U.S. trade officials are among those who have expressed concern about Quebec’s new French sign rules

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The Quebec provincial government “grossly underestimated” how much it will cost for businesses to adhere to new French-language law requirements for storefront signage, according to a Montreal legal expert.

Even the U.S. Government has taken notice of the new regulations. 

“Anecdotally I know that these types of changes range in the tens of thousand dollars per location, depending upon the significance of the signage,” said Alexandre Fallon. He is a lawyer specializing in business compliance to Quebec’s Charter of the French Language.

Quebec estimates it will cost businesses across the province between $7 million and $15 million. But there is an extensive list of big box stores with dozens upon dozens of locations, which appear non-compliant. These need to be retrofitted or have all new signage by June 1, 2025.

“When you think of a large location or a store, for example, the trademark will be at multiple places on the building. Fallon said that it is not just one sign but potentially multiple signs.

Fallon’s not the only one who is concerned. 

The Office of the United States Trade Representative under the authority of the President issued a release Wednesday stating that Cara Morrow, senior advisor, met with Canada’s deputy minister for trade international, Rob Stewart to discuss among other things “concerns over trademark provisions of Quebec’s Bill 96, and their potential consequences for U.S. Businesses, including small and mid-sized enterprises.”

The new draft regulations, published on the 10th of January in the Official Gazette (Quebec), require that non-French signage be accompanied with French descriptions at twice their size. 

WATCH: Isaac Olson of CBC breaks down the new regulations| CBC’s Isaac Olson breaks down new regulations: 

The supersized signs that stores may need under Quebec’s language rules

We explore the bold draft regulation that the government released in early 2024, as part of the updated language laws. We also examine the costs and signage, along with the many unanswered questions.

If, for example, Canadian Tire’s lettering is three metres high and 20 metres long, then it would require a French description of four metres by thirty metres.

The French descriptions may be one large word or a series smaller words, but it is important that Quebec’s language is prominently displayed on storefronts and signage.

Rules don’t apply to stores named after people

According to the draft regulation, these rules apply to all words that are not French.

CBC News does not count stores named after a specific person, such as Tim Hortons. However, there are a few grey areas, because government officials do not want to discuss particular cases. 

Walmart, for example, is derived from Sam Walton’s founder name and the English word “mart,” meaning market. 

Starbucks is also based on the fictional character Moby Dick.

Walmart
Walmart is a gray area. The name ‘Wal,’ is derived from a family surname. However, the word’mart,’ is clearly English. The OQLF will not comment on specific cases such as this. Supercentre is not a word. Selon l’OQLF, il s’agit de “centre commercial” ou “parc commercial”. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

Some stores, like Costco and Dollarama, have made up words for names. Costco is a combination of “cost” and company. As for Dollarama, spokesperson Lyla Radmanovich said the name is neither French nor English.

She added that “Dollarama will review the new provisions to ensure compliance with the Charter of the French Language.”

When asked to clarify these grey areas, the Ministry of the French Language’s spokesperson referred questions to Quebec’s language watchdog. Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF).

The OQLF issued a statement that explains the regulation, reminding CBC News that businesses are not expected to change their names as Kentucky Fried Chicken (Poulet Frit Kentucky or PFK), Giant Tiger (Tigre Géant) or Staples (Bureau en gros) have.

French publicity
In this example, provided by the Quebec Government, French descriptions are added to the English name of a business. (Government of Quebec).

The statement states that “by June 1, 2025 French must be clearly dominant when a trademark name or company name appears in public signage.”

The company can choose to make sure that French is clearly dominant in a visual field if it occupies double the space. A company, for example, could add French display elements to those already in place.

The OQLF also refused to comment on individual cases and stopped responding to emails asking for clarification.

Retail Council of Canada is concerned about cost

CBC News reached out to several big businesses like Canadian Tire, Walmart and Home Depot. They didn’t reply, but Michel Rochette, president of the Quebec chapter of the Retail Council of Canada issued a statement — saying he speaks on behalf of most major retailers.

Rochette said that the cost to business is the main concern.

He said that a series of meetings would be held with our members as well as the OQLF in the coming weeks.

These new adjustments will come at a cost.

Yellow shoe store
The Yellow shoe store opened in Montreal in 1916. Yellow locations in Quebec are no longer allowed to simply display Yellow on their storefronts. The French description must be double the size of trademarks. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

He said that both the council and the members are committed to the protection of French.

He said, “They have made adjustments several times in the past few months to reflect regulatory and legal changes that have occurred regarding the French Language.” 

These new costs come after four years of economic uncertainty and federal loan repayments. Inflationary pressures are also present, he said.

Rochette said that the priority was to ensure these new adjustments do not have negative effects on the business environment in Quebec.

New rules create big costs for big companies

Fallon said that the provincial estimate was likely what one large chain would have to pay to comply. Many large chains operate dozens of locations under English trademarks in Quebec. 

In Quebec, for example, there are 620 subways, 400 Dollaramas and 203 New Looks. There are also 71 Walmarts in Quebec, 57 Winners, and 22 Home Depots. Not to mention U-Hauls. Bulk barns, Linen Chests. Best Buys.

It’s unclear if acronyms that have non-French meanings will be accepted. Dairy Queen’s 59 Quebec locations often use DQ on their storefronts.

Fallon said that this was a significant change. “The charter hasn’t been amended in this way since it was adopted.”

Fallon emphasized the challenges that businesses face during the transition period. With less than one year and a quarter to comply, the business community faces a number of challenges.

He said that stores will need to study the law and design new storefronts. They will also have to get approval under municipal zoning regulations, manufacture the signs, and install them before the deadline.

Fallon said that many businesses will be forced to remove their old signs and redo them completely because there isn’t room to add more text.

French Language Minister Jean-François Roberge provided interviews soon after the draft regulation was published.

He said that the economy of the province is strong, and he doesn’t expect the regulation to negatively impact it. He said that the economy in Quebec is strong, there’s a low rate of unemployment, and businesses want to be here.

He said that the most important thing to this government is “that all businesses respect the fact that Quebec is the one state in North America with French as the only official language.”

Businesses and individuals can provide written comments to the ministry within 45 days of the draft regulation being released. Fallon said that it is rare for major changes to be made to regulations after they reach this stage.

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