Big retailers challenge French sign law in court

Credits: REUTERS/Rick Wilking/ Files


MONTREAL - Some of North America's largest retailers have taken Quebec's language office to court over its demands that they modify their outdoor signs to comply with the province's language laws.

Costco, Walmart, Best Buy, Gap, Old Navy and Guess have officially petitioned Quebec's Superior Court to judge whether or not the province's language office has the right to make them change their signs.

All six retailers, along with many other companies operating in Quebec, received a warning letter from the language office demanding they comply with the province's French requirements or be fined, said Nathalie St-Pierre, a vice-president at the Retail Council of Canada.

The retail council represents five of the six petitioners and said the fines threatened by the office range from $3,000 to $20,000.

Quebec's French-language office demanded that stores like Walmart modify the signs outside their stores to sound more French. For instance, Walmart can change its outdoor signs to read "Le Magasin Walmart" (the Walmart Store), which would technically comply with the charter, St-Pierre said.
Section 63 of the Charter of the French Language states that "the name of an enterprise must be in French."

However, St-Pierre said that there is a debate in Quebec right now about whether or not a company's trademarked name is the same as its company name. Companies that have historically put their trademark name on outdoor signs, such as Walmart and Best Buy, had previously not been required to add any French words.

"Now there is a new interpretation that says that when you use your trademark as a sign it becomes the name of the company," she said, adding that the office was "asking different things from different retailers," and the law needs to be clarified and applied consistently across Quebec.

St-Pierre said stores like Walmart and Best Buy have been operating in Quebec for years and have never before had a problem with the law.

"If the law has changed then it needs to be clarified because it hasn't been applied (like that) for the past 30 years," she said.

QMI Agency was not able to reach a spokesperson from the French-language office for comment on Sunday.

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