American trade officials among those concerned about new Quebec rules on French signage

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The Quebec provincial government has “largely underestimated” how much it will cost businesses to comply with French law’s new window display requirements, according to a Montreal legal expert.

The new regulations have even caught the attention of the US government.

“Anecdotally, I know that these kinds of changes amount to tens of thousands of dollars per location, depending on the size of the brand,” said Alexandre Fallon, a lawyer specializing in corporate compliance with the Charter of the French language of Quebec.

Quebec projects it will cost businesses in the province between $7 million and $15 million alone, but there is a long list of big box stores with dozens of locations that appear non-compliant and either need renovation , i.e. new brands by June 1st. , due 2025.

“When you think about a large location, a department store for example, you’ll have the branding in multiple locations throughout the building. It’s not just one sign, it’s potentially multiple signs,” Fallon said.

Fallon isn’t the only one affected.

The Office of the United States Trade Representative, which reports to the President, issued a press release Wednesday stating that Senior Advisor Cara Morrow met with Canadian Deputy Minister of International Trade Rob Stewart to discuss, among other things, “concerns regarding trademark provisions.” of Quebec’s Bill 96 and their potential implications for American businesses, including small and medium-sized businesses.

The new draft regulation, published in the Quebec Official Gazette on January 10, requires that non-French signs be accompanied by French descriptions twice as large.

WATCH | CBC’s Isaac Olson details the new regulations:

See how oversized some store signs could become under new Quebec rules

We look at the bold regulatory plans announced by the government in early 2024 as part of its updated language laws, the costs and signage involved, and the many questions that remain unanswered.

For example, if Canadian Tire has letters three meters high and 20 meters long, it would need a description in French measuring four meters by 30 meters.

The French descriptions could be one large word or a series of smaller descriptions, but the goal is to ensure that the official language of Quebec is predominant on store fronts and signs.

Rules do not apply to stores named after people

According to the regulations as written, these rules apply to any wording that is not French.

Stores named after a person, like Tim Hortons, don’t count, but there are several gray areas that CBC News is unclear on because government officials don’t want to discuss specific cases.

For example, Walmart is derived from the name of the founder, Sam Walton, and the word “mart”, which means market in English.

Then there’s Starbucks, based on a fictional character from Moby Dick.

Walmart
Walmart is a gray area. “Wal” is based on a surname, but “Mart” is clearly English. The OQLF refuses to address specific cases like this. “Supercentre” is not French. According to the OQLF, this would translate into “shopping center” or “commercial park”. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

Some stores, like Costco and Dollarama, have invented words for names. Costco combines “cost” and “business.” As for Dollarama, spokeswoman Lyla Radmanovich said the name is neither French nor English.

In any case, she added, “Dollarama is reviewing the new provisions and will ensure their compliance with the Charter of the French Language.”

Asked about these gray areas, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the French Language redirected his questions to the Quebec Linguistic Observatory, the Quebec Office of the French Language (OQLF).

The OQLF released a statement explaining the settlement, reminding CBC News that businesses should not change their names to Kentucky Fried Chicken, Giant Tiger or Staples (Wholesale Office) to have.

French advertising
In this example provided by the Quebec government, the French descriptions of what is sold in the store are added to a business with an English name. (Government of Quebec)

“As of June 1, 2025, French must appear clearly predominant when a brand or company name appears in public displays,” the press release specifies.

“To the extent that French occupies twice as much space in the same visual field, the company can choose to ensure a clear predominance in several ways. For example, a company could choose to add display elements in French to those already existing.”

Beyond that, the OQLF declined to comment on specific cases and stopped responding to emailed requests for clarification.

Retail Council of Canada concerned about costs

CBC News contacted several major companies like Canadian Tire, Walmart and Home Depot. They did not respond, but Michel Rochette, president of the Quebec chapter of the Retail Council of Canada, issued a statement saying he spoke for most major retailers.

Rochette said the cost to businesses is the biggest concern.

“A series of meetings are planned both with our members and with the OQLF over the coming weeks,” he indicated.

“These new adjustments will not come without additional cost.”

Yellow shoe store
The Yellow shoe store was founded in Montreal in 1916. Under new Quebec rules, Yellow stores can no longer simply display Yellow in their windows. Descriptions in French must be twice the size of the brand. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

He said the council and its members are fully committed to the protection and promotion of French.

“They have adapted several times in recent years, depending on regulatory and legal developments concerning the French language,” he said.

But these new costs come on top of four years of economic uncertainty, federal loan payments and inflationary pressures, he said.

“Our priority will be to ensure that these new adjustments will not have negative side effects on the business climate in Quebec,” declared Mr. Rochette.

New rules generate significant costs for large companies

Fallon said the provincial estimate is likely what it will cost a large chain to comply. And there are many large chains that operate dozens of branches in Quebec under English trademarks.

For example, in Quebec, there are 620 Subways, 400 Dollaramas, 203 New Looks, 100 Canadian Tires, 71 Walmarts, 57 Winners and 22 Home Depots. Not to mention all the U-Hauls, UPS stores, Bulk Barns, Linen Chests, Best Buys and more.

It is unclear whether acronyms with meanings other than French are compliant. For example, Dairy Queen, which has 59 branches in Quebec, often has DQ as its trademark.

“It’s a very significant change,” Fallon said. “The Charter has not been amended to this extent since its adoption.”

Fallon highlighted the challenges businesses face during the transition period, with less than a year and a half to become compliant.

Stores will have to study the law, design new storefronts, get approval for municipal zoning requirements, make the signs and then install them before the deadline, he said.

Many businesses will have to completely remove their existing signs and redo them because there simply isn’t enough space to add more words, Fallon said.

The Minister of the French Language, Jean-François Roberge, granted interviews shortly after the publication of the draft regulation.

He insisted the province’s economy is strong and he doesn’t expect the regulations to have a negative impact. There is a low unemployment rate, the economy is good and businesses want to set up in Quebec, he said.

The most important thing for this government, he said, is “that 100 percent of businesses respect that Quebec is the only state in North America where French is the only official language.”

Businesses and individuals have 45 days to provide the department with written comments on the proposed regulations, but Fallon said it is rare for major changes to be made to regulations once they reach this stage.

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