Category Archives: In the news

There always has to be a first

Michelle Lang

The other day, I edited a story for Page A2 about civilians who are working in Afghanistan. It was a short but interesting story about people who work in one of the most dangerous places on Earth, and the people back home who worry about their safety. I paid little attention to the byline, one of dozens I go through during every shift.

The story was written by Michelle Lang, a reporter for the Calgary Herald who has been reporting from Afghanistan.

She’s dead now. The first Canadian journalist killed while reporting on the Afghanistan war, along with four Canadian soldiers. She was two weeks into a six-week stay stay there. She was engaged, planning to get married in June. The Herald has (lots) more.

I wish there was something more poignant and insightful I could say but “that fucking sucks.”

She was 34.

UPDATE (Dec. 31): The front page of today’s Herald:

Calgary Herald, Dec. 31, 2009

The main story is accompanied by pieces by columnists Robert Remington and Don Martin about Lang, and others about Afghanistan.

Today, city hall in Calgary lowered its flag in honour of Lang, and the names of the four soldiers who died with her have been released.

Meanwhile, I’ve seen some debate online about coverage of this journalist’s death. Some questioned a headline used at the Globe and Mail that focused on the fact she was a “bride to be”, as if we should be offended that a death is considered more tragic when the person is engaged. Others questioned the level of coverage given to this journalist, as if her death is more important than the deaths of soldiers, diplomats, aid workers or anyone else because she was a journalist.

Both are legitimate criticisms, but both are facts of life. It is more tragic because she was engaged. It is more tragic because she was a reporter. We wish it wasn’t so, but it is. It’s not fair, and it’s not balanced, but it’s true.

In any case, the Herald gets an exemption from this criticism. This was their reporter. She was part of their family.

From today’s editorial:

But forgive us if we grieve more publicly today. When it is one of your own, it makes it almost difficult to breathe. There is a huge hole in our hearts as we remember a bright face, a true friend and a fearless talent …

You’re not watching Fox

As Canadians ponder whether to create a system similar to the U.S. for negotiation between cable/satellite carriers and broadcast television stations, the U.S. system is having its own issues: Fox and Time Warner Cable are at an impasse in negotiations, and if they don’t come to an agreement before Jan. 1, the Fox-owned stations (and possibly affiliates as well) could get removed from Time Warner Cable systems.

Naturally, people down there are panicking (at least those who know about the dispute). That’s leading some to ask the obvious question: Why are we being asked to pay for something that’s free? And why are two giant megacorporations pretending that they’re on my side?

Politicians have also gotten involved. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, wrote a letter to both companies urging a negotiated settlement, saying that if Fox was removed from Time Warner Cable, television viewers would be deprived of vital news and information programming, and would lose an important connection with their local communities.

Haha, just kidding. Kerry’s only worried about BCS football games on Jan. 1, which Fox has the exclusive rights to.

UPDATE (Dec. 30): Denis McGrath gives some context on how this compares with the Canadian fee-for-carriage debate.

Journalism’s feel-good story of the year

Henry Aubin has a nice piece in Thursday’s Gazette, praising a half-dozen investigative journalists as his persons of the year for uncovering corruption scandals at city hall.

There are two things I like about this:

First, there was no single newspaper, no single journalist, no single news agency that got the scoop. These are six journalists for five different – competing news outlets in Montreal, including the three paid daily newspapers not currently in a labour conflict (as La Presse’s Marc Cassivi notes, the Journal de Montréal contributed precisely nothing). They each uncovered another facet of the story. They each tried to get that “exclusive” badge of honour, but they also worked off each other’s findings. The competition among them produced a better story as a whole.

Second, it’s a strong argument in favour of professional journalism. Note that I use the term “professional” here, not “traditional” or “old”. Only half of these journalists are print reporters, and one works exclusively for an online publication. But they’re all professional. This is their job. (Here I differ with Aubin on an issue of pure semantics: there’s nothing about a blog that makes it unprofessional other than its reputation – it all depends on who is doing the writing.)

