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The Eaton Centre Montreal in downtown Montreal on Feb. 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 in 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.

For decades before the adoption of the Charter of the French Language, commonly known as Bill 101, Eaton’s downtown Montreal flagship had been a symbol of anglophone 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 salesclerks refused to offer service in French.

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

Even after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the ban and the Quebec government amended the law to require “predominantly French” signage, Eaton’s never reverted to its English nameplate. In Quebec, it remained Eaton until the chain went bankrupt in 1999, proving 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 brought similar lessons for businesses that try to resist government diktats on language. Outside of a few remaining English enclaves in the province, protesting rules that require them to operate and communicate with customers in French can backfire badly on businesses. The costs of complying are lower than the cost – in a tarnished public image – of complaining too loudly.

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

Until now, “recognized” 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 just as much in Quebec as elsewhere in Canada.

Under Bill 96, only “registered” English trademarks will be allowed, and they will have to be accompanied by a “markedly predominant” generic descriptor 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 bigger lettering than the store’s trademarked name.

Canadian Tire did not respond to a request for a comment on the new rules, which are set 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.

“Businesses that wish to continue to do business in Quebec will have to incur additional costs to do so,” warned Jenny Simmons, the INTA government relations director, in a recent Globe and Mail op-ed. “To be sure, some businesses and brands have elected to translate their names, which is their choice. But this is a choice companies should be able to make of their own volition.”

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 many Irish pubs, and it would border on the ridiculous to force them to either trademark their names or translate them into French. Besides, 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.

Still, plenty of 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 handsomely.

The reverse is also true. In 2007, a raft of bad publicity forced Imperial Oil to abandon its plan to convert convenience stores at its 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.)

Indeed, Quebec-savvy businesses know the way to francophone hearts – and wallets.

That’s why Shoppers Drug Mart is known as Pharmaprix in 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 Gros.

Loblaw stopped using its own name on 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.

Bill 96 hold-outs, beware: Francophone Quebeckers are bound to remember who values their business.

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