Quebec business community pens open letter denouncing French-language commercial signage rules

Quebec business community pens open letter denouncing French-language commercial signage rules

Representatives of the Quebec business community are criticizing measures put in place by the Legault government to protect French.

In an open letter sent Saturday to some Quebec French-language daily newspapers, economic organizations, the Retail Council of Canada (RCC), the Conseil du Patronat du Québec, the Quebec Hardware and Building Supply Association, Quebec Manufacturers and Exporters, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of Quebec have asked the Legault government to review its position in this matter.

While Bill 96 was finally passed in 2022, some of the measures concerning businesses were only tabled in January this year. Their final version has not yet been adopted.

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

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.”

“We can’t make any changes until we have the rules,” said Michel Rochette, president of the Quebec chapter of the RCC.

The deadline for compliance with Quebec’s new regulations is June 1, 2025.

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 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,” said 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.”

Ste-Catherine Street in downtown Montreal
The signatories of the open letter are worried about the consequences of changing rules for outdoor signage. (Luc Lavigne/Radio-Canada)

He said that displays are also subject to constraints set by municipalities and building owners.

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

Online shopping poses threats to language

The signatories of the open letter worry that if consumers can no longer find the product they are interested in at a local retailer, they may turn to online stores and buy what they need on non-Quebec websites, which aren’t subject to French signage rules.

“We’ve calculated that Quebecers will also unfortunately pay the price,” Rochette said. “The French language risks being affected, because if we bring Quebecers to sites outside Quebec which do not respect the same rules, certainly, French will not be better protected.”

The business owners say supply capacity is at the heart of the issue because, if a product doesn’t comply with the province’s rules, merchants will have no other choice but to withdraw it.

In an increasingly globalized world, where supply chains are interconnected, imposing constraints without delay becomes more complicated, Rochette added.

Shared concerns

Quebec saw the regulations as an opportunity to develop partnerships with French-speaking suppliers or others who are open to adapting to the Quebec market.

“Quebec is an advanced society and a large and lucrative market,” said French Language Minister Jean-François Roberge in a news release at the end of February.

He said that if some companies don’t want to do business in Quebec to avoid translating their signs, the government is “convinced” that “competitors will take advantage of these opportunities for the benefit of Quebecers.”

But the RCC and its allies aren’t as optimistic. The U.S. government’s reaction to the future regulation of commercial signage in Quebec suggests the commercial businesses and organizations are right.

The Office of the United States Trade Representative reported that many companies south of the border — mainly small and medium-sized businesses — raised concerns about adapting to the French-language requirements and the risk of losing customers.

Eliane Ellbogen, a lawyer in intellectual property law at the Fasken firm in Montreal, said in an interview that many companies are confused about the bill and its demands.

“For a year and a half, we have been contacted almost every day with questions, especially from smaller and medium-sized businesses,” Ellbogen said.

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

See how supersized some store signs could get under new Quebec rules

We dig into the bold draft regulations the government announced in early 2024 as a part of its updated language laws, the costs and signage involved, and the many questions that remain unanswered.

On February 24, the RCC submitted a brief to Quebec, for which it has not yet received feedback. “There is not much we can do other than maintain contact,” Rochette said.

Roberge had said at a press scrum on March 22 that he would take into account comments on the bill to ensure “regulations are applied properly and that ideally all services that are currently available remain available.”

However, he later doubled down, insisting that Quebecers have the right to be greeted in French, to be served in French and to have objects that are labelled in French so they can understand what they are buying and what is in products.

“I think it’s non-negotiable,” Roberge said.

The Ministry of the French Language did not respond to a request for comment.