Walmart, Best Buy and others head to court against Quebec over French signs

Posted By: Canadian Press · 11/18/2012 10:02:00 AM

Several major retailers are taking the Quebec government to court over the provincial language watchdog's insistence they modify their commercial brand names to include some French.

The retailers include some of the biggest brand names in North America — Walmart, Best Buy and Costco. Their lawyers are expected in Quebec Superior Court on Thursday.

Quebec's language watchdog, The Office Quebecois de la Langue Francaise, wants the retailers to change their signs to either give themselves a generic French name or add a slogan or explanation that reflects what it is they're selling.

The changes are outlined on a website run by the language agency that gives businesses options on how to change their names. For example, Walmart, a household name on the retail scene that doesn't really have a French equivalent, could change its signs to "Le Magasin Walmart."

But retailers say the language laws have not formally been changed and they will ask the courts to decide whether the language office has the right to make new demands.

According to Section 63 of Quebec's French Language Charter, the name of a business must be in French. But it hasn't generally been applied to trademarked names.

So some companies have taken steps to change their name — like Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is known in Quebec as "Poulet Frit Kentucky." But others, like Walmart and Best Buy, have set up shop under the same name that appears elsewhere in the world.

Nathalie St-Pierre, vice-president for the Retail Council of Canada's Quebec branch says the province wants to change the rules without having modified the law.

The six companies taking legal action include Walmart, Costco, Best Buy, Gap, Old Navy and Guess. They are represented by two law firms.

St-Pierre says all have complied with the rest of Quebec's language requirements for many years. She says they're now being forced to comply with a new interpretation of an old law.

And she questions the point of the whole battle.

"You know the brand, you know the colours, you know the sign," St-Pierre said of the famous company logos.

"That's the work that's done behind setting up a trademark and there are brands that stand on their own and need no description."

The legal battle comes as the minority Parti Quebecois government does hope to tighten the province's language law and expand the use of French at work.

The government is expected to seek new restrictions on who can attend English-language junior colleges, and also extend the language law to smaller businesses.

It's unclear which of the legislative changes would actually be adopted because the PQ only has a minority in the legislature, and little support from opposition parties on the issue.

But the push for businesses to change their signs started earlier, last year under the then-Liberal government, amid controversies over whether the use of French in Montreal was declining.

A year ago, the language watchdog announced it was embarking on an awareness campaign aimed at getting to companies to comply.

The plan featured a website that told companies they had a number of choices.

They included coming up with a descriptive slogan or line in French to identify themselves. Companies could also opt for a French version of the name or use a French/English version, with the French appearing more predominantly.

Martin Bergeron, a spokesman for Quebec's language watchdog, would not comment on the matter as it is before the courts.

But in a video on the website Louise Marchand, who heads the OQLF, called the situation worrisome.

"Displaying the name of the company in French is a show of respect for the law," Marchand says.

Provincial politicians have been largely in favour of the watchdog's move and French-language activists have called for the larger companies to comply. The Societe St-Jean Baptiste has even called on the six multinationals to be boycotted by consumers.

St-Pierre said the companies tried to sit down with the OQLF but were met with heavy-handed tactics.

St-Pierre said the agency sent letters obliging retailers to change their signs, followed by letters that threatened to revoke government "francization certificates." Those certificates, renewed every three years, mean companies are in compliance with language rules and can benefit from certain government grants.

Threats of fines, ranging from $1,500 to $20,000, followed.

St-Pierre said that as the tone increased, companies had little choice but to go to court. "The fact that the law hasn't been changed is the key element here," St-Pierre said.

Some companies have voluntarily changed their signs. After a series of fire-bombings, Second Cup coffee shops added the words "les cafes" to their signs. Starbucks in Quebec is known as Cafe Starbucks Coffee. And KFC is "PFK" in Quebec.

A marketing professor at Concordia University says the reason for the legal challenge is more than just protecting the trademark, it's also about protecting the look and feel of a logo.

