heritage. Although Canada is a bilingual country, English is generally the dominant language. As a result, many Quebecians, especially natives, feel that the French language is threatened and could become extinct. Thus, the French Charter also exists to protect the language.

In Conclusion

Not all Canadian websites have to be French, and most aren’t. The ones in French are usually government and related agencies’ websites in line with the Official Languages Act. It’s only in Quebec that websites of all organizations offering commercial activities to Quebec residents have to be exclusively in French or have a French version if it’s in another language.

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