While I still think it’s unfortunate that Montreal gets so much attention but hundreds of other cities across Quebec get little or no attention from professional journalists, I’m glad the eyes of the people are on this one, at least.

So congratulations (in alphabetical order so as not to play favourites) to Fabrice de Pierrebourg (Rue Frontenac), Marie-Maude Denis and Alain Gravel (Radio-Canada), Linda Gyulai (The Gazette), Kathleen Lévesque (Le Devoir), and André Noël (La Presse). You did good.

(And then we went ahead and re-elected Tremblay.)

Status quo at AMT

File photo of a train for illustration win!

File photo of a train for illustration win!

At midnight Friday night, CN locomotive engineers went on strike, following their 72-hour notice that sent everyone in a panic because two AMT train lines (Deux-Montagnes and Mont-Saint-Hilaire) are run by those engineers and would have been disrupted or even shut down if there was a strike.

Fortunately, late Friday night the union agreed (or was forced to through an AMT injunction) to keep service on the AMT trains running as normal through the strike.

As you can expect from the AMT’s deficient customer service, there’s no mention of this late-night, last-minute change – or even of the strike itself – on their website’s homepage, despite all the media attention it has been getting. Even under “avis aux voyageurs”, there’s no mention of the potentially crippling strike, and users get the very unhelpful “aucune information disponible” for the status of all five train lines. You have to know to go to the AMT’s corporate website to find a press release saying service won’t be affected.

Contrast that with VIA Rail, which has its own engineers and so wasn’t going to be affected in the first place. Nevertheless, there’s a section of its homepage for travel advisories, and it says very clearly that service won’t be affected by the CN strike. (VIA has some experience with this, going through a strike of its own this summer.)

At GO Transit in Toronto, it’s not as clear if there will be disruptions (and there’s nothing on the homepage), but the status page (updated regularly even on weekend afternoons) makes it clear the service is still running normally.

As for CN itself, the homepage makes it look like nothing’s wrong at first, but under “news releases” there’s mention of the strike, and the “state of the railroad” page has a few details about what’s going on.

I realize nobody likes to work weekends, and those who do can’t change the elaborate web page design that the boss’s nephew was paid lots of money to put together, but when engineers go on strike, we don’t care about your new train cars or how you’re fighting for the environment. We want to know what’s going on.

The barrier stays

The barrier segregating Montreal West from the Ville Saint Pierre district of Lachine is here to stay. The Quebec Court of Appeal this week upheld a lower court ruling that Montreal West was within its rights to setup a barrier to car traffic between the two towns. Though Montreal (which the Lachine borough is part of now) may appeal, I’d wager their chances of getting heard at the Supreme Court level are slim. If the barrier comes down, it’ll be because of a deal among neighbours, not because a hand was forced by the courts.

Montreal West argues this isn’t about building a wall between rich and poor (there’s no restriction on pedestrian travel), but the only issue is safety. I couldn’t find any evidence of a problem when I checked it out two years ago. But it seems to be enough to convince people that it’s necessary. And that’s why it’s the same argument used by other cities who erect barriers between neighbours.

Continue reading

Oh Nelly, oh Pierre

It was a double-whammy this week for ICI, or at least it would have been if that newspaper still existed.

Late Thursday came word that Nelly Arcan, née Isabelle Fortier, was found dead in her apartment, in what police are apparently treating as a suicide. On Friday evening, it was Pierre Falardeau, the “colourful” political commentator and filmmaker, this time of cancer.

Both were former ICI columnists, and both continued writing under the 24-Heures version. Falardeau stopped during his cancer fight, but Arcan’s final column was published the day after she died (it includes no mention of that, since news came out after the paper went to press).

The ICI columnist page looks more like an obituaries page now. The two main stories on 24 Heures’s homepage right now are obits for Arcan and Falardeau, though the first reads more like a police blotter.

The tributes are still pouring in.

Nelly Arcan

Nelly Arcan

For Arcan, whose death was much more surprising than Falardeau’s, there’s a level of … let’s call it discomfort. The media don’t normally report on suicides, for fear of encouraging them. But you can’t simply ignore the death of an important figure, nor can you fail to mention how they died. So here there’s no choice.

