A US company says it will stop shipping products to Quebec due to the new language law

Quebecers wanting to purchase products like iPhone cases from OtterBox will have to find another way besides ordering directly from the company’s website.

In a message at the top of the OtterBox homepage, the Colorado-based supplement manufacturer says, “Due to Bill 96 French language requirements, we have temporarily suspended shipments to Quebec, Canada.”

When users click a link for more information, they are taken to a page where the company explains that the move is because Bill 96, which became legal on June 1, “requires French language support across all sales and marketing touch points.”

It adds that it is working to comply with the law so it can resume shipments “as soon as possible” and that consumers can still buy its products from retailers such as Staples, Amazon and the Apple Store, as well as through mobile phone providers such as Rogers and Telus.

Kiana Noonan, a spokeswoman for Otter Products, said the company’s Canadian legal counsel has recommended suspending all shipments from the website to Quebec consumers while the new legislation is being evaluated.

“We are working hard to implement solutions that will allow us to resume shipping directly to consumers in Quebec again,” Noonan said in an email. “In the meantime, we recommend consumers to find OtterBox products at Quebec retailers.”

US-based Otterbox has halted shipments to Quebec due to the province’s new language law. (CBC)

The law opens a window for consumers to sue companies

Bell 96, officially titled The law respects French, the official and lingua franca of Quebecamends several provincial legislation, including the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) and affirms that “the only official language in Quebec is French”.

It was introduced by the CAQ government to enhance protection for French and affects many aspects of life in the province including health care, education, immigration and business. It was adopted by the National Assembly in May and provisions relating to retailers serving customers in French came into force on 1 June.

Under Law 101, retailers doing business in Quebec, including those operating online, were required to provide websites in French, but consumers who felt their language rights were being violated limited themselves to filing a complaint with Office québécois de la langue française.

However, under Law 96, consumers can file a lawsuit directly with the company for an injunction or potentially sue for damages if they feel their language rights have been violated.

Corporate hedging against legal risks

“It’s really this innovation, if you will … that is causing a lot of companies to re-evaluate the risks of doing business in Quebec,” said Alexandre Fallon, partner at the law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt.

Fallon says revamping the company’s operations to be compliant, including developing a French equivalent of its e-commerce site and offering customer support in French, isn’t worth it for some companies.

“Unfortunately, Quebec is not the largest market in the world, so the cost of developing a French solution in their entirety, this is a very expensive proposition,” he said.

Fallon says a consumer can sue in Quebec even if the company has no establishment in the province, but noted that any judgment of a Quebec court must be recognized in the defendant’s jurisdiction to be enforced.

He said that while that likely wouldn’t be worth it for a single consumer, it could be more likely if a class action lawsuit was filed against a company.

Under Law 96, consumers can file a lawsuit directly with the company for an injunction or sue for damages if they feel their language rights have been violated. (Sylvain Roy Russell/CBC)

Potential opportunity for Quebec companies

Phil Kyprianou, president of Hubbvee Agency, which works with companies to build or expand their e-commerce operations, says his customers in Quebec have not been affected by Bill 96 and that the biggest problem is with those outside the province who want to enter the market.

“You will definitely need to translate your website but also to provide full quality customer service in French as well, which is not always easy,” he said, especially for small businesses. Kyprianou said the cost of a customer service agent can run into more than $50,000 a year.

But Kyprianou feels it is important that customers are served the way they want them to, and what a drawback for businesses outside the province could be a boon for Quebec companies already operating in French.

“We’ve seen it in the past where a big company decided not to go ahead in the Quebec market even if they had more attractive products, and we’ve seen other companies take their place,” he said.

The minister’s office stands behind the law

The CBC contacted the office of the Quebec Minister of Justice and the minister responsible for the French language, Simon-Jolin Barrett, who introduced the Bill 96.

It declined an interview request but issued a statement saying that “Quebecers have the right to receive their services and to be informed in their French language” since 1977.

The statement goes on to say that many international companies do business in Quebec and respect the requirements of the French language charter and that “serving Quebec customers in the official and common language can only be beneficial to companies that want to develop a market in Quebec.”

It also says that OQLF exists to accompany companies in their franchising efforts.

Bill 96 arguably includes the use of a nonetheless clause to protect the law from legal challenges that might argue that it contravenes the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter, although at least one case Challenge specific provisions of the law before the courts.

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