Major Canadian retailers are preparing to fight Quebec’s language police to keep their trademarks intact, in the face of threatened prosecution of English-named companies that include no French in their storefront signage.
Montreal’s downtown streets and suburban shopping malls are awash with such brands as Banana Republic, Old Navy, Sunglass Hut, Foot Locker and Home Depot, and the Office québécois de la langue française has decided things have gone too far.
The Office last month began mailing warnings to dozens of companies that have not co-operated with its push to have stores with trademarked English names add generic French terms to their signs. For example, Second Cup has added “les cafés” before its name and the eyewear chain New Look added “lunetterie.”
Nathalie St-Pierre, the Retail Council of Canada’s vice-president for Quebec, said her organization disputes the Office’s interpretation of the French Language Charter, also known as Bill 101.
The law states that business names must be in French, but accompanying regulations grant an exemption for trademarked names in languages other than French. Office spokesman Martin Bergeron said another section of the regulations obliges such companies to include a “generic” French term to describe their activities.
In a legal opinion prepared for the Retail Council and obtained by Montreal’s Le Devoir, the firm Norton Rose said there is no legal requirement for companies with English brands to add French descriptions.
It said retailers could go to Superior Court to obtain a declaratory judgment stating that their signage is legal, or they could wait for the Office to impose sanctions and contest those.
The newspaper quoted a message from the Retail Council’s director of government relations acknowledging the issue is “sensitive” and stating it would be preferable for a legal challenge to involve a cross-section of retailers based in Quebec, the rest of Canada and the United States.
Last fall, the Office was criticized by language hardliners for being too soft when it launched a campaign urging companies to voluntarily add French to their signs.
Mr. Bergeron said some companies have cooperated but others – he declined to identify them – have refused. “We are warning them that we are preparing to move onto the next stage,” he said. They could be stripped of their certificates attesting that they respect the language law and have their files submitted for prosecution.
He said the signage issue is important in Quebec “to show that the linguistic landscape here is different.”
The Office has recently focused its efforts on ensuring people can work and be served in French and neglected the issue of signage, he said. “Obviously we cannot be everywhere at once, so maybe while we were working on [other problems] there was a trend toward the use of trademarks as the name of a store.”
Ms. St-Pierre said the effort is misdirected because customers in Quebec don’t care what language the store’s name is written in; what concerns them is that they get service in French.
“I think that with globalization, consumers, especially younger ones, are more aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world,” she said. “I think what they want is to be served in French and to find instructions in French and so on, but the whole culture doesn’t just rest on signage.”
The issue arises as the opposition Parti Québécois prepares to campaign in the next election on a promise to toughen the language law. Language-defence groups have encouraged citizens to file complaints with the Office if they feel Bill 101 is not being respected. In the last two years, the number of complaints has increased nearly 50%, and last year almost half of those complaints involved commercial signage.
Source: National Post