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.