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Retail Council of Canada presents dramatic testimony at Quebec’s Bill 14 hearings

shop assistant
A shop assistant puts sweaters on a shelf. China Photos/Getty Images

QUEBEC — You might say the familiar “Bonjour-Hi” expression used in Montreal shops and malls was on trial.

And it was the retailers association that took up the defence.

Arguing that offering service in the language of their customers is not only a matter for the Charter of the French Language but also a question of respect for the customer, the Retail Council of Canada presented dramatic testimony Tuesday to the commission examining Bill 14.

And it concluded there may not be as big a language problem in Montreal as some believe.

While the retail council says there is always room for improvement in French-language services in Montreal’s shops, the government would be wiser to find better ways to help new arrivals learn French and train language inspectors to apply the charter more intelligently and fairly.

Coming down on small retailers — studies show 96 per cent of retailers on the island are able to serve clients in French — with Bill 14 is not way to proceed despite pressure from language hawks, the retail council says.

And picking up on the “Pastagate” incidents involving restaurants, the council’s brief to the commission examining the bill bluntly says the government’s own language enforcement bureaucrats could use a tutorial, too — on how to apply the rules in an even-handed, “neutral, stable and predictable” manner.

Even the Office Québécois de la langue française’s web page offering guidelines on language for retailers have not been updated since 2002.

The solution is not to add more costly red tape to retailers’ world or transform the Office into a police force ready to undertake “inquisitions,” with cameras, the power to search and seize and send offenders directly to the courts, says the brief.

“Our members have every interest in the world in serving their clients in French everywhere in Quebec,” council vice-president Nathalie St-Pierre told the National Assembly commission examining Bill 14 Tuesday.

“But the importance of satisfying the clientele is at the heart of a shopkeeper’s trade.”

And the council — which represents 45,000 store owners in Canada, including most of the ones in Quebec employing 500,000 people — laid out the retail landscape in such stark detail and made so many suggestions to improve the legislation that the language minister congratulated them.

“I remind you this is a draft bill,” Diane De Courcy said following the presentation in reference to improvements that can be made. “I find many, many of these proposals very interesting.”

The council jammed a long list of facts in its brief, modestly titled, Bill 14 — Necessary Adjustments.

Most of its member businesses are small; 72 per cent have fewer then 10 employees, which means they have no administrators to apply complicated francization rules.

Noting the minister’s own study, which says the new rules will cost Quebec businesses $23 million more a year, it said that’s money retailers don’t have in the highly competitive retail world.

Thirty-three per cent of workers are part-timers, 32 per cent are young, often students. One out of two have no education beyond high school.

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The turnover rate in the business is 25 per cent.

And the council says Quebec’s workforce is increasingly multicultural, as retail tends to be an entry-level job for many immigrants who arrive in Quebec knowing English first.

Again, since most immigrants settle in Montreal, the city is bound to reflect that.

Recruitment remains a big obstacle. It is all well and good to ask West Island merchants to offer services in French but many can’t find the workers they need, a council official noted.

In fact, 26 per cent of Quebec’s retailers say they have trouble recruiting employees, leaving them no choice but to take on workers who may not necessarily be able to work in French.

The problem grows in the peak summer and Christmas shopping seasons.

But the council advances a notion not heard often at the commission, now into its third week of hearings.

With 33 per cent of tourist dollars coming from anglophone provinces or the United States, the use of other “complimentary languages,” appears natural and “good for business.”

Francophones too, are increasingly bilingual in a more and more open world, the brief states.

“Giving good service means people adapt to the needs of the customers and not the opposite,” the brief notes at one point.

The council then rips into the bill, describing new hardline clauses for their industry as “imperfect, costly, subject to interpretation and inefficient.”

It said the existing rules, under which the Office helps merchants make changes before taking them to court, are much more palatable. As is, many of the new clauses need to be “withdrawn or revised,” the council says.

St-Pierre mentioned in her presentation clause 151.3 of the bill, stating a retailer has to offer clients “a quality service in the official language.”

“Who will evaluate this? What will we do? Make them (an immigrant trying to integrate) pass a test?”

The brief notes that a proposed new hotline where citizens can register complaints might be used by someone to express hostility or some racial prejudice under the guise of a language beef.

But it was a heavy day for the commission. Moments later, it heard from a hardline language group — the Movement Montérégie français — which said its volunteers, cameras in hand, scoured the South Shore, uncovering 964 violations of the “letter and the spirit,” of Quebec’s sign laws.

The day opened with a respected Quebec demographer, Michel Paillé, telling MNAs he does not believe there will be an exodus of anglophones in the event the law is adopted.

“It’s not as simple as that to leave Quebec and find a new job in the other Canadian provinces,” Paillé said. “And anglophones have an attachment to the place and the community itself.”

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