Consumers will ultimately pay the price for Quebec’s new language rules, experts say

Consumers will ultimately pay the price for Quebec’s new language rules, experts say

Quebec consumers will have fewer choices and be paying more for everything from coffee makers to washing machines if the government follows through with its revisions to the province’s French language charter.

This is according to legal and industry experts who have told CBC News that the requirements published as a draft regulation in Quebec’s Official Gazette on Jan. 10 are not economically feasible for companies big or small to comply with.

“These are requirements that are unique in the world,” said Alexandre Fallon, a lawyer who specializes in business compliance with Quebec’s Charter of the French Language.

“The calculus becomes: do I modify the design of my product and my product packaging for this relatively small market?”

The revisions to the French language charter are associated with Bill 96, designed by the Legault government to protect French. There are already concerns that the new regulations for signs could mean heavy costs to retailers. The minister in charge, Jean-François Roberge, is adamant that Quebec will go ahead with its program, despite any commercial downside.

Eliane Ellbogen, a lawyer and trademark agent, cites home appliances as an example. Typically ovens, dishwashers and refrigerators sold in Quebec have inscriptions emblazoned on them in English, but now buttons that say “bake,” “rinse” or “temperature” will need to be in French, she said.

“For certain industries, it would not be commercially viable to comply,” Ellbogen said. 

“Essentially, it would be impossible to create a separate supply chain solely for the Quebec market because that market is so small compared to the general North American or European markets.”

To top it off, there is no grace period for products with permanently embedded descriptions that are necessary for the use of the product. That means all items for sale in Quebec, online or in stores, will need to be compliant 15 days after the final regulation is published, she said. That could be anywhere from a couple months to a year from now.

Ellbogen said her Montreal law firm, Fasken, is considering challenging the draft regulation in court because it “severely restricts the way trademarks can be used on products, packaging, labelling, public signage and commercial advertising in Quebec.”

She said she has clients who are considering leaving the Quebec market altogether.

Experts agree companies will leave

When interviewed by CBC News, both Fallon and Melissa Tehrani, a partner with the international law firm Gowling WLG who specializes in advertising, marketing and regulatory compliance, said the same thing. 

Embossed words, like those found on appliances or a car’s dashboard, are currently exempt under Quebec’s language charter as long as they don’t concern safety, but that’s all going to change if the government approves this draft regulation, Tehrani  said.

“There are concerns among industry groups, particularly those in the appliance and electronics industry, that companies may withdraw from the Quebec market entirely,” said Tehrani.

WATCH | CBC breaks down new French-language regulations for signs: 

See how supersized some store signs could get under new Quebec rules

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Items as simple as home-cleaning supplies may disappear from Quebec’s shelves because the “on/off” embossed onto the spray nozzle has to be in French, she said.

And a Quebecer can’t just order these products directly from the company or through Amazon, Tehrani added, because there is a provision preventing non-compliant products from being sold online in Quebec.

Meagan Hatch, vice-president and managing director of the U.S.-based Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, said this draft regulation ensures the vast majority of appliances will no longer be compliant, and they can’t easily be adapted or replaced.

“We urge the government to show flexibility and to work with the industry,” she said.

Law covers keyboards, software, packaging    

As for products like computer keyboards, those in English can be sold only if the product is available in French as well, Fallon said. But when it comes to software, the English version must not have more features than the French version if it is to be sold in Quebec, he said.

Packaging will also need to be in French, and that may be particularly challenging for luxury brands that produce high-end boxes, bags or wrappings for their products, according to Dzaner Dzafik of ODD Consultants.

He is a Montreal freelancer who specializes in product development, manufacturing and marketing. Ensuring Quebec consumers have products in French is a good idea, he said, but it will come at a substantial cost.

The Quebec government’s amendments to the province’s French language charter cover everything from packaging and labels, to words embossed on stovetops. (Government of Quebec)

If a mascara colour is called “azure mist” and trademarked, it’s acceptable under current regulations. But the new rules require it to be translated, Dzafik said, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He cited particular concern for those goods already on the market or in retailers’ storerooms. 

Reshipping all that merchandise to the factory for relabelling and repackaging will be expensive and harmful to the environment. Small companies may go out of business, sending their merchandise to landfills, while bigger companies may ship their stock out of province, he said.

“You’re basically asking a company to relaunch its goods,” said Dzafik.

All the experts CBC News spoke to agreed that those companies that do stay in Quebec will pass costs onto the consumer. There will also be less competition, meaning prices will go up.

“As Quebec consumers, we will likely have fewer choices, fewer products on shelves, fewer services that are offered here in Quebec as a direct result of these legislative amendments,” said Ellbogen.

Because of that, Tehrani said, “ultimately, it’s the Quebec consumer who will pay a higher price whether it’s quite literally through higher prices or diminished availability.”

Language minister says goal is to strengthen French

But French Language Minister Jean-François Roberge isn’t backing down.

In a statement to CBC News, he said, “the main objective of the regulation is simple: To strengthen the French linguistic landscape of Quebec and increase the presence of French in businesses.”

The consultation period on the draft regulation ended on Feb. 24, and he said the Quebec government remained open to suggestions and concerns from businesses.

These businesses will also be supported by Quebec’s French language watchdog, the OQLF, to successfully comply with these new rules, he said.

He said there are 320 million French-speaking people worldwide and Quebec is an advanced society with a vast, lucrative market. 

“If some companies do not want to do business in Quebec to avoid translating the instructions on their products, if they refuse to address Quebecers in French, we are convinced that competitors will seize the opportunities, to the benefit of Quebecers,” Roberge said.

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