Big-box stores may close over language threat: Expert

Walmart in Montreal, Que., Monday, Oct. 15, 2012. (SEBASTIAN ST-JEAN/QMI AGENCY)

Walmart in Montreal, Que., Monday, Oct. 15, 2012. (SEBASTIAN ST-JEAN/QMI AGENCY)

Brian Daly, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:45 AM ET

MONTREAL – Big American retailers might simply pull out of Quebec if the province insists on making them add French to their global trademarks, says a marketing expert.

Six big-box stores have sued the province, which wants the stores to add French words to their outdoor signs to comply with the Quebec's language laws.

The lawsuit, filed on Oct. 9, will be heard by a Superior Court judge.

The Office Quebecois de la langue francaise (OQLF) is threatening to revoke the francization certificates of Walmart, Best Buy, Old Navy, Guess, Gap and Costco.

The certificates say businesses are operating according to language laws.

Without them, chains won’t be able to receive subsidies or contracts from the province.

Ken Wong, who teaches marketing at Queens University, said Quebec is playing a dangerous game if it thinks multinationals are too rooted to pull out over the flap.

“Their business model depends on standardization and scale, none of which are possible under this (threat),” Wong told QMI Agency.

“They have spent hundreds of millions on brand identity and now lose that within Quebec. It could be that they’d be better off not operating in Quebec if the cost is a loss of their fundamental business model.”

The six retail giants operate 152 stores in Quebec, employing thousands of people. Walmart is the largest operator with 55 stores.

The company has already shown its willingness to drop the hammer in the face of Quebec regulations. The American retailer shut down its store in Saguenay, Que., in 2005 after 190 employees got their union cards. All of the employees were left without jobs.

In the '90s, Blockbuster Video threatened to pull out of Quebec when the previous Parti Quebecois government requested the American chain adopt a French name.

The language case could become a major crisis if big-box stores make similar threats this time around. Quebec politicians were silent on the matter Monday.

No one in the PQ government would talk about the case, the OQLF had no comment and federal NDP MPs had little to say despite holding 58 of Quebec’s 75 seats.

Alberta Conservative MP Rob Anders said the language police could be shooting themselves in the foot.

“I’ve always felt the language police (were) the most effective tool to chase out business and investment that I have ever run across,” he said in Ottawa. “That’s not what we need in an economic recession.”


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