There’s also the problem of unanswered questions. We still don’t know how she decided to take her own life (everyone has that morbid curiosity, whether we like to admit it or not), and more importantly why. The first answer is known by a few, the second probably only by one, who now can no longer speak.

Nicolas Ritoux has an open, personal letter to Arcan, which gives a window into her troubled soul.

Being a public figure who has written extensively, we can also go through the media archives, looking at her interviews and her writing in a different light. P45 magazine unearths an article written by her about suicide back in 2004, though it doesn’t delve into the personal. Cyberpresse similarly collects some of her thoughts on the subject. has video of an interview with Arcan last fall, which talks about how she chose her name and her fears in life (one of which was losing her parents – ironic since those parents are now living their worst nightmare).

Cyberpresse has opened up an entire dossier on the subject.

More on Nelly Arcan from:

Pierre Falardeau

Pierre Falardeau

In Falardeau’s case, the death wasn’t so surprising. Falardeau had been fighting cancer. If obituaries hadn’t been written in advance, journalists could at least have suspected they’d soon have to write one.

Expressions of condolences are coming in from all parts, from Guy A. Lepage, Pauline Marois and others. Perhaps because more people knew him, because he made more of an impact on the lives of Quebecers. Or maybe it’s because talking about his death isn’t awkward, even for those who disagreed with everything he said.

More on Pierre Falardeau from:

UPDATE: Now talk of naming a street after him.

Also: More Gazette pieces on Falardeau and Arcan.

The Michael Jackson publicity stunt

Look, I don’t want to make it seem like I’m anti-fun or something, because I really do enjoy it when people just go out and do something silly, if only for a few minutes.

But when you have an event involving a professional dance troupe that you’ve publicized to the media, when you have dozens of journalists present, when police and a government minister are taking part, can you really call that a “flash mob“? If so, the term has lost all meaning and should cease to be used.

No wonder groups so associated with the term, like Improv Everywhere and Newmindspace, have rejected it. I think it’s time we all follow their lead if it’s going to be commercialized like this.

Call it a publicity stunt, call it a public performance, call it street art, but don’t call it a flash mob.

UPDATE (July 30): Similar thoughts from Patrick Dion, Jean-Philippe Rousseau and Le Détesteur, plus a defence from a participant.

Central Station is about to get very quiet

VIA Rail announced late Tuesday night that, because of an impending engineers strike set to begin Friday at noon, it has begun cancelling train departures. Like, all of them.

Read the rewritten press release story through your favourite corporate filter:

Note that of the above, only CBC provides a working direct link to VIA’s list of cancelled trains (PDF). Essentially, any train which does not reach its destination before the strike begins Friday at noon will either be cut short or cancelled entirely. These cancellations are happening whether or not there is actually a strike. All trains after Friday will be cancelled unless the strike is averted or ends.

Specifically, for trains in and out of Montreal, the following are the final departures that VIA is maintaining. Those booked for later trains can get full refunds or (for departures before noon only) use alternative transportation (buses) that VIA is setting up:

  • Montreal-Toronto: 6:30am Friday
  • Toronto-Montreal: All Friday departures cancelled
  • Montreal-Ottawa: All Friday departures cancelled
  • Ottawa-Montreal: 9:03am Friday
  • Montreal-Quebec: All Friday departures cancelled
  • Quebec-Montreal: 7:50am Friday
  • Montreal-Jonquière: Friday departure cancelled
  • Montreal-Senneterre: Friday departure cancelled
  • Montreal-Gaspé: Friday departure cancelled
  • Montreal-Halifax: Friday and Thursday departures cancelled
  • Halifax-Montreal: Friday departure cancelled

Note the cancellation of the Thursday evening departure from Montreal to Halifax, which would have arrived at its destination past the noon Friday deadline. Thursday’s train from Halifax to Montreal arrives Friday morning and would not be affected.