"They spend big bucks on designing logos and logo systems and how to apply their logos on everything from signage to advertising to stationery," said Harold Simpkins. "Now they'd have to add another element to that logo just for Quebec."

He said changing signage could be a costly venture for some companies.

A handful of U.S. retailers are making their way to Canada in the coming months. While he doubts retailers would wrap up operations in Quebec over a sign law, he said it could dampen the pace of expansion.

"It sounds like such a simple thing to add this word, but you have to take into consideration the proportion of the signage on the sides of your buildings and they pay big bucks to designers tell them precisely where to place signs," Simpkins said.

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  • 28
  1. Rudolph S posted on 11/18/2012 11:11 AM
    I hope these Companies will have the guts to stand up against the language tyrants. What does that Marois Woman think, because of her vindictiveness against anything Anglais we will just dissapear. Her reign in Quebec will be remebered as an insignificant plip in the big picture. Now she also want to change the laws to permit her to stay in power forever.... lets defat her before it is too late, these big Companies have existed before Marois and will exist after her, however the Jobs and taxes Quebec would lose if they left, would be extremenly detrimental even to the most fanatical Pequiste....
  2. Sharon posted on 11/18/2012 11:36 AM
    I shop at these stores, Walmart quite often, but if there are made to change their names because of some insecure egomaniacs, I, for one, will start shopping more in Ontario
    1. Jenny posted on 11/19/2012 02:15 PM
      @Sharon That will make two of us Sharon. Not to mention my entire family who has been loyal Walmart shoppers since Walmart came to Kirkland. If they do not have the guts and glory to stand up to this I for one (and my entire family) will stop shopping there. If enough ENGLISH people stop shopping there, maybe they will feel it where it counts - their pockets.
      I did the same thing with Second Cup added "LES CAFES" in front of their name, I just stopped buying from them and bought from Starbucks. If ALL English Quebecers (and ALL Quebecers that are against this nazi lady) do the same thing, people may listen. I know I did not make a huge difference with Second Cup but had a whole lot of us stopped buying coffee there - they would feel it. Bunch of sissies.
    2. Rudolph S posted on 11/20/2012 05:43 PM
      @Sharon ...and then Marois wants to go to NewYork and impress Businesses to invest in la belle Provence... she did not speak enough english to go into a debate before the election, how is she going to explain separatism, highest taxes and language police to the men and women in the " Shark Tank "
  3. Ron posted on 11/19/2012 09:06 AM
    Back to the dark time of the 90's. Is it real, that on 21st century the government want to control people language, whats next ? microphones in people houses to make sure we speak French ??

    Since the 90's Quebec is frozen in time, no new retailers, sluggish economy, all the wealth is gone, fewer jobs, bad service everywhere, just getting worse!!

    The gov of Quebec is brainwashing people mind that English is evil !? In the meantime, all politician's kids go to English universities in English in the USA, by limiting English the gov controls people minds and shut them from the outside world.

    People are fed up with all this dark world ruling people, the gov make its people hate French! its such a beautiful language,

    Forcing and dictating similar to Iran style governing wont make French loveable.
  4. Dauphine posted on 11/19/2012 11:33 PM
    With the exception of food, my partner & I do very little retail shopping in this province anymore. The much preferred MO is the internet. From the comfort of our home we can basically obtain anything we want: a vintage spirograph set, sci-fi collectibles or something as simple as a set of USB headphones. We take our business elsewhere because it just isn't worth the grief so we keep the economy thriving in other parts of the country/world for those that appreciate our business.

    Taxes paid courtesy of both our salaries along with items purchased is rather disheartening: charbonneau commission anyone.

