Signs of Privilege

Par Jeffery Vacante le 23 juin 2015

As the venerable Canadian department store The Bay continues the process of rebranding into Hudson’s Bay, which is part of a plan to go upscale and thus to fit a bit more comfortably into the culture of a corporate family that now includes Lord & Taylor and Saks, one wonders how this change will affect the facade of the company’s downtown Montreal store on Ste. Catherine Street. Removing the old yellow “The Bay” lettering and replacing them with the longer “Hudson’s Bay,” or more likely, “La Baie d’Hudson,” won’t be a simple matter since the old signs fit perfectly inside the arched recesses that dominate the facade of that grand old red sandstone building.

But there is something else to ponder in the lead-up to the change. The current signs appear to thumb their nose at Quebec’s language law, which prohibits the posting of signs that provide both the English and French language equal prominence. The short form of the store name appears seven times around the building, which takes up a full city block. In four of these spaces we see “La Baie,” while in the tree others we see “The Bay.” It is true that there is one more French sign than English sign. And it is true that the longer iteration of the name, “Compagnie de la Baie d’hudson,” appears twice at the front of the building. But it is also true that the English versions of “The Bay” are the same size as the French version, “La Baie.” And from certain perspectives, especially if one is looking at the building from across the intersections in front of the building, it appears that the English and French signs are right next to one another enjoying an equal degree of prominence.

One can’t help wonder how the store has gotten away with such prominent displays of English right on one of the city’s busiest shopping streets and in front of the busy Phillips Square. In fact, The Bay has long escaped the scrutiny that had been directed against Eaton’s, that other venerable and now defunct department store that sat just one block to the west of The Bay. Eaton’s had long raised the ire of certain French-Canadian nationalists who saw it as the bastion of the entrenched Anglo establishment in the city. They raged against the probably apocryphal “fat English saleslady” at Eaton’s who refused to serve them in French. In the late 1970s, Eaton’s had famously dropped the apostrophe and the “s” in its name in Quebec so as to appear less English, an act that attracted widespread derision in the city’s English-speaking community but that did little to appease its nationalist critics. And the store did little to endear itself to nationalists when, in 1982, it decided to press charges against Claude Charron, the separatist Parti Québécois cabinet minister who was caught shoplifting at the store.  

Having avoided the ire of nationalists for so long, and having outlasted the Eaton’s chain, The Bay remains in downtown Montreal projecting a very English face to the city with its three signs in English. One wonders how they could have gotten away with it.

It turns out that those signs on the building are not equal after all. If one takes into account the flow of traffic, then the French signs are actually more prominent than the English signs. Each of those French language “La Baie” signs on the store, which takes up an entire city block, faces the oncoming traffic on Ste. Catherine St., Aylmer St., de Maisonneuve Blvd., and Union St. These streets are each one-way, which means that if one approaches the building while driving in one’s car one necessarily encounters the signs reading “La Baie.” If one approaches the building on foot, on the other hand, walking on the sidewalk against the traffic, which is to say travelling west on Ste. Catherine, east on de Maisonneuve, or north on Union, then one encounters the English version of the sign: “The Bay.” In our car-centric culture, where motor vehicles are accorded more space and more prestige than pedestrians, and where pedestrians often fight for the right of way, the language of the signs on this particular department store appears to be privileging the motorist travelling along these one-way streets. The spirit of the province’s language law is thus preserved because the more prominent of the signs could be said to be the ones facing the oncoming vehicle traffic. By capitalizing on our culture’s tendency to privilege cars, this particular store has for years evaded scrutiny from nationalist critics and also lulled English-speaking customers into believing that the store was standing up for them by never having removed those English signs. Such are the ways that private companies can subtly uphold structures of power in our urban landscapes.

One wonders if the newly branded Hudson’s Bay will retain this form of linguistic subtlety when the new signs arrive. Or maybe it will decide to forgo English altogether, and in the process treat motorists and pedestrians in the same way—no matter how they approach the store.


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