Business groups fear new rules for French on commercial signs will be a financial burden

After spending millions adjusting their signs when the language law was last overhauled in 2019, businesses say they are again being asked to pay for alterations to make French “markedly predominant.”

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QUEBEC — Business groups say the Quebec government’s plan to tighten the rules covering the language of commercial signs will add a financial burden on companies that may not all be able to adapt in time to meet the deadline.

After spending millions adjusting their signs the last time the language law was overhauled in 2019, businesses say they are again being asked to pay for alterations — this time to ensure they conform to the new rules that state two-thirds of the visual field of their business fronts must be in French to respect Bill 96.

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Businesses will have until June 2025 to comply with the draft regulations, which were published Jan. 10 in Quebec’s Gazette Officielle by the minister of the French language, Jean-François Roberge.

A consultation process is underway. Quebecers have until the end of February to comment on the proposed rules that enact a dormant section of Bill 96, which overhauled the Charter of the French Language.

“We are worried about retailers who have already invested significant sums to respect the rules imposed in 2019 on public signs and trademarks,” the Conseil québécois du commerce de détail (CQCD), representing 5,000 Quebec retailers, said in a statement.

“The current economic context is making life difficult for our retailers. The addition of more financial investment risks is being poorly received by those targeted.”

The statement goes on to say businesses need predictability in their activities and adds that “retailers will need a reasonable period to conform” to the new rules.

The government and the CQCD have tangled in the past over language. During hearings into Bill 96 in 2021, the CQCD recommended the government stick with the status quo when it came to sign laws, a suggestion Quebec ignored.

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There is similar concern from the province’s largest employer group, the Conseil du patronat, which represents about 70,000 small and big businesses.

Conseil president Karl Blackburn said the shortage of labour and the requirement to obtain permission from municipal governments to alter a sign could make it difficult for a business to respect the June 2025 deadline.

While welcoming Roberge’s statement that the Office québécois de la langue française will guide businesses through the new rules, the Conseil “remains concerned” that the additional regulatory burden could hamper the ability of businesses to compete, or could make Quebec a less attractive place for new enterprises.

“Quebec must remain a place where it is good to do business,” Blackburn said in a statement.

Blackburn was unable to say whether the Conseil du patronat membership will want more time to apply the rules. The group will consult its members in the coming weeks to decide how to proceed, he said.

Neither group had an idea of how much it will cost them to apply the new regulations. The government estimates between $5 million and $7 million overall.

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The new regulations do away with the old rules on outdoor commercial signs, which required a “sufficient presence” of French alongside trademarks. The rules on indoor signage are not being changed.

Under the new rules, a company with a registered trademark name such as Second Cup Café or Canadian Tire will be allowed to keep their trademarks as long as they add a description or slogan in French.

The draft regulations state French must be “markedly predominant,” which means it must occupy, in one form or another, two-thirds of the facade or windows.

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“We’re going back to the global visual-impact concept,” Roberge said in an interview with the Gazette in early January.

Roberge has said most Quebec businesses already conform to the new regulations, so there should not be a problem applying the law. He says the new system simplifies rules that he concedes have been hard to understand in the past.

The OQLF estimated in a 2017 study that French was present (at least one word) in commercial signage in 94.1 per cent of cases on the island of Montreal. The level of compliance with the old law on the island was 77.5 per cent, which means 22.5 per cent of companies did not comply.

Last week, a La Presse investigation revealed an abundance of English in use in Montreal’s Quartier Latin.

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