The Quebec government has long been known for its stringent attempts to preserve the province’s French character. The Office québécois de la langue française has a controversial history of policing businesses of all sizes. Inspectors with the Quebec “language police” issue tickets and fines for unauthorized use of English on signs, menus and the like.
In 2011, bothered by the impact of English language signs from multinational corporations on Quebec’s linguistic landscape, the OQLF began encouraging these companies to translate their brand names. In 2012, they began threatening to sanction companies that refused to at least add a generic French business term to their signs, such as “les cafés” for a coffee shop. So, a group of retailers including Best Buy, Costco, The Gap, Old Navy, Guess, Walmart and Curves sued to have the scope of the law clarified.
Now, a Canadian judge has ruled that under current Quebec law, the government lacks the power to impose sanctions on brands that refuse to translate their English brand names or to add French to their signs.
In an opinion quoted in the National Post, Justice Yergeau wrote
“It is up to the Quebec legislator to show the way if he feels Quebec’s French linguistic face is suffering from a wave, a breaker even, of English trademarks on public signage and to impose, by legislation if necessary, the solutions he considers adequate.”
Lawyer Brent Tyler told CTV Montreal that he expected the government to appeal, but he doesn’t seem to think they have much of a case:
“I was a little amazed when the Office first came up with this interpretation. The OQLF argues that a company name is the equivalent of a trademark and that’s not the case…The OQLF took the position that a French description was not required and then, without changing the law or regulations, suddenly changed their position to say that it is required.”