MONTREAL - Decades after first seeking to ban English from storefront windows, Quebec's language inspectors will once again embark on a campaign to boost the visibility of French on commercial signs.

The campaign, which will be launched later this fall, targets large corporations looking to break into the Quebec market.

Officials fear that, if left unchecked, big-box stores and their stubbornly anglophone names will undermine Quebec's status as a francophone society.

"Because of globalization, big-box stores are coming to Quebec more and more and they are using their brand names," Louise Marchand, president of the Office quebecois de la langue francaise, told The Canadian Press.

"They want their name to be the same everywhere... but many do not conform (with the law)."

An old battleground

It is an old battleground for the Office, which was mandated to uphold Quebec's Charter of the French Language after it was passed in 1977.

In the original version of Bill 101, public signs in Quebec were to be in French only. Any left-over bilingual signs had until Sept. 1, 1981 to drop the English.

That famously made the apostrophe in Eaton's illegal.

The French-only provisions in the law were eventually struck down by the Supreme Court in 1988.

But the Quebec government opted to ignore the ruling by invoking the notwithstanding clause, igniting howls of protest from the province's anglophones.

It wasn't until 1993 that the provincial Liberal government drafted changes to the French Language Charter that brought it in line with the Supreme Court decision.

While allowing the presence of another language, the changes stipulated that French should be "markedly predominant" on commercial signs.

The Office has generally interpreted this to mean it should be twice the size of other languages.

Debate has waned in recent years

This gave rise to a caricature of the Office's inspectors as language police, patrolling Montreal's streets with rulers, ever ready to measure the comparative size of English and French letters.

They provided rich fodder for the city's anglophone satirists, and were regularly lampooned in Mordecai Richler's writings during the 1990s, when linguistic tensions were among their highest.

But fights over Bill 101 have lately revolved around education. Sign laws now barely elicit a shrug from the solitude that once resisted them so fiercely.

Those who see themselves as defenders of the French language are far less sanguine, though.

The Internet, social networking and other technological advances have prompted calls for the Office to increase its vigilance of an encroaching English.

"We are penetrated by influences everywhere... there are no longer any borders anywhere, not commercially or culturally," said Marchand.

"So it is all the more important to preserve the specific character of French."

Asked to answer some questions in English during the interview, Marchand cited her position in politely declining the request.

The Office is particularly concerned about the number of companies that have English brand names, but with no generic descriptive included in French.

She refused to single out offenders, but said one acceptable example is the Scores restaurant chain, which was allowed to keep its English brand name by including the descriptive "rotisserie" -- the French term for grill.

Another name deemed acceptable is Les Cafes Second Cup.

'We have to apply the law'

Marchand has been meeting employer associations in recent weeks as part of an effort to convince companies of the benefits of making the switch themselves.

"We think it is an asset for them to speak directly with consumers in their language," she said.

"We won't ask them to do this in two months. There will be a reasonable timeline. But we have to apply the law."

Marchand took over the Office last January and has since attempted to portray a softer, gentler side of the organization.

She said about 25 per cent of the complaints the Office receives are about signs. Only two per cent of those are forwarded to Crown prosecutors.

It is an image at odds with the caricatures of the 1990s.

"A lot of work was done so companies understand that the Office is a tool that can help them," Marchand said.

Looking back at the ruckus over signs, one observer suggests many anglophones failed to see the legislation as anything more than an unnecessary humiliation.

"They were incensed because they didn't believe that signs, and especially commercial signs, would have an impact on protecting the French language," said Mark Power, an assistant law professor at the University of Ottawa and a practising lawyer specializing in language rights.

"Commercial signs have a direct impact on one's capacity to maintain and transmit language in their culture," he added.

"That's absolutely crystal clear today among sociologists and linguists. At the time though, it clearly wasn't and I think that uncertainty fuelled people."

As for Marchand, she had a brief answer when asked if she believes the days are over when the Office's inspectors were seen as a form of secret police.

"I hope so."

A brief timeline of important events in the development of Quebec's sign laws:

  • 1977 -- Bill 101, also known as the French Language Charter, is passed by a margin of 54-32 in Quebec's legislature. It includes provisions that require all commercial signs in Quebec to be in French only.
  • 1981 -- Deadline for all signs in the province to comply with Bill 101's French-only requirement.
  • 1982 -- Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is passed.
  • 1988 -- Supreme Court of Canada decision strikes down the French-only provisions of the language charter. Quebec government invokes the notwithstanding clause.
  • 1993 -- Bill 86 is passed by Quebec's Liberal government to incorporate changes to Bill 101 mandated by the 1988 Supreme Court decision. The updated bill allows languages other than French to be included on commercial signs, but requires French to be "markedly predominant."