Quebec

The language law deletes a Claus

David Thomas December 18 1978
Quebec

The language law deletes a Claus

David Thomas December 18 1978

The language law deletes a Claus

Quebec

For the first time in 52 Christmases, Santa Claus does not hold court in Eaton’s downtown Montreal department store. Instead, the city’s youngsters whisper greedily into the ear of Père Noël. The reason: Quebec language law has plugged the chimneys to the anglo apparition of old Saint Nick and the very name of Claus is banned from commercial advertising.

Throughout the province, Christmas come-ons and toy displays are in French only, but the law, which has applied to such in-store publicity since last July, is merely part of the explanation for the new commercial face of Quebec. Well before the language legislation, canny retailers, including Eaton’s, started treating Quebec consumers as a separate market with its own tastes and penchant for things Québécois. The Toronto-based chain dropped the apostrophed “s” from its name to achieve greater French consonance, and right from its opening—a year before the

Parti Québécois election—the Quebec City Eaton was as thoroughly French as hot tourtière after midnight mass. The competing Bay chain is changing its name in Quebec to La Baie. Another familiar store logo—S.S. Kresge Company-remains unchanged, but it has long been gallicized by customers who pronounce it “Kredge,” as one syllable.

The drive to Frenchify retail practices means agreeable change for a people so used to English labelling that they long ago developed a habit of ignoring product instructions. Now, the Office de la Langue Française is cam-

paigning hard to change that habit and convince consumers to read the mode d'emploi. Surprisingly, Quebec’s anglophone minority is accepting its first Noël à la français with equanimity: Both Eaton and La Baie report only a handful of complaints from English speakers resentful that their familiar logos have gone the way of candles on Christmas trees.

Anglophones, in fact, have shown admirable acumen in turning Quebec’s nationalism to profit. Four years ago, a group of Montreal garment men saw the market potential of Quebec patrio-

tism and visions of dollar signs danced in their heads. They registered the trademark QUE Jeans and licensed out the label to Keystone Industries whose pants were down at 11th place in provincial sales. On the strength of the label’s appeal to young Quebeckers, the same jeans shot to No. 2. Company executive Herb Cobrin, hardly a rabid partisan of independence himself, is unapologetic about his use of nationalism to sell jeans: “Business is business and politics is politics.” That distinction is not as simple as Cobrin suggests. Shortly after the PQ election, sales of

QUE Jeans in English Canada were nipped by anti-Quebec backlash and the firm changed its label to Visa for nonQuebec markets.

Another anglophone firm, Labatt Breweries of London, Ontario, last month launched a new beer exclusively for the Quebec market through its Montreal subsidiary, La Brasserie Labatt Ltée. Called Cervoise, the ancient Gallic word for beer, the new ale would have scant success in English Canada but not only because of its name. Most English-Canadian drinkers prefer lager-type beers while a full 95 per cent of

beer sold in Quebec is ale—an ironic legacy of the English and Irish brewers who dominated Quebec brewing while German immigrants and their favored lagers held sway in the rest of North America.

But most curious of all are the separate marketing strategies devised by the French auto maker, Renault, which in English markets calls its sub-compact model Le Car. In Quebec, however, such linguistic mongrelization is anathema and the vehicle retains its original European appellation, Renault 5.

David Thomas