Several major retailers are taking the Quebec government to court over the provincial language watchdog's insistence they modify their commercial brand names to include some French.
The retailers include some of the biggest brand names in North America: Walmart, Best Buy and Costco. Their lawyers are expected in Quebec Superior Court on Thursday.
Quebec's language watchdog, The Office Quebecois de la Langue Francaise, wants the retailers to change their signs to either give themselves a generic French name or add a slogan or explanation that reflects what it is they're selling.
The changes are outlined on a website run by the language agency that gives businesses options on how to change their names. For example, Walmart, a household name on the retail scene that doesn't really have a French equivalent, could change its signs to "Le Magasin Walmart."
But retailers say the language laws have not formally been changed and they will ask the courts to decide whether the language office has the right to make new demands.
According to Section 63 of Quebec's French Language Charter, the name of a business must be in French. But it hasn't generally been applied to trademarked names.
So some companies have taken steps to change their name, like Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is known in Quebec as "Poulet Frit Kentucky." But others, like Walmart and Best Buy, have set up shop under the same name that appears elsewhere in the world.
Nathalie St-Pierre, vice-president for the Retail Council of Canada's Quebec branch says the province wants to change the rules without having modified the law.
The six companies taking legal action include Walmart, Costco, Best Buy, Gap, Old Navy and Guess. They are represented by two law firms.
St-Pierre says all have complied with the rest of Quebec's language requirements for many years. She says they're now being forced to comply with a new interpretation of an old law.
And she questions the point of the whole battle.
"You know the brand, you know the colours, you know the sign," St-Pierre said of the famous company logos.
"That's the work that's done behind setting up a trademark and there are brands that stand on their own and need no description."
The legal battle comes as the minority Parti Quebecois government does hope to tighten the province's language law and expand the use of French at work.
The government is expected to seek new restrictions on who can attend English-language junior colleges, and also extend the language law to smaller businesses.
Some companies have voluntarily changed their signs. After a series of fire-bombings, Second Cup coffee shops added the words "les cafes" to their signs. Starbucks in Quebec is known as Cafe Starbucks Coffee. And KFC is "PFK" in Quebec.
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