Quebec language office launches campaign about French requirements

Walk down Ste-Catherine Street in Montreal and the big red Future Shop sign glows in all of its English delight.

In fact, it’s not uncommon to see English trademarks dominating signs. But those stores will soon be getting a visit from Quebec inspectors enforcing the Charter of the French Language.

That electronics store could one day carry a name on the lines of Boutique Future Shop as the Office québécois de la langue française works to uphold French language laws. As a result, it has launched a campaign to start re-educating companies.

According to Geneviève Bergeron of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Montreal, many companies have gotten around major changes with a simple adjustment. “For instance, Second Cup didn’t have to translate their trademark Second Cup. They could use it on their sign with the descriptive Les cafés in front of Second Cup.”

But other companies, Bergeron adds, “just have their sign like Zellers or Future Shop or Best Buy or whatever. They just use their trademark as a sign.”

It’s not illegal to use the trademark and authorities can’t force companies to translate them. They simply have to add a generic phrase or a slogan that describes the products or business activities.

But that wording must be in French, said the language office, which on Aug. 30 announced its campaign to remind companies about their obligations.

Louise Marchand, president of the language office, expanded on the campaign in a French-only interview with The Canadian Press. She noted the fear that big-box stores with anglophone names will, if left unchecked, undermine Quebec’s status as a francophone society.

“Because of globalization, big-box stores are coming to Quebec more and more and they are using their brand names,” said Marchand.

“They want their name to be the same everywhere . . . but many do not conform [with the law].”
Lawyer Alexandra Nicol, also of BLG, said the campaign is about reinforcing the law rather than laying fines or getting court orders.

“The recent campaign is really a campaign to inform businesses because there are still a lot of companies, [whether] they have a trademark registered or not, [that] . . . don’t put a generic description of their business ahead of that trademark.

This is a campaign so businesses know about the rules. This is important for some of the large international or American companies that are coming into Quebec . . . like Target, and I’m sure they’re having some discussions or concerns about the French-language requirements that may apply.”

According to Nicol, fines can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. “It’s worthwhile for companies to know there are fines,” she says, adding court orders are possible for the removal and destruction of signs.

For her part, Marchand noted that a quarter of the complaints the language office receives relate to English signs. Still, she said only two per cent of the cases end up at the Crown attorney’s office. “We won’t ask them to do this in two months. There will be a reasonable timeline. But we have to apply the law.”

It’s not the first time linguistic issues like this have popped up in Quebec. The former Eaton’s store had to drop the apostrophe and the s and became known as Eaton in Quebec. The language office came into being following the introduction of the Charter of the French Language in the late 1970s.

Its first move was to order that all signs in Quebec be in French. While the Supreme Court quashed that order in 1988, Quebec ignored it.

In the meantime, debate over the issue heated up. Five years later, the Quebec government said another language could be on a sign but it couldn’t be as prominent as French. That decree has led to all kinds of issues since with some taking that to mean French should be twice the size of the English wording.

Then in 2001, three Second Cups in Montreal were firebombed following a group’s warning that it would target businesses with English names. The man convicted of the crimes was none other than Rhéal Mathieu, a member of the Front de libération du Québec. Mathieu had previously been sentenced to nine years in prison for various crimes.

Nicol, however, doesn’t believe there will be as much difficulty this time around. “Although companies established outside of Quebec are sometimes reticent to implement the rules with regards to the use of English-only trademarks in their Quebec stores, notably because of some pushback from the head office to change its policy in this regard, I think most companies take French-language requirements seriously and are sensitive to the French-speaking population of Quebec,” she says.

The language office believes commercial and public displays are the most visible element of the province’s linguistic landscape and store signs account for a significant portion of that. Lawyer Mark Power agrees. In his view, there’s no doubt that seeing a language can increase use and retention.

“It’s very clear: if people see a language used around them, it increases the likelihood they’ll learn it, develop a better understanding of it, and they’ll use it,” says Power, a lawyer at Heenan Blaikie LLP’s Ottawa office who has experience in language rights matters.

“That’s crystal clear for sociologists and linguists.”

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