Walmart, Gap, Best Buy, Costco take on Quebec’s language watchdog over French signs


MONTREAL – 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 been 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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Walmart, Gap, Best Buy, Costco take on Quebec’s language watchdog over French signs

  1. So does Quebecor have to change its name to Ontariocor in Ontario? Not in Canadas double standard law system. This mess was all started by Pierre Trudeau and now a new younger Trudeau is here.

  2. It’s about time!!

  3. Um it’s not just for Quebec….it’s for all over the French-speaking world.

    Examine some of the packaging in your grocery store more carefully….it’s in many languages.

  4. While I don’t believe in strict language laws, there’s a line in this article which unknowingly touches the heart of the matter:

    “Now they’d have to add another element to that logo just for Quebec.”

    This is the root of the issue. For a long time, you couldn’t even get an instruction manual with a french translation, in Quebec, even from companies who are willing to do the work for the larger consumer base in France and Belgium, for example.

    The point which must be considered is: Yes, Quebec is a small market, but it’d be polite to make an effort despite that.


    • Maybe you should work on mastering the English language before worrying about French.

  6. Change Desjardins to Gardening , Quebecor to Canadacore or KICK them out of USA , (Florida) and rest of CANADA . Freedom of the speech for all or isolate Kebek-Taliban .!!!

    Send the PQ back to Chibougamau where they came from . They have NO place in modern civilized world !!

    • Actually, no one has “freedom of speech” when it comes to public signs. It is against the law, for example, to have signs with foul language or pornographic images. A French-language sign also doesn’t limit what people say, only what language they say it in…

  7. Tell them just don’t set up shop in Quebec if they can’t play by the rules. I’m sure there are myriads of places to buy electronics, clothing and cheap Chinese made crap without their presence.

  8. What the Office Quebecois de la Langue Francaise should really be looking at is how making such a change would be beneficial. Is adding “Le Magasin” to Walmart really encouraging more Quebecers to speak French? People will still just call it Walmart. The same goes for Best Buy and Costco. What they really should focus on is ensuring that things like leaflets/instruction manuals and customer service are provided in French for the french speaking population. These are multi-national corporations and Walmart is Walmart anywhere in the world. It is a matter of reasonable accommodation.

  9. All those companies should pool their cash and just buy Quebec outright. be done with this french nonsense!

  10. Now, since the word “Quebec” is not a french word but an Algonquin word which apparently means “Narrow Passage”, I guess they will have to change the name of the province to “Le passage étroit”?….

    Simplement STUPIDE!

  11. To me all this will do is make other business outside of Quebec stay away as far as possible from expanding into the province. As well as unnecessary budget spent on a few words on a new sign that no one will ever read.

  12. J’aime les pomme frites avec un peut de merd!

  13. Aussi, je suis américain, mais je ne suis pas en accord avec le stupide gouvernement du Québec, parce que le nom d’un corporation est son NOM! Vous doit dit à mois le raison parce qu’un corporation comme Costco doit changer son nomme qu’il utilise par tout le mond seulement pour Québec. Il est comme si les Qubecois demandera qu’un homme qui s’appelle “Bob” changer son primer nom à “Guillaume” s’il veut vivier au Qubec.

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