40 years ago today

The Onion: Holy Shit - Man walks on fucking moon

Oh, and I should add a link to the Bluffer’s Guide in Monday’s Gazette, courtesy of yours truly: The moon landings: fake or fact?. Choosing a news-relevant topic was enough to get my name above the fold on Page 1 (all part of my master plan).

UPDATE: This story surfaced just after I filed that one, showing that there are indeed pictures of the moon landing sites. But, of course, those are all fakes. (Thanks Ha!)

Go fuck yourself Eric Amber (UPDATED)

      The shows listed were in english and therefore so is the message.
      You obviously can't read in english because you are an
      uneducated bigot.

      estce que vous comprenez l'expression anglophone: Go Fuck Yourself?

On behalf of the local news industry, I’d like to offer my thanks to Eric Amber of Théâtre Ste. Catherine, which despite its name is an anglo venue.

You see, despite the people in space, the huge investment scandals and the giant rocks falling on people’s heads, it’s kind of a slow news period right now. Hockey is in the offseason, politicians are on vacation, and most of the people who would make serious news are instead outside enjoying the summer.

Perhaps subconsciously sensing this, Amber decided to do the following things to ensure coverage in the local media:

  • Be an asshole
  • Be an asshole on a language issue
  • Be an asshole on a language issue in writing
  • Be an asshole to someone who didn’t provoke him
  • Create a PR crisis for one of the city’s biggest festivals right in the middle of it
  • React childishly when called on about his behaviour
  • Refuse to apologize

For those who haven’t seen the news in La Presse, the Journal, Le Devoir, The Gazette and elsewhere, francophone group Les Sages Fous was receiving English-only messages on TSC’s mailing list about Zoofest shows related to the Just for Laughs festival. They sent a rather matter-of-fact email asking that they be removed from that list unless the messages are sent in French. A bit snarky, but not unreasonable. Amber responded by calling the guy an uneducated bigot and telling him to “go fuck yourself”.

Louis Préfontaine was the first to break the email on Wednesday, and it spread from there (including the requisite Facebook group). Préfontaine also has a follow-up and the raw text of the back-and-forth.

It’s happened to everyone. Maybe you’ve just been dumped, fired or made to wait on the phone with Bell to fix a billing issue. You’re frustrated and tired, and someone sends you an email that sounds snarky. It’s the last straw and you let them have it. Realizing your mistake, you later apologize.

Amber, unfortunately, didn’t do this. Instead, he told Le Devoir and the Journal about other emails he got from francophones which relentlessly attacked him. The emails weren’t from Les Sages Fous, but Amber made the mistake that far too many make in this unending language debate and painted everyone on the other solitude with the same brush, as if one is responsible for the actions of everyone who speaks the same language.

Which brings me to this: On behalf of the anglo community, go fuck yourself Eric Amber. You’re the last thing we need right now. Because those idiots who comment on Patrick Lagacé and Richard Martineau’s blogs will start painting all of us with the same brush, and that makes us responsible for your behaviour.

To bring this drama to an even higher level of absurd assholity, Amber has been sending the following message to those emailing him to condemn his comments or ask what the hell he was thinking:

Due to the overwhelming racism and bigotry in French society toward minorities and non-french cultures, Theatre Ste-Catherine will be closing in protest. Effective immediately TSC will no longer be accepting bookings and will closed permanently Dec. 21, 2009.

I’ll assume you mean francophone Quebec society and not the society of France (though you could make such an argument about racism in the motherland). But let me get this straight: you’re going to shut down the venue over this? Either TSC has been on the financial ropes for some time (which is certainly plausible) or you have the thinnest skin on the planet.

I don’t agree with some who say that TSC should be sending emails in French. I don’t see why, any more than I would see why The Gazette would advertise in French (except when it wants to, like it’s been doing the past few Sundays). But that’s irrelevant now, because you had to be an asshole.

No matter how long this goes, it’s going to end eventually by you eating a truck full of crow. Better start now before more has to be shovelled onto your plate.

