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Montreal sign war hinges on whether 'import' is a French word

Elie Bendavid, president of Kif-Kif Import, sits outside his storefront on Nov. 29.

christinne muschi The Globe and Mail

It is a modest sign hanging outside an equally modest fair-trade furniture store in Montreal, yet it has become a matter of great import to Quebec's language guardians.

Kif-Kif Import, a family-run business that sells furniture and decor knick-knacks from around the world, has run afoul of Quebec's French-language protection agency over its sign. The problem is not so much with Kif-Kif. It's the word "import," which officials from the Office québécois de la langue française insist is not French.

And that, storeowner Elie Bendavid says, is simply off-base.

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Mr. Bendavid's store on Montreal's bustling Mont Royal Avenue sits next to a Subway restaurant and kitty corner from a Canada Trust, which both affix their English names in large letters on their signs. His establishment is a negligible player in a city whose commercial landscape is dominated by chains like Best Buy, Banana Republic, Home Depot, American Eagle Outfitters – and Pier 1 Imports.

Not only does Mr. Bendavid say he is being unfairly targeted, but he consulted a linguist who insists that the word "import" is, in fact, French; it's in the dictionary.

"I believe the Office didn't do its homework," said Mr. Bendavid, whose mother tongue is French, and who teaches at the French-language Université du Québec à Montréal.

The Office says otherwise. It says that while "import-export" is an acceptable term in French, alone the proper word is "importation," and "import" is English. And it has given Mr. Bendavid until Dec. 1 – Thursday – to initiate changes to his sign or face the legal consequences. Fines can reach from $1,500 to $20,000 for a first offence.

"I support the spirit of the law, but the way they're applying it makes me ill-at-ease," Mr. Bendavid said about Bill 101, the French-language Charter. He is disregarding Thursday's deadline. "I feel I have the duty to speak out."

The set-to between Mr. Bendavid and the Office underscores the continuing struggles and everyday skirmishes that characterize Quebec's effort to maintain a French face in its largest and most cosmopolitan city. Increasingly, malls and main streets are filled with the same global brands found in cities the world over. (And a look at the crammed parking lots outside stores like Winners and Costco Wholesale suggests that many Quebeckers are prepared to overlook English signs to go shopping).

The proliferation of such signage prompted the Office to launch a campaign this month urging large companies, whose names are protected by trademark, to add a "descriptive term" in French to their name. In other words, instead of Second Cup, Les Cafés Second Cup.

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But the Office says it's relying on persuasion and wants to avoid penalties. That's no consolation for small business owners such as Mr. Bendavid, who got a visit from a camera-toting language inspector after an anonymous public complaint.

He seems to have support. Jean-Luc Mongrain, a TV host and popular Quebec media personality, recently featured Mr. Bendavid's case and seemed incredulous that he was being pursued by language officials.

"They're harassing little guys who are trying to pay their taxes and earn a living, while multinationals aren't being hit," he said on his afternoon talk show on the TVA network. "Do you really think that applying the French-language charter this way helps our cause?"

Mr. Bendavid has his doubts. He immigrated to Quebec from his native Morocco because he was drawn "to this island of French in North America." He hangs a Quebec flag inside his store and speaks to his four children in French. His manager, Florian Authier, is from France. French is present throughout the store, where Mr. Bendavid sells such items as cotton curtains from India, lamps from Morocco, and Buddha statues from Indonesia.

"I want to settle this, and not go to court," he said Wednesday. "It's a question of justice."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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