Representatives of the Quebec business community are criticizing the measures introduced by the government to protect French.

In an open letter sent to a Montreal daily, economic organizations – the Retail Council of Canada (RCC), the Conseil du Patronat du Québec (CPQ), the Association québécoise de la quincaillerie et des matériaux de construction, Manufacturiers et Exportateurs du Québec, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) and the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec – asked the Legault government to review its position on the issue.

In their view, the French-language rules on commercial signage would force businesses to make changes that would often be difficult to put in place within two weeks.

“Unfeasible in such a short space of time,” argued Michel Rochette, president of the RCC’s Quebec section and spokesperson for the group behind the letter.

The letter’s authors said that “the government had promised a three-year deadline for the implementation of rules which, to date, have still not been adopted.”

While Bill 96 was finally passed in 2022, some of the measures concerning businesses, the “rules of the game,” as Rochette calls them, were only tabled in January this year.

Their final version has not yet been adopted.

His conclusion is, therefore, simple: “We can’t make any changes until we have the rules.”

The deadline for compliance with Quebec’s new regulations is June 1.

On that date, any mention of “on/off” on a button would be banned under the provisions of Bill 96, as would “play” on any player and many other words that were not yet subject to the French rule because they did not relate to the safe use of a product.

The logistical challenge of the adaptation period is a real concern for the co-signatories of Saturday’s open letter.

But the problem is broader.

According to Rochette, outdoor advertising will also turn into a logistical nightmare.

“Quebec businesses already went through an entire transformation, which was completed barely five years ago, of all outdoor signage for businesses,” says Mr Rochette. “Now, the regulations tell us that we have to go through a new phase of change. So all the signs that have been modified will have to be redesigned in an even shorter timeframe.”

The RCC chairman pointed out that signage is also subject to constraints set by municipalities and building owners.

“Some cases are likely to be complex, if not impossible,” he said.

Who’s afraid of the big bad web?

The signatories of the open letter have a major fear of a very harmless gesture: the click.

If consumers can no longer find the product that interests them at a local retailer, the temptation is great to turn to e-commerce and buy what they need from non-Quebec sites. These sites won’t have to comply with French-language signage rules.

“We calculate that, unfortunately, Quebecers will also have to pay the price,” laments Rochette. “And the French language is likely to be affected, because if we take Quebecers to sites outside Quebec that don’t comply with the same rules, French will certainly not be better protected.”

The signatories of the letter insist that supply capacity is one of the key factors in this problem.

If a product cannot comply with the rules laid down by the province, retailers will have no choice but to withdraw it from sale.

Rochette pointed out that “in a world that is becoming more and more international and wide-ranging, where supply chains are highly interconnected with the whole planet and suppliers are just about everywhere in the world. Sometimes it becomes a little more complicated to impose constraints without delay.”

The CCCD president said that the industrial and economic realities of shops, restaurants, etc., are what they are. There is a risk that a large number of products will be withdrawn from sale, which will limit the supply available from local retailers.

“Why should we limit supply if it’s just for a button,” said Rochette.

Shared fears

Quebec saw this as an opportunity to develop partnerships with other suppliers, whether French-speaking or simply open to adapting to the Quebec market.

“Quebec is an advanced society and a large, lucrative market. If certain companies do not want to do business in Quebec to avoid translating the indications on their products if they refuse to speak to Quebecers in French, we are convinced that their competitors will take advantage of these opportunities to the benefit of Quebecers”, argued the Minister for the French Language, Jean-François Roberge in a news release at the end of February.

However, the RCC and its allies are not as optimistic as the minister.

Washington’s reaction to the future regulation of commercial signage in Quebec tends to prove the trade and business organizations right.

The Office of the US Trade Representative pointed out that numerous concerns were emerging south of the border, mainly among small and medium-sized businesses, for whom adapting to the more demanding standards of French-speaking Quebecers also poses a problem of adaptability and, consequently, possible loss of customers.

“For the past year and a half, we’ve been contacted almost every day with questions, especially by small and medium-sized businesses.(…) We’re faced with a lot of incomprehension, to be honest, and surprise, when it comes to criteria that seem ultra-demanding to them,” Eliane Ellbogen, an intellectual property lawyer at Fasken in Montreal, told The Canadian Press in January.

It is with these same concerns in mind that the signatories of Saturday’s letter are calling on the government to review the details of its bill with organizations representing businesses in order to take better account of the impact of the measures and preserve “the economic health [of] businesses and the well-being of Quebecers.”

On February 24, the RCC submitted a brief to Quebec City, but it has yet to receive any feedback.

“There’s not much we can do now other than keep in touch,” said Rochette.

It seems that the ministry remains open to dialogue since Roberge assured a press scrum on March 22 that he would take comments on the bill into account so that “the regulation is properly applied, and ideally all the services currently available remain available.”

He then qualified his remarks by insisting on “the right of Quebecers to be greeted in French, to be served in French, to have objects labelled in French so that we can understand what we are buying, so that we know what is in the products. I think this is non-negotiable,” he insisted.

The Ministry for the French Language did not respond to our requests for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on April 20, 2024.

With Stéphane Rolland, The Canadian Press 

New French-language commercial signage rules continue to cause concern for Que. businesses
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