Somewhat sincerely,


UPDATE: Just when you thought this ridiculousness couldn’t get any worse, it seems the Jeunes Patriotes and their ilk are doing their best to prove Amber right about bigotry in Quebec. Amber says he has been receiving death threats, and the JPQ are organizing had a protest at 4pm Sunday30 people showed up. Josée Legault also turns this into a language issue, painting all anglos with the Eric Amber brush.

And apparently someone has setup a Twitter account for the sole purpose of calling me an asswipe fascist.

Patrick Lagacé has a follow-up on his blog. Hour complains how this is unworthy of newspaper coverage … with an article in its newspaper.

UPDATE (July 22): Crow special, Table 1! Amber also speaks to The Gazette’s Pat Donnelly where he takes great pains to prove he’s not a bigot. He also does an interview with Radio-Canada where he says he never expected to start up such a shitstorm.

His apology (also on Donnelly’s blog), which you’ll note is in both languages:

To whom it concerns,

There has been much media activity in recent days that began with an email that I sent to the theatre’s mailing list. Les Sages Fous were upset after receiving an all-english message regarding Zoofest programming as part of the Just For Laughs festival.

I reacted inappropriately to their request to receive emails only in French and for this I would like to apologize. However, I would like to explain that I did so not simply due to this one response, but rather because I often receive a disproportionate amount of negative feedback whenever I promote English events that are hosted at Theatre Ste Catherine.

Although it is true that I lost my temper, it must be said that it was in no way an attack on Quebec or French-speaking Canadians as was implied by some of the media covering this story. As I myself am French Canadian and a francophone from La Beauce region of southern Quebec, to hate French culture would be to hate myself.

I truly regret offending any of my French brothers and sisters, however I do not believe this would have become an issue if certain media had not sought to create discontent. As such, this situation has been blown out of proportion to the point where it now stands. Unfortunately, not only has this resulted in negative publicity for both Theatre Ste-Catherine, Zoofest and the Just For Laughs Festival, but as my personal information has since been released, I have received hundreds of hate letters including several death threats.

Due to the actions of certain individuals who fanned the flames of hate within a community of extremists, a great hurt was inflicted upon me personally that I fear could threaten the harmony of Montreal. I am upset with the intolerance that I receive on a daily basis as displayed by the many hateful emails that have been written. I also believe that the French language and culture is alive and strong, and need not be afraid of others.

When I first opened the theatre five years ago, which I myself built in what was a very troubled neighbourhood, my intention was to create a venue for people of every culture to come together for the celebration of art and unity. It would be regretful to have to shut the doors to those who have come to make Theatre Ste-Catherine their home and meeting place.

Again, I would like to sincerely apologize to Les Sages Fous, The Just For Laughs Festival, Zoofest, all of Theatre Ste Catherine’s company members as well as anyone who has been affected by this situation.

I wish I had addressed this issue sooner because of the hurt it has caused.


Eric Amber

Theatre Ste. Catherine

À qui de droit,

Depuis quelques jours, bien des médias et sites Internet s’attardent sur un courriel envoyé récemment par moi-même à un inscrit de la liste d’envois électronique générale du Théâtre Ste Catherine. Je répondais alors à un message provenant de la troupe Les Sages Fous, qui protestait avoir reçu un courriel en anglais concernant la programmation anglophone du Zoofest dans le câdre du Festival Juste Pour Rire.

Ma réaction face à leur demande, de recevoir une version française de ce même courriel, fut inflammatoire et non justifiée et pour cela je voudrais sincèrement m’excuser. Ma réplique très agressive s’explique en partie par le fait que Le Théâtre Sainte Catherine est toujours ciblé par des messages francophones très négatifs et diffamatoires concernant nos évènements anglophones et ce, tout au long de l’année.

Malgré l’important manque de jugement dont j’ai fait preuve, il se doit aussi d’être clarifié qu’en aucune façon, mes remarques visaient le Québec ou la Francophonie, tel que certains médias l’ont laissés entendre cette semaine. Étant moi-même francophone ayant grandit et provenant de la région de La Beauce, dans le sud du Québec, d’émettre de pareilles insultes envers la Francophonie serait contradictoire et impensable.

