Navigating Crypto Regulation In La Belle Province – Eaton Center Montreal in downtown Montreal on February 5, 2019. The Eaton’s department store chain was forced to remove the apostrophe from its name to comply with Quebec’s new language law of 1977.Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

Ever since the Eaton’s department store chain was first forced to remove the apostrophe from its name to comply with Quebec’s new language law in 1977, retailers have been on the front lines of political battles to protect the French language in La Belle province.

Navigating Crypto Regulation In La Belle Province

Navigating Crypto Regulation In La Belle Province

For decades before the passage of the Charter of the French Language, commonly known as Bill 101, Eaton’s downtown Montreal flagship had been a symbol of English arrogance and business dominance for Quebec’s francophone majority. Francophone artists and separatist politicians depicted the Sainte-Catherine Street store as a fortress of English where snobbish salespeople refused to offer service in French.

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Bill 101 was their way of finally putting the Eatons and the like in their place. The law originally banned English on commercial signs. So Eaton’s became Eaton’s.

Even after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the ban and the Quebec government changed the law to require “predominantly French” signage, Eaton has never reverted to its English nameplate. In Quebec, it remained Eaton’s until the chain went bankrupt in 1999, proving that there was no going back to an era when major retailers could remain indifferent to the francophone majority.

Each new iteration of Bill 101 has provided similar lessons for businesses trying to resist government dictates about language. Outside of a few remaining English enclaves in the province, protesting rules requiring them to operate and communicate with customers in French could backfire on businesses. The costs of complying are lower than the costs – in a tarnished public image – of complaining too loudly.

A new front in the language wars has now opened, as businesses lobby Premier François Legault’s government to water down Bill 96, the updated version of the French language charter passed last year. The government is currently drafting regulations on commercial signage and product labeling that will require businesses to include French descriptions alongside English brand names and trademarks.

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Until now, “recognised” English trademarks have been allowed on commercial signs and packaging. That explains why the names Canadian Tire, Starbucks, McDonald’s and Best Buy dominate commercial streets and strip malls as much in Quebec as elsewhere in Canada.

Under Bill 96, only “registered” English trademarks will be allowed, and they must be accompanied by a “markedly dominant” generic description in French. Mr. Legault has offered the example of Canadian Tire, which would be required to include the term “Centre de rénovation” on its commercial signs in even larger letters than the store’s trademarked name.

Canadian Tire did not respond to a request for comment on the new rules, which are due to take effect in mid-2025. But the International Trademark Association and the Intellectual Property Institute of Canada are among the groups that have been lobbying the Legault government to reconsider its approach as it drafts regulations to implement Bill 96.

Navigating Crypto Regulation In La Belle Province

“Companies that want to continue doing business in Quebec will have to incur additional costs to do so,” warned Jenny Simmons, INTA’s director of government relations, in a recent edition of the Globe and Mail. “To be sure, some businesses and brands have chosen to translate their names, which is their choice. But this is a choice companies should be able to make of their own free will.”

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Businesses whose names are registered trademarks will not be required to translate them under Bill 96. However, most business names are not registered trademarks. Montreal has a lot of Irish pubs and it would border on the ridiculous to force them to either trademark their names or translate them into French. Also, it takes several years to register a trademark in Canada – making compliance before mid-2025 virtually impossible. The Legault government should make exceptions for most small businesses.

Nevertheless, many Canadian and global chains have concluded that accommodating francophone customers in Quebec is more than worth the cost of translation. The goodwill and marketing opportunities created by adopting a French name and branding can pay off.

The opposite is also true. In 2007, a series of bad publicity forced Imperial Oil to abandon its plan to convert convenience stores at Esso gas stations in Quebec from the Marché Express banner to the On the Run name it used outside the province. (The stores were sold in 2016 to Parkland Corp., which still uses the Marché Express name in Quebec.)

That’s why Shoppers Drug Mart is known as Pharmaprix in La Belle Province, Kentucky Fried Chicken as Poulet Frit Kentucky (or PFK), The Bay as La Baie, Giant Tiger as Tigre Géant, Sleep Country as Dormez-vous and Staples as Bureau en Gross.

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Loblaw stopped using its own name at its Quebec stores in 2015, replacing it with the homegrown Provigo moniker; its No Frills discount stores go by the Maxi name in Quebec. Metro is Metro in both official languages, but its Food Basics discount chain is called Super C in Quebec.

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