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The Canadian Press

The proposed regulation on the language of commercial displays in Quebec has echoes as far as Washington. The US government shared its concerns on this matter with the federal government earlier this week.

The Biden administration expressed its concerns, Wednesday, as part of a meeting between senior officials from the two countries.

The United States has raised concerns about the trade signage provisions of Act 96 and their potential consequences for American businesses, including small and medium-sized businesses, writes the Office of the United States Trade Representative , in a brief press release summarizing the topics discussed during the meeting.

The Office did not specify what these concerns were and did not respond to our questions sent Friday morning.

Businesses with a storefront in Quebec have until June 1, 2025 for French to occupy twice as much space on their windows, according to a draft regulation published in the Official Gazette of the Government of Quebec on January 10 .

This draft regulation clarifies the application of certain provisions of Bill 14 (better known as Bill 96). It is still the subject of consultations until the end of February.

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Behind its diplomatic language, the Biden administration has just sent a signal, underlines Michel Rochette, president of the Canadian Retail Council (CCCD) for Quebec. We must understand that there is concern on the American side and we must address [sic], this fear.

The rules on commercial display raise many concerns, notes Eliane Ellbogen, intellectual property lawyer at Fasken in Montreal.

For a year and a half, we have been contacted almost every day with questions, especially the smallest and medium-sized businesses. […] We face a lot of incomprehension, honestly, and surprise, in relation to the criteria which seem extremely demanding to them.

A quote from Eliane Ellbogen, lawyer in intellectual property law

The draft regulation on commercial display could lead to significant expenses and administrative procedures for businesses that will have to change their signs, underlines Ms. Ellbogen.

For example, to do all the analysis to know whether a brand change is necessary, explains the lawyer. Should the sign be changed? In many cases, it is necessary to update the sign to ensure that the criterion of the clear predominance of French is respected.

Earlier this month, the Legault government affirmed that the majority of businesses were already compliant with the new criteria on commercial signage. Quebec estimates that the total cost of complying with the regulation will range from $7 to $15 million, for all businesses.

This estimate is however doubted by the industry. What we are told is that it can be around $50,000 to $100,000 per sign, reports Ms. Ellbogen. For a retailer with just ten branches, that could cost a million.

Moreover, Fasken is exploring the possibility of challenging provisions on commercial signage in court, says Ms. Ellbogen. The argument analyzed would be that the provisions on commercial display of Quebec law would conflict with federal trademark law and that federal law would be preponderant, in this case.

Retailers have until June 2025 to comply with the law. The industry considers the deadline very tight, underlines Mr. Rochette. If Bill 96 was adopted in 2022, the details of the draft regulation, for their part, have only been on the table for a few days.

Two years ago, it was said that they would have three years to adapt, which is not entirely correct, explains the industry's spokesperson. The countdown has already begun, but we don't yet know the rules of the game.

In the meantime, traders cannot take costly steps before having confirmation that the regulation will be adopted as is. Merchants must wait for the final version to be sure of being faithful and respecting the rules, underlines Mr. Rochette.

In Quebec, the Minister of the French Language, Jean-François Roberge, responds that French will always be vulnerable in Quebec and that intervention was necessary.

On ensures that the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) will offer quality support to businesses that have questions about Quebec language law. Our government is constantly proving that in Quebec, we can defend French and offer a welcoming environment for businesses, reacted the minister in a written statement.

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