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Proposed Quebec language rules will lead to fewer products, higher prices: lawyer

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Proposed Quebec regulations that would require more French markings on consumer products will lead to fewer choices and higher costs for things such as home appliances, according to an industry group and a Montreal lawyer.

Under existing law, permanent markings -- such as those that are engraved, embossed or welded -- are permitted to be in a language other than French unless they are related to product safety. But draft regulations released last month would end that exception and require French markings if they're "necessary for the use of the product."

That means on and off labels, hot and cold settings, or the various spin cycles on a washing machine, for example, would have to be labelled in French, said Eliane Ellbogen, a Montreal-based intellectual property lawyer with law firm Fasken.

Some of her clients, she said in an interview Monday, say they have no other choice but to leave the Quebec market "because it will be impossible to comply with these new provisions."

"This means that many different types of consumer goods may no longer be available in Quebec and, ultimately, it's the Quebec consumer who is going to pay the price with product shortages, service delays, delivery delays, higher prices, less competition on the market."

While manufacturers generally put safety warnings on products in multiple languages, other markings are often only in English, she said.

One "extremely concerning" aspect of the regulations, Ellbogen said, is that they would come into effect 15 days after the rules are adopted, with no grace period. That short timeline offers manufacturers little warning before they have to comply, she said, adding the regulations could be adopted in a few months to a year from now.

"Product manufacturers are telling us that this requirement is essentially impossible to comply with, especially in the short timeline that would be required by the draft regulation," she said.

In a written submission during public consultations on the draft regulations, Meagan Hatch, vice-president and managing director of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers Canada, said a survey of her group's members indicated that around 90 per cent of models in the Quebec marketwould not comply with the new rules.

"An overwhelming majority of respondents indicated they would be forced to discontinue selling their products in Quebec. For many, the discontinuation would be permanent," said Hatch, whose association is composed of companies that produce 90 per cent of the appliances shipped for sale in Canada.

With Quebec accounting for around two per cent of the North American appliance market, reworking production lines "is not feasible," Hatch said in her submission to the government.

In an emailed statement, Hatch said the appliance industry has a strong commitment to the French language, adding that all product literature is available in French.

"If the proposed regulation is passed in its current form, the vast majority of appliances will no longer be compliant in Quebec. These appliances cannot be easily adapted or replaced by others. We urge the government to show flexibility and to work with the industry," she said.

A spokesman for Quebec's French Language Minister Jean-Francois Roberge, said the province's language watchdog, the Office quebecois de la langue francaise, has documented a drop in the percentage of large appliances with French markings, from around 80 per cent in 1977 to less than one per cent in 2021.

In other countries, such as Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal and Poland, appliances are sold with markings in the local language, Thomas Verville wrote.

"The French-speaking world represents more than 320 million people. What's more, Quebec is an advanced society and a large, lucrative market. If some companies don't want to do business in Quebec to avoid translating the indications on their products, if they refuse to speak to Quebecers in French, we're convince that their competitors will take advantage of these opportunities to the benefit of Quebecers," Roberge said an emailed statement.

The government has suggested that manufacturers could use stickers to cover English markings with French ones.

But the home appliance manufacturers association says stickers can't be placed on touch screens or over markings on buttons. As well, stickers could pose a safety hazard if they're near heat sources.

Other business groups have also expressed concern about the proposed rules. The Conseil du patronat du Quebec said Friday that it worries the regulations will push Quebecers away from buying at local brick-and-mortar retailers and toward online stores that sell products destined for other markets.

- This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2024.

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