C’est vrai: Québec government to continue seeking use of French on store signage

The Canadian media, including the CBC, is reporting that the Québec government intends to continue its fight to require the use of French on signage where trade-marks and business names are otherwise displayed in English.

This is the latest development in a dispute that has gone on for a number of years.  As previously discussed in our post from November 23, 2012, a number of well-known retailers took the Québec government’s French language watchdog, the Office québécois de la langue française (“OQLF”), to Court over a requirement that all retailers must use either a generic French descriptive word or a French language slogan or explanation to reflect what they are selling, if their signage features an English language trade-mark – even if such trade-mark is registered under the Federal Trade-marks Act.

The retailers, which included multinational heavyweights such as WALMART, COSTCO and BEST BUY, were successful both before the Québec Superior Court and, more recently in April 2015, before the Québec Court of Appeal.  The Courts confirmed that the display of English language trade-marks on exterior store signage, without additional French descriptive language, did not violate Québec’s Charter of the French Language (the “Charter”), as retailers in Québec are entitled to post their trade-marks as is – i.e., in English – on the storefronts of their establishments, because of exceptions built into the Charter.

The retailers were therefore granted the declaratory judgment they requested against the OQLF.  The Québec government has until June 26, 2015 to file for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, although the CBC reports that the government will not seek such leave.

In the meantime, the Québec government has decided to approach the issue from a matter of legislative change.  Framing the issue as a matter of “politeness” and awareness of the French language, the government will propose legislative amendments in the fall that will “ensure a permanent and visible presence of French” on exterior storefronts.  The government is hoping to have the legislative amendments in place by 2016.

Using as an example the SECOND CUP coffee retailer, which apparently is known as “Les cafés SECOND CUP” in la belle province, Premier Philippe Couillard takes the view that while “everyone knows” they sell coffee, the fact that the company uses “les cafés” in Québec is a recognition on the part of the retailer of the existence of French in Québec.

While there will apparently be no requirement to translate English language trade-marks, there will instead be a need to add descriptive or generic language in French.  Hence, once again, the Québec government is set to challenge the resistance of companies wishing not to use French on their English language signage in that province.

The CBC reports that the Retail Council of Canada has endorsed the move; however, it remains to be seen how companies, including the aforementioned retailers, will react.

Given the history and the nature of the businesses involved, we expect that there are more chapters to come in this story.

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About the Blog

The authors of the Canadian Trademark Blog are all members of the Canadian law firm Clark Wilson LLP, based in Vancouver, Canada. Each author's practice focuses–either in whole or in substantial part–on Canadian intellectual property law. Together, they manage the trade-mark portfolios of local, national and international brand owners in nearly all industries and markets.

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