American company says it will stop shipping products to Quebec over new language law

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

In a message at the top of OtterBox’s home page, the Colorado-based accessory manufacturer says, that “due to the 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 that the move is because Bill 96, which became law on June 1, “requires French language support across all sales and marketing touch points.”

It adds that it’s 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 like Staples, Amazon and the Apple Store, as well as through mobile phone providers like Rogers and Telus.

Kianna Noonan, a spokesperson for Otter Products, said the company’s Canadian legal counsel recommended that all shipments from the website to Quebec consumers be suspended while the new legislation is assessed.

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

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US-based Otterbox has stopped shipments to Quebec because of the province’s new language law. (CBC)

Law opens window for consumers to sue companies

Bill 96, officially titled An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Quebecamends several pieces of provincial legislation, including the Charter of the French Language (Bill 101) and affirms “that the only official language of Québec is French.”

The CAQ government introduced it to beef up protections for French and it 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 the provision about retailers serving customers in French came into effect 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 were infringed upon were limited to making a complaint to the Office québécois de la langue française.

Under Bill 96, however, consumers can directly take a company to court to get an injunction or potentially sue for damages if they feel their language rights are being violated.

Companies hedging against legal risk

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

Fallon says revamping a firm’s operations to be compliant, which includes developing an equivalent French version of their e-commerce site and providing French-language customer support, is just not worth it for some companies.

“Unfortunately, Quebec is not the biggest market in the world so the cost of developing a French solution across the entirety of their operation, that’s quite an expensive proposition,” he said.

Fallon says a consumer can sue in Quebec even if the company does not have an establishment in the province but noted that any judgment handed down by a Quebec court would have to be recognized in the defendant’s jurisdiction to be enforced.

He said while that would likely not be worth it for a single consumer, it could be more possible if a class-action lawsuit is brought against a company.

Under Bill 96, consumers can directly take a company to court to get an injunction or potentially sue for damages if they feel their language rights are being violated. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/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 Quebec-based clients haven’t been that affected by Bill 96 and the biggest issue is for those outside the province that want to enter the market.

“You will need for sure to translate your website but also to offer a full quality customer service in French as well, which is not always easy,” especially for smaller firms, he said. The cost of a customer service agent can run over $50,000 annually, Kyprianou said.

But Kyprianou does feel it’s important for customers to be served in the manner they want, and what’s a barrier for firms outside the province could be a boon for Quebec companies that already operate in French.

“We’ve seen that in the past where a big corporation decided not to move forward in the Quebec market even if they had more appealing products,” he said, “And we’ve seen other businesses taking their place.”

Minister’s office stands behind law

CBC contacted the office of Quebec’s justice minister and minister responsible for the French language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, who introduced Bill 96.

It turned down an interview request but issued a statement saying “Quebecers have the right to be served and informed in their language, French,” since 1977.

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

It also says the OQLF is there to accompany businesses in their francization efforts.

Bill 96 controversially includes the use of the notwithstanding clause to shield the law from legal challenges that could argue it contravenes the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter, although at least one case challenging specific provisions of the law is before the courts.

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