Corporate bilingualism

Another interesting chapter unfolds in the language-policy domain of Canadian store sign regulation, by way of This time the regulator is small-town municipal rather than provincial, and in a different province (barely). The story is brief, so I have pasted the whole thing below, with some background notes for those of you unfamiliar with the history or the players.

Town requires bilingual signs on businesses
Last Updated Jan 13 2005 08:51 AM EST
CBC News

CLARENCE-ROCKLAND, ONT. – The City of Clarence-Rockland, just east of Ottawa, has passed a bylaw requiring all new businesses to put up signs in both official languages.

Mayor Richard Lalonde said he is following the wishes of residents of this mostly francophone community.

The city has given its bylaw enforcement officers the power to enforce the new regulation. Merchants who fail to comply can face fines of up to $5,000.

Lalonde said the new sign law is a reaction to recent events in Clarence-Rockland.

“We had a problem when Giant Tiger opened their store. They put their sign up in English, and the francophone population were quite mad at this. They requested that the sign be put in both official languages,” Lalonde said.

“When the Canadian Tire store opened, the same thing happened,” he said. “So, I didn’t want to have any future problems.”

Clarence-Rockland was declared a bilingual city since about eight years ago.

Lalonde said the bylaw stipulates that French and English get equal billing.

Existing signs are exempt.

Here’s the historical background, which I am trying to describe in as neutral terms as possible (in can be a touchy subject for people close to it). In the 1980’s the largely francophone province of Quebec passed several bills aimed at ensuring an elevated status for the use of French in business. The move had its socio-historical basis in lingering public resentment at the perceived privileges enjoyed by English and speakers of it in business and government, and the accompanying threat felt towards the maintenance of French as a living language because of this privileged status of English.

One of the regulations was that signs outside of or in the windows of stores had to be in French, or if they were bilingual, French had to be predominant in size and position. Violators were to be fined and required to comply by altering their sigs. This didn’t garner good press outside of Quebec, as other Canadians perceived an advantage to being bilingual at least for government hires. It also seemed to be harsh towards small businesses in unlingual enclaves (not just English ones either). There are recent stories of sign inspectors being escorted out of town in the largely anglophone community of Shawville, up the valley from Ottawa on the Quebec side.

In the meantime, and in some cases well in advance of this, some companies adjusted by acquiring trademarks in both languages–good PR. My all-time favourite was Poulet Frit à la Kentucky. Meanwhile, the department store Eaton’s relented to public pressure and dropped the possessive, becoming Eaton across the country (as it was probably often pronounced in Quebec anyway…there’s your phonology, phonolobloggers). What I never understood is the role that proper names play in determining what language a sign is in (as I recall, Eaton’s move was voluntary), like whether any trademark is actually exempt – this would suggest PFK was a voluntary adjustment.

Anyway, this background all applies to Quebec, which is the jurisdiction of the sign law. In the Clarence-Rockland story, the regulation is in a small Ontario town. What complicates the issue is that the “language border”, if you can call it that, is far fuzzier than the provincial one along the Ottawa Valley, where Clarence-Rockland is found. The region is peppered with villages and communities where either language could predominate. There are English towns like Shawville on the Quebec side of the river and French towns like Clarence-Rockland on the Ontario side. (In these cases, the towns are on the river, but many other examples exist away from it). That’s right, it’s gradient and not categorical.

The stores involved in the Clarence-Rockland case are both Canadian corporations, and probably should both know better. Giant Tiger is a discount chain; the one I’ve seen was like Ross upstairs and Grocery Outlet downstairs. Canadian Tire was once an automotive business that presciently foresaw the advent of box stores, and in my lifetime has always been a place to get paint and hockey equipment. Kind of like Home Depot meets Costco, but charmingly bashful. Both stores operate in Quebec and elsewhere.

What’s interesting is that Giant Tiger just goofed — they have a French trademark too, Tigre Géant, which I suppose they chose voluntarily, and which they use on signs in their Quebec locations. Had they done their homework they could have used it in Clarence-Rockland and avoided any fuss. Canadian Tire, however, does not go by Pneu Canadien in Quebec, and in fact, their French trademark is La Société Canadian Tire Limitée. So they have no French sign to put up — I guess what’s not clear in the news story above, or in the background I spell out, is whether “signs” refers to the store’s name or to other signs in the windows, like “sale” or “open” or “pull”.