English and French are the two most widely spoken languages in Canada, and both are the country’s two official languages, as per the Official Languages Act. Both languages have equal status in the operation of (and services provided by) federal institutions, and citizens can seek and obtain federal government services in either official language.
Canada’s provincial and territorial governments have their own official language policies. Quebec is the only province that acknowledges French as its sole official language; New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province and recognizes English and French as official languages. The remaining provinces and territories use English as the main working language, while offering services in French and Aboriginal languages.
Product labelling laws are issued at the federal level, and labels on products sold throughout Canada must meet the bilingual requirements as stated by the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act. This means all information must be in both English and French and must also be of equal prominence on the package. Numbers are considered bilingual, and measurements must use the metric system. (These rules do not apply to shipping containers or test market products that are not offered for sale to consumers.)
There are two exceptions to this Act: medical devices and drugs, and food commodities are not included, and are covered instead by the Food and Drugs Act and the Safe Food for Canadians Act respectively.
As per the International Trade Administration (ITA), information that must appear on consumer goods’ packaging/labels include:
- Product identity declaration, which describes a product’s common or generic name, or its function; this declaration must be in both English and French,
- Net quantity declaration – this must be expressed in metric units of volume when the product is a liquid or a gas or is viscous; or in metric units of weight when the product is solid; or by numerical count. Net quantity may also be expressed in other established trade terms, and
- Dealer’s name and principal place of business – where the prepackaged product was manufactured or produced for resale. In general, a name and address enough for postal delivery will be acceptable, and this information can be in either English or French.
The province of Québec has additional requirements when it comes to using the French language on products marketed within Québec. As per the ITA:
The Province of Québec requires that all products sold in the province be labeled in French and that the use of French be given at least equal prominence with other languages on any packages or containers. The Charter of the French Language requires the use of French on product labeling, warranty certificates, product manuals and instructions for use, public signs, and written advertising. The Office Québécois de la langue Française (Québec Office of the French Language) website provides guidance on these requirements. Note that these rules do not apply for non-retail/consumer goods if these goods are coming from outside the province and will be incorporated into a final assembly of a larger product; will be used in a manufacturing process; will undergo a degree of transformation; will undergo any type of repair; and is not available in the retail market in Québec.
Note, however, that this is not as simple as word-to-word English-to-French translation. In Canada, Canadian French is used, not European French, and there are significant differences (and subtle nuances) in vocabulary, punctuation, and grammar and, as per Canadian Packaging, getting it wrong “could mean the difference between your product being embraced or shunned by buyers.” Google translate and other online general translation tools offer inadequate results; a professional translator with expertise in Canadian compliance will be required, and a list of service providers is included with this report.
Canadian Packaging offers additional tips for navigating Canada’s labelling requirements:
- Translate everything, including text, measurements, and icons or badges with claims such as ‘gluten-free’ – and all will need to be in Canadian French,
- Labelling must comply with regulatory requirements, and
- Label design will need to be considered – French content can be twice as long as the English equivalent, so modifications will need to be made for the extra word count.
Purolator, Lavery, and LAT all offer good advice about Canadian packaging and labelling laws. More information about consumer packaging labelling requirements (as well as requirements for food, textiles, precious metals, and pharmaceuticals) can be found on the Government of Canada’s website, as well as specifics pertaining to permits, licenses, and regulations for various businesses and industry sectors.