    It is our hope these companies named in yet another exercise in futility will win their case and tell these ridiculous buffoons at the OQLF to stuff it. Get real jobs instead of trying to justify their meager existence.
    1. Pamela K posted on 11/23/2012 08:51 AM
      @Dauphine Ever try ordering an english toy from Toys R us online and have it shipped to "La Belle Province"?? After you are done filling your cyber cart and are done entering all your info, the system says NO since english toys cannot be shipped to Qc due to the language laws. I actually wrote to the government in an outrage. I basically got told to "F" off...I just got into my car to drive to Malone, N.Y to get my english toys. I will move heaven and earth to get what I want. I earn my money and pay my taxes. This ridiculousness is making consumers spend their money in the USA or Ontario and it will definitely affect our already fragile provincial economy. In the last referendum, how many companies moved out of here??
  5. Allison Swinwood posted on 11/20/2012 05:05 AM
    Im hoping these companies take the stores right out of Quebec. I am getting sooo fed up with this Province.
    1. jen posted on 11/23/2012 05:32 PM
      @Allison Swinwood I agree with you, I wish they would just pack up and leave and let everyone's mouths fall open. I wish Tim Horton's and Mc Donald's would go back to a bilingual menu and bilingual signs and not bend over and take it from this joke of a province. If they all pulled out in one fell swoop it would be wonderful.
    2. Jet posted on 11/25/2012 04:51 PM
      @Allison Swinwood We're fed up with you too, so best thing to do is let us leave and get our independence. Oh wait, that would seriously jeopardize your economy...Oh man, "I guess we're stuck with the Québecois for a while"...
  6. that would show'em posted on 11/20/2012 12:57 PM
    I hope these big companies lose this legal battle and pull out of Quebec as a result. the loss of jobs and the decimation of the quebec economy might open the eyes of some of these pig headed xenophobes at the OQLF and make them realize how stupid a fight this is.
  7. Joanna posted on 11/20/2012 03:13 PM
    Walmart should send a letter to the mindless Madame of Quebec and tell her that effective January 1, 2013 we are closing ALL our stores across Quebec and moving them to the boarders of Ontario. AND THEY SHOULD BE TRUE TO THEIR WORD. Send THOUSANDS of PQists to the Unemployment line and see what happens then. If Walmart gives in they are just as stupid as La Mme du Quebec!!!!
  8. Jim posted on 11/20/2012 03:26 PM
    This is dictatorship and these big companies should stand up for themselves (and the English Quebec minority) and tell the Quebec government to go fly a kite. Instead of THANKING these companies for employing their UNILINGUAL buffoons they are causing waves. If Best Buy, Walmart, McDonald's etc lose this case to the PQst they should close their doors IMMEDIATELY and send all the uneducated employees to the Unemployment lines. Maybe next time they Quebecers head to the polls they will use their heads to which box they place their X on. Mme. Marois has been in power for less than 2 months and has not once mentioned anything about the ECONOMY, HEALTH or EDUCATION. She is promising free daycare for all children, free education for post-secondary education but hasnt' said HOW SHE WOULD PAY FOR THIS? Definitely not from the unionized clowns that voted her in power. Cut her off from Alberta's money and see how fast she sinks.
  9. Doug posted on 11/21/2012 09:15 AM
    I am confused!! I look at the dates that these comments were made and I could swear that they were written in the late '70's. It's very unfortunate, but Quebec has been in a stall (in many ways) for decades. Trying to enforce a law that hasn't even been ratified is typical of the PQ & the OLF. If the government really wants to confuse it's citizens even more than they are now, they should change the "P" on the NO PARKING signs to an "S", for NE PAS STATIONNEZ. As long as they're at it, change the "P" advertising parking lots to an "S" and see what happens. It takes time for people to acclimatise to change, so once everyone is used to it; change it back again! Kidding aside, I am as tired as everyone else of hearing about the Parti Quebecois and their fascist ways. We don't have Big Brother, as in George Orwell's book entitled 1984; WE GOT BIG MAMAN!!
  10. Mike D posted on 11/21/2012 11:47 AM
    Wonder who in the PQ owns a sign company?
    1. Georges posted on 11/22/2012 09:11 AM
      @Mike D Marois mother must be the owner - . :) LOL
  11. Deb H. posted on 11/22/2012 01:57 PM
    This may be one of the only times you'll catch me cheering for 'Big Box' stores, but GO WALMART!!! Although it would serve Quebec just fine to have to live with the results if these 'Big Box'ers were to take their stores, and their money, elsewhere.

