Quebecers wanting to buy products like OtterBox’s iPhone cases will have to find a way other than ordering directly from the company’s website.
In a post at the top of OtterBox’s homepage, the Colorado-based accessory maker states that “Due to French language requirements of Bill 96, we have temporarily suspended shipments to Quebec, Canada”.
When users click on a link for more information, they’re taken to a page where the company explains the decision is being made because Bill 96, which went into effect June 1, “requires support in French on all sales and marketing contact points”.
He adds that he is working to comply with the law so that he can resume shipments “as soon as possible” and that consumers can still buy his products from retailers like Staples, Amazon and the Apple Store, as well as through through mobile phone providers like Rogers and Telus.
Kianna Noonan, a spokesperson for Otter Products, said the company’s Canadian legal counsel had recommended that all shipments of the website to Quebec consumers be suspended while the new legislation is evaluated.
“We are working hard to put solutions in place that would allow us to resume shipping directly to consumers in Quebec,” Noonan said in an email. “In the meantime, we recommend that consumers find OtterBox products at Quebec-based retailers.”
Law opens window for consumers to sue companies
Bill 96, officially titled Act respecting French, official and common language of Quebecmodifies several provincial laws, including the Charter of the French language (Bill 101) and affirms “that the only official language of Quebec is French”.
The CAQ government introduced it to strengthen protections for French, and it affects many aspects of life in the province, including health care, education, immigration, and business. It was passed by the National Assembly in May and the provision for retailers serving customers in French came into force on June 1.
Under Bill 101, retailers doing business in Quebec, including those operating online, had to provide websites in French, but consumers who felt their language rights had been violated were limited to filing a complaint with the Quebec office of the French language.
Under Bill 96, however, consumers can directly sue a company for an injunction or possibly sue for damages if they believe their language rights are being violated.
Companies covering themselves against legal risk
“It’s really this innovation, if you will…that is causing a lot of companies to reassess the risk of doing business in Quebec,” said Alexandre Fallon, partner at business law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt.
Fallon says that reorganizing a company’s operations to be compliant, which includes developing an equivalent French version of its e-commerce site and providing customer support in French, is not worth it. just not worth it for some companies.
“Unfortunately, Quebec is not the largest market in the world, so the cost of developing a French solution across all of their operations, that’s a pretty 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 rendered by a Quebec court would have to be recognized in the defendant’s jurisdiction to be enforced.
He said while it probably wouldn’t be worth it for a single consumer, it might be more possible if a class action lawsuit were filed against a company.
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 Quebec-based clients have not been impacted by Bill 96 and the biggest problem is those from out of province who want to enter the market.
“You’ll definitely need to translate your website, but also provide quality full customer service in French as well, which isn’t always easy,” especially for small businesses, he said. The cost of a customer service agent can exceed $50,000 a year, Kyprianou said.
But Kyprianou believes it’s important that customers are served the way they want, and what’s a barrier for businesses outside the province could be a boon for Quebec businesses that already operate in French.
“We’ve seen this in the past where a big company decided not to move forward in the Quebec market even though they had more attractive products,” he said. “And we’ve seen other companies take their place.”
The minister’s office supports the law
CBC contacted the office of Quebec’s Minister of Justice and Minister responsible for the French language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, who tabled Bill 96.
He declined an interview request but released a statement saying “Quebecers have the right to be served and informed in their language, French,” since 1977.
The press release goes on to say that many international companies do business in Quebec and respect the requirements of the Charter of the French language and that “serving Quebec customers in the official and common language can only be beneficial for companies that want to develop a market in Quebec. “
She also specifies that the OQLF is there to support businesses in their francization process.
Bill 96 controversially includes the use of the notwithstanding clause to protect the law from legal challenges that might argue that it violates the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter, although that at least a case challenging specific provisions of the law is before the courts.