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Quebecers warned that new language rules could lead to fewer products, higher prices

People take part in a rally to protest Bill 96 in Montreal on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes) People take part in a rally to protest Bill 96 in Montreal on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

Popular consumer products risk disappearing from stores across Quebec — and those that remain could be more expensive — because of the province's French-language reform, says an association that represents thousands of foreign businesses.

The costs and inconveniences around the application of draft regulations could push certain manufacturers out of the Quebec market, said Etienne Sanz de Acedo, CEO of the International Trademark Association.

"Companies will have to ask themselves the question, is it really relevant to be in the Quebec market," said Sanz de Acedo, whose group represents 6,500 companies across 181 jurisdictions.

Some firms, he added, might decide they're better off pulling their products from the province, leaving consumers with less choice.

If there are fewer products on the market, consumers will lose out, he said, because "that means certain companies will have more opportunity to raise their prices, because if there is less choice, the prices are higher."

The draft regulations are a result of Quebec's language reform, known as Bill 96, adopted in May 2022, which strengthens French-language requirements across many sectors of Quebec's economy.

Sanz de Acedo said his association is "concerned" about several aspects of the proposed rules, including the requirement that words engraved on products must be translated into French.

In its brief to the government, the association uses the example of the interior drawer of a washing machine, where the various compartments are engraved in English for such things as detergents and softeners. Translating these markings, Sanz de Acedo said, are more complex than translating a user manual.

"Manufacturers would have to change their manufacturing moulds," he said. "If a manufacturer has to change its manufacturing method exclusively for the Quebec market, that would entail considerable costs for a company."

Sanz de Acedo said the companies he represents are also concerned about the obligation to translate descriptions on product packaging that are part of a registered trademark, and about the costs and deadlines associated with applying rules on commercial signage.

Businesses with storefronts in Quebec have until June 1, 2025, to ensure French occupies a space on signage that is "twice as large" as another language, according to a draft regulation published on Jan. 10.

Sanz de Acedo stressed that he supports the principle of protecting the French language.

"I'm French," he said. "I will always defend the interests of the French language."

However, he said the proposed rules could violate Canadian intellectual property law and World Trade Organization agreements signed by Canada, namely the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade and the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

He also said the language reform "raises serious questions" about the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement.

Sanz de Acedo's association is not alone in its reservations.

In January, U.S. President Joe Biden's administration expressed concerns about "the potential consequences on American businesses" of the draft regulation as part of a meeting between senior officials from the United States and Canada.

Last week, Jean-François Roberge, the minister responsible for the French language, told reporters that the government is taking all the comments about its proposed rules into consideration "so that the regulations are properly applied."

"Ideally, all the services that are currently available remain available," he said.

However, Roberge added Quebecers have the right to be served in French, to have consumer products labelled in French so that Quebecers can understand what they are buying and to know what is inside products.

"I don't think that is negotiable," he said.

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2024. Top Stories

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