    I'm an Anglo Montrealer who thinks everyone could get along just fine if the government stopped trying to force us. Most of us would be happy to do the best we can to communicate bilingually in whatever way works. I don't want to destroy anyone's culture, but I should have the right to conduct my business in my language, just as the French do.

  12. John Smith posted on 11/22/2012 02:18 PM
    The funny thing is that KFC is actually called "KFC" in France and that stop signs say "STOP" as well...
  13. Didi Miesen posted on 11/22/2012 04:32 PM
    Section 63 of Quebec's French Language Charter, - is and has been deemed 'null & void' - by The Supreme Court Of Canada. The language loi's - MAY PROMOTE the French language - they MAY NOT ERASE - the English language. Quebec Legislators have no right whatsoever to enact - endorse or apply ANY Loi's that 'discriminate' against a MAJOR or minor segment of the population. That is the law - in and out of Quebec. Discrimination is illegal, period.
    Bravo to these companies for taking these politicos - to court. I too - no longer shop at ANY outlet that does not display English on their signage. Have saved a pile of money, since the 70's and will continue to shop where My language is RESPECTED and appreciated. :)
  14. posted on 11/23/2012 07:55 AM
    It won't end by just adding a slogan to the name of the Big Box Store. It just opens the door to all those multinational products sitting on the shelves; Coke, Budweiser, Barbie! Then watch out, all of the English US Channels that air these products in Quebec will also have to have French subtitles. I hope I haven't given the P.Q. any ideas but since they obsess over the French language rules I'm nearly certain that this trickle down effect is part of their bigger agenda.
  15. Angel Ogilvie posted on 11/23/2012 12:54 PM
    I think it's time that not only companies but people too stand up to this nonsense. I am fluently bilingual and cannot handle this anymore. These companies have been here for how long? My answer is too long to force them to change. The english and the french that are against these measures need to start protesting these changes.

    Are they trying to send away any company that would want to open in Quebec because "THEY NEED TO PROTECT THE FRENCH LANGUAGE"? How is this smart finance?
  16. Murray posted on 11/25/2012 12:55 AM
    We shop often in NH and Ontario.

    NH has 0% sales tax and gas sells for $0.90/lt Toys are 30% less in the US and there is generally a 14% discount across the board between Canada and the US.

    We dropped $820 2 weeks ago in NH and stayed at our son's in RI

    Last week we went to our daughter in Ottawa. Wine is $1 less/bottle there than in QC. Gas was $1.20/lt

    And now we are starting to list the items that we need so that we can have another shopping spree in NH. Oh ya! We need new bicycles. We can get $900 bikes down there for $350 and no tax!

    The best thing about Montreal, is that it is convenient to both RI and Ottawa
    1. jed posted on 11/25/2012 04:54 PM
      @Murray Wow... you sure are sticking it to the man lol (sarcasm)
  17. Thomas posted on 11/25/2012 09:01 PM
    It is just a name for crying out loud. Does it matter what their name is? These companies invested millions of dollars to setup shop here in Quebec and create jobs. The jobs they create really injects a lot of capital into the Quebec economy. Does it matter if the company has a German name, a Spanish name, Greek name or English name? They are creating jobs for the local people and provide products that the public needs and wants. What else can you ask for?

    Harassing companies just because their company name is not French is a total waste of money and pathetic. I hope these companies just pack up and leave to other provinces because this is ridiculous. Soon, the government will go after the car companies and who knows what else.

    Hopefully, the companies will just leave and make the uneducated Francophones looking for work cry more to learn English.
  18. Jaye1111 posted on 11/28/2012 03:37 PM
    I forgot about the government control of our online purchases. I just tried to buy a cat tree through Costco's website and failed. Apparently the packaging is in English only. Given that the cat would probably only play with the box, I guess it makes sense... wouldn't want her learning to communicate.
    1. allison swinwood posted on 01/17/2013 06:20 AM
      @Jaye1111 I haven t heard anything more about the case. Whats happening?
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