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Shoppers at the grand opening of Best Buy in Montreal in this May 20, 2005, file photo. BestBuy is one of several retailers being represented by the Quebec chapter of the Retail Council of Canada in a fight over the province’s language laws.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Some major North American retailers are up in arms over what they say are unfair demands by Quebec's language guardians to add French to their brand names.

The Quebec chapter of the Retail Council of Canada is going to court to challenge the province's French-language protection agency – Office québécois de la langue française – over the way it has been interpreting and applying the law.

The council is taking action in Quebec Superior Court on behalf of six well-known companies: Best Buy Canada, Costco Wholesale Canada, Gap Canada, Old Navy, Guess Canada and Wal-mart Canada.

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The retailers argue that they have been under pressure to modify their commercial street signage in arbitrary fashion.

They are asking the court to rule on what the law – Bill 101, the French-language Charter – does and does not allow the agency to do, contending that it has been requiring adjustments on a case-by-case basis rather than in uniform fashion.

"How can the office now be using a new interpretation to require things that have not been required over the past 35 years?" said Nathalie St-Pierre, who is the Retail Council's vice-president for Quebec.

She said the agency has been making its new demands – which include the threat of fines of between $1,500 and $20,000 for a first offence – since a campaign it launched last year urging large companies with names protected by trademark to add a "descriptive term" in French to their name.

'We tried discussing this with them but they refused, instead asking for companies to draw up remediation plans and sending out warning letters," said Ms. St-Pierre.

She said some companies are being asked to do more than others, such as changing indoor signage as well as outdoor signs or adding French to the identification on shopping bags.

Ms. St-Pierre  said companies using their trademark name on storefront signs have for years not been compelled to add French words because a trademark is not technically a business name and only business names are required to be in French.

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The Office has in the past accepted the exemption of trademark names from the requirement to use French, she said.

However, the Office has insisted that a section of the regulations does in fact call for companies using their trademark on storefront signs to add a "generic" or "descriptive term" in French.

For example, "Magasins Wal-mart."

Office spokesman Martin Bergeron said he can't comment on the issue because the matter is before the courts.

The fuss over commercial signs in Quebec – which flares up every few years – reflects the tension in Montreal, in particular, as a result of efforts by Quebec to maintain a French face in the province's biggest and most cosmopolitan city.

The first court appearance is scheduled for Nov. 22.

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