It is a truth universally acknowledged that Quebec politicians desiring of success must be in want of the support of the French speaking majority. There is no clearer demonstration of this than the Couillard government’s intention to modify Quebec’s existing language laws.
On May 3rd of this year, Culture Minister Hélène David announced modifications to Quebec language laws that would force businesses with trademarked non-French names to add French language elements to their signs. This would include making Starbucks add the word café to its name and having Home Depot add matériaux de construction to theirs.
The proposed modification seems to serve two purposes.
First, it’s clearly an attempt to pacify the more extreme members of the Quebec population – the ones who voted for the Parti Québecois despite the whole xenophobia scandal related to the now defunct Secular Charter. It’s a move that seems to be unnecessary. The reason the Liberals demolished the PQ in 2014 is the people’s revulsion with former premier Pauline Marois’ push of legislation much of the province considered racist and xenophobic.
The second purpose of the proposal is to punish businesses like Best Buy for the legal case they won in 2014, a victory confirmed on appeal in 2015.
In 2014 Best Buy, Old Navy and other retailers with trademarked English names took the Quebec government to court to find out if they were obligated to add generic French terms to their signage. The Quebec Attorney General said they did. The courts disagreed and in 2014 the Court of Quebec ruled in favor of Best Buy, a decision confirmed a year later by the Superior Court of Quebec.
The government does not like to lose in the courts, for such a loss is a failure in the public eye. Fortunately for governments, there is a way to save face by enacting legislation that reinforces the government’s position in the case they lost.
The legislation that came into question in 2014 is the Quebec Charter of French Language. Enacted in the seventies when tensions between Francophones and Anglophones were at their peak, its purpose was to establish and ensure the primacy of the French language in Quebec by establishing it as the language of government, commerce, and law.
The French Charter created strict rules regarding the language of business and education and established the Office québécois de la langue française (OLFQ) to enforce them. According to article 58 of the French Charter public signs, posters, and commercial advertising must be in French. Penalties for disobeying the law can be anything from fines of six hundred to six thousand dollars for a natural person and fifteen hundred to twenty thousand dollars for businesses.
For every subsequent offense the fine is doubled, and on request from prosecutors the courts can even make an offender pay an additional fine equal to any profits gained from committing the offense. If a person incites, assists, or encourages someone else to commit an offense, they are also considered to have committed the violation.
Best Buy won their case because the law and applicable regulations allow for exceptions in cases where the sign contains a legally recognized trade-marked name even if the name isn’t in French. The new law would do away with that exception except in cases where the trademarked name is an actual person’s name like McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s.
The French Charter currently allows the Quebec government to grant exceptions to the rules to certain businesses that apply for them. All other businesses would have three years to comply with the new law.
Having said all that, let’s clarify what the OLFQ’s current powers actually are.
The Office québécois de la langue française’s primary purpose is to ensure that French is the language of work, communication and commerce in Quebec. It can take any appropriate measures to promote the French language which includes inspections and inquiries for the purpose of enforcing the French Charter.
It can conduct these inquiries of its own volition or following receipt of a written complaint. Though complaints to OLFQ are widely believed to be petty and mean spirited, the theory ignores the rules regarding how the Office has to handle complaints and widely exaggerates its powers.
The OLFQ is legally obligated to refuse any complaints it considers “manifestly unfounded or in bad faith.” It can refuse to act if it feels that the complainant already has appropriate recourse or if the circumstances surrounding the complaint don’t justify its intervention. If the Office refuses to pursue the matter it has to justify the refusal to the complainant.
When the OLFQ conducts an inquiry, even a discovered violation won’t always result in legal action. Only the Attorney General of Quebec and the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions or someone else authorized by the Quebec government can take the case further and these always have some discretion as to whether or not to pursue a case. Though cases that go to court are often won by the Quebec government, databases of legal decisions don’t take into account all the times OLFQ and Attorney General of Quebec have backed down.
In 2001 the OLFQ went after L. Berson & Fils, a monument company on St Laurent Boulevard that had been serving Montreal’s Jewish community since 1922. The sign has Hebrew lettering of almost equal size to the French wording. When the government started harassing the owners about their signage the overwhelming response was one of outrage, their actions widely perceived as anti-Semitic. The Quebec government quickly backed down.
The proposed tweaks to Quebec’s language laws are unnecessary, which makes you wonder why they’re being raised at all. With the Couillard government under heat for its austerity measures – measures that have cut much needed hospital beds and closed seniors’ homes, the only answer is the one of divide and conquer. After all, a population busy fighting over language is one too busy to throw eggs and tomatoes at the government.