A Quebec Superior Court justice ruled Wednesday that businesses that have storefront signs with their trademark name in a language other than French do not contravene the French Language Charter.
Several multinationals took the province to court after they were told by the language watchdog to change their names or risk running afoul of the rules governing the language of business in the province.
The Office quebecois de la langue francaise wanted the companies to change their signs to either give themselves a generic French name or add a slogan or explanation that reflected what they sold.
But the judge hearing the case ruled in favour of the major retailers — a list that included Best Buy, Costco, Gap, Old Navy, Guess, Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us and Curves.
"Public signage by the plaintiffs of their trademarks uniquely in a language other than French, when there is no French version of the trademark, does not violate the Charter of the French Language or the laws respecting the language of commerce and business," Justice Michel Yergeau wrote.
The companies operate a combined 215 outlets in the province. They had argued they complied with the language laws as they stand. They suggested the watchdog was offering a different interpretation of the laws, which had not been formally changed in years.
In 2012, the retailers sought the court's opinion as to whether the government had the right to make such a demand.
While the language law states the name of a business must be in French, it generally hasn't applied to trademark names.
The judge said it's not up to the courts to modify language rules that have remained unchanged for two decades.
Yergeau wrote that while trademarks fall under federal jurisdiction, it's up to the Quebec legislature to "take the lead" if it considers the French language is suffering because of English trademarks.
"The choice is a political function and not one of the judiciary," Yergeau wrote.
The watchdog had suggested that a store like Wal-Mart, a household name on the retail scene in Quebec with no French equivalent, could change its signage to "Le Magasin Wal-Mart."
Some companies have changed their business names here.
For example, Kentucky Fried Chicken is known in Quebec as Poulet Frit Kentucky, so KFC is commonly known here as PFK. Starbucks is known as Cafe Starbucks Coffee. And after a series of firebombings in the early 2000s, Second Cup coffee shops added the words "Les cafes" to their signs.
Yergeau wrote that nothing prevents firms from adopting a French name of their own volition.
"Many (companies) do already on a voluntary basis, while at the same time contributing to the preservation of the French language in Quebec," the judge wrote.
The issue is part of a broader battle as the provincial government constantly seeks to ensure the preservation and development of French in the province — the only place in North America where the majority speak it.
The watchdog embarked on an awareness campaign in late 2011, calling the situation involving the big stores worrisome.
They suggested coming up with a sort of descriptive slogan or line in French or using a French/English sign, with the French component being more predominant.
As the tension mounted, a French language rights group called on a boycott of the retailers in question.
Legal action was triggered after the watchdog sent letters obliging retailers to change their signs, followed by legal letters that threatened to revoke government “francization certificates” and dole out hefty fines.
Those certificates, renewed every three years, mean companies are in compliance with language rules and can benefit from certain government grants. All of the plaintiffs had received their certificates previously, with no concerns raised about their storefront signage.
In his ruling, Yergeau also said the watchdog may not suspend, revoke or refuse to renew certificates or attempt to impose any other sanction stemming from the trademarks.
Language watchdog Jean-Pierre Le Blanc said it'll be up to the attorney general's office to decide whether to challenge the ruling.
The government has 30 days to decide whether to appeal the decision.
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