The SAQ has quietly added more English to signs at dozens of its outlets across the province, in an effort to better respond to its anglophone clientele.

The liquor board’s exchange and refund policy, an ad promoting its customer satisfaction surveys, and pamphlets with recipes for cocktails can now be found in English at 70 stores in and around the Montreal area, stretching from the West Island to the Eastern Townships.

The SAQ selected strategic locations with sizable English-speaking communities, or a heavy presence of tourists.

“We’ve evolved (in) the way we’re speaking to our customers,” said Anne-Sophie Hamel-Longtin, the SAQ’s director of public affairs.

The first changes were rolled out last September. Hamel-Longtin told CTV News the SAQ routinely makes adjustments based on customer service surveys and in-store feedback from clients.

“We have different ways of knowing how our clients feel and how they want to be treated in our stores and we always try to adjust accordingly, so that’s what we did and it’s something that we’ve been doing for years,” said Hamel-Longtin.

French is predominant in the SAQ’s bilingual signage, in order to respect Quebec language laws. Hamel-Longtin said the changes conform to the regulations outlined by the Office québécois de la langue française.

Activists pushed for changes

The news came as a welcome surprise to Murray Levine, a Dorval resident, who began lobbying the SAQ for bilingual signage last April along with fellow activists Gary Shapiro and Harold Staviss.

For Levine, it’s a question of courtesy.

“I figured that it’s a polite thing to do. I was aware that the LCBOs in Ontario had bilingual signs at locations where 10 per cent of locals are francophones,” said Levine, adding that he felt Quebec should move in the same direction to better serve its English-speaking SAQ customers.

Shapiro recently reached out to Gregory Kelley, the Couillard government’s newly-named anglophone affairs liaison officer. Within weeks, Kelley responded confirming the SAQ had made adjustments, after reaching out to the liquor board as a follow-up to Levine’s request.

“I was happy, but again I would say that it's too little,” Levine told CTV News.

Political reaction

Carlos Leitao, the minister responsible for the SAQ and the MNA for the West Island riding of Robert-Baldwin, said he respects the liquor board’s decision.

“Good service means many things, including the ability to communicate properly with its clients,” Leitao said.

“I am reassured by the fact that the SAQ is flexible enough to be able to adopt different procedures in different areas of the greater Montreal area to better serve the population.”

He added that this should be considered a customer service issue, and not a political one.

“It's in the best commercial interests of the corporation to be able to offer a good service, and an issue like this, in my opinion, should not be politicized,” said Leitao.

But for the Parti Quebecois, the changes are troubling and inappropriate in a province where the official language is French.

After learning of the changes from CTV News, Andre Villeneuve, the opposition critic for the SAQ, said a Quebec crown corporation should not be making language adjustments based on regional differences.

“It’s unacceptable,” said Villeneuve. “It's not uniform across the province. Why are there two sets of rules?”

Villeneuve added that he would be following up on the issue.

“French is the common language in Quebec and when we relax the rules, we see things like this,” he said.