[lg policy] Crackdown in Quebec: Le Gap won't do

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Sat Nov 24 15:39:23 UTC 2012

Crackdown in Quebec: ‘Le Gap’ Won’t Do
Published: November 22, 2012

GATINEAU, Quebec — The southern gentleman with the distinctive tie who
looms above the entrance to a fast-food restaurant here is immediately
recognizable to any American. The outlet’s name, PFK, however, might be a
bit of a puzzle. And not far away on Boulevard Maloney, a busy street lined
with shopping malls, sits another familiar sight: a red and white big-box
store filled with binders, photocopier paper and desks. But the name,
Bureau en Gros, might not ring a bell.

The office supply chain Staples uses another name in Quebec. Stricter rules
in the province on signs for companies with non-French names have led to a

When it comes to American companies, KFC and Staples are exceptions in
Quebec in that they have translated their names into French (PFK
representing Poulet Frit Kentucky and Bureau en Gros meaning Office
Wholesale). A large majority of signs along Boulevard Maloney could be just
as at home in, well, Kentucky: they include Costco Wholesale, Walmart, Toys
“R” Us, Best Buy, Pizza Hut and Linen Chest. A Comfort Inn sits nearby to
receive overwhelmed shoppers.

Quebec’s stringent language laws, first passed in 1977, have long meant
that regardless of the name out front, all large retailers serve customers
in French and post signs that are predominately, or entirely, in French
along their aisles. Now, after decades of permitting a plethora of
English-language trade names on signs, the government agency responsible
for enforcing language laws has changed its mind. Its efforts, accompanied
by threats of legal action and fines, to add French phrases and slogans to
those trade names prompted six major American retailers to take the
province to court last month.

“How can you organize your business when you’ve had a law that’s been
applied a certain way for 35 years change without any discussion?” said
Nathalie St.-Pierre, the vice president for Quebec at the Retail Council of
Canada, who spoke on Thursday on behalf of all the plaintiffs. “It’s a bit
like you take the tax laws and then suddenly change the way they are
applied. People would feel it was very unfair.”

The plaintiffs’ suit asked the Quebec Superior Court to assess the legality
of the policy change by Quebec’s office of the French language. The
companies are all American-owned and include the Canadian subsidiaries of
Wal-Mart, Best Buy (which operates under its own name in Canada and which
owns a separate electronics chain here called Future Shop, even in Quebec),
Guess, Costco Wholesale and the Gap, which listed its Old Navy operation as
a separate plaintiff.

But while American companies may be leading the resistance, many Canadian
retailers are also affected by the change. Boulevard Maloney has an
enormous Canadian Tire store, and while it stocks “pneus” on its shelves in
Quebec, the chain still maintains its full English name on its signs along
the road.

Martin Bergeron, a spokesman for the language agency, acknowledged on
Thursday that it had until now “tolerated” signs containing nothing but
trademarked names in languages other than French. But he said that a
growing influx of retailers from the United States and elsewhere in the
world into Quebec caused the agency to focus its attention on the issue
about 18 months ago. Mr. Martin said that complaints to the office about
signs had been steadily increasing and represented 46 percent of the 4,000
it received last year.

“This is not against any language,” Mr. Bergeron said. “English, Italian or
Chinese, it’s all the same.” He added that the agency will even investigate
signs containing names that are not related to any known language.

Provincial law clearly permits the use of trademarks, from any language, on
signs unless a company has specifically registered a French trade name. So
even now, Best Buy does not have to become Meilleur Achat. The language
agency, however, is demanding that companies with non-French trade names
add to their signs a slogan or description in French of what they sell.

On a special Web site with an address that can be translated as “respect
for the law,” the language office offered some hypothetical tips using a
fictitious store named Daily Living. Although it cannot require it, the
office suggested that the store’s owners could adopt the name Les Beaux
Jours (The Beautiful Days). Otherwise, it said, the imaginary store could
comply by adding a much larger French name above its English name, tacking
on the French word for furniture or introducing a French-language slogan
meaning “Furniture, bedding and decoration.”

In their court filing, the retailers disagreed with the language office’s
interpretation of the law and contended that signs displaying non-French
trademarks still complied. The arcane legal argument hinged on questions
related to the relationship between corporate names and trade names. The
language office, according to the court documents, told Best Buy in August
that it might recommend prosecutors take the company to court. In the case
of all the plaintiffs, the office has threatened to suspend certificates of
compliance with language laws that all large companies, not just retailers,
must hold to operate in Quebec.

Ms. St.-Pierre said that aside from cost, retailers wanted to maintain
consistency in all their brand materials, including signs, globally. She
also wondered aloud exactly what adding on the word “magasin” (store) to
Walmart’s name would bring to consumers or French culture in Quebec.

When asked that question, Mr. Bergeron replied: “Our role here is to make
sure the law is applied.”



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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