Je regrette sincèrement avoir offensé mes propres frères et soeurs Francophones, mais suis tout à fait convaincu qu’une couverture médiatique alarmiste et sensationnaliste n’a fait qu’aggraver la situation. Cette réaction incroyable de la part des médias provoque non seulement une publicité extrêmement négative pour Le Théâtre Ste-Catherine, mais engendre également une campagne négative envers le Zoofest et le festival Juste Pour Rire. Il est aussi important de noter que je fais personnellement maintenant face à des menaces de mort et insultes personnelles très inquiétantes.

Il m’attriste donc de constater que suite aux actions marquées de quelques individus qui avaient pour but précis d’encourager la haine et l’extrémisme, l’harmonie culturelle de notre ville de Montréal est affectée. Je suis déçu par le niveau d’intolérance présent dans les centaines de courriels et de lettres que nous avons reçus cette semaine, surtout parce que je suis profondément convaincu que malgré ces incidents isolés, la culture Française est essentiellement forte et inclusive au Québec.

Lorsque le Théâtre Ste Catherine a ouvert ses portes, il y a cinq ans, un théâtre que j’ai moi-même fondé et bâti dans un quartier très désavoué de Montréal, mon rêve était de créer une scène, un endroit où tout le monde pourrait se réunir, quelle que soit leur culture, pour célébrer l’art et la communauté. Aujourd’hui, ce théâtre est bel et bien vibrant et il serait dommage de devoir fermer ses portes au public et aux artistes qui le fréquentent maintenant en si grand nombre.

Je souligne donc à nouveau mes excuses sincères envers Les Sages Fous, Le festival Juste Pour Rire, Zoofest ainsi qu’envers tous les membres de la communauté du Théâtre Ste Catherine et tous ceux et celles qui sont affectés par cette situation.

En regrettant de ne pas m’être prononcé plus tôt sur ces évènements importants,


Eric Amber

Théâtre Ste. Catherine

UPDATE (July 23): Amber just couldn’t keep his bloody mouth shut. He sends another email to Les Sages Fous taunting them.

UPDATE (Aug. 4): The Mirror weighs in.

“This is not journalism”

GlobalPost, the Boston-based startup of foreign correspondents that is trying to make money, is supposed to be “high-quality journalism” covering stories that are “left aside“.

So would an 1,157-word report about the Daily Show and Colbert Report that summarizes the shows, links to articles elsewhere, embeds some videos and apparently can’t count to four be too unprofessional for this high-quality organization?

Apparently not.

Don’t forget the apostrophe

The mythical flag of Anglophonia

The mythical flag of Anglophonia

You may not be aware of this, but there’s a scandal – no, a SCANDALE! – involving Gazette humour columnist Josh Freed.

I know what you’re thinking: Josh Freed is still alive? He still has a pulse? Someone’s still reading him?

Apparently so. He writes weekly on Saturdays on Page A2, usually about some issue of the week and relating it to how he can’t figure out his microwave. This past Saturday, he wrote about the Fête nationale craziness, and praised how it was francophones who lobbied to get two anglo bands reinstated for a concert tonight.

He also discusses Quebec’s flag:

Maybe we could find a new apolitical flag for Quebec’s national day that speaks to all modern Quebecers who live in our city. How about a fleur-de-lys in one corner, with a snowmobile, a jazz saxophone, and some Cirque de Soleil stilts in the others? Or what about a Bixi bike stuck in a snowbank? Our licence plate is another relic of the political past that could use a facelift. It says “Je me souviens” – or “I remember” – but what do I remember? It’s certainly not my own license plate number, which I keep forgetting as I get older. In fact, given Quebec’s aging boomer society, our license should probably say “J’oublie – I forget.” Or, “Ou sont mes clefs d’auto?” Maybe we could put something practical on the license plate – like a warning for the driver behind you: “LOOK OUT! POTHOLE AHEAD!”

It’s fairly clear here, or should be, that Freed is a satirist and isn’t actually seriously suggesting these things.

But apparently a sentence earlier in his story raised an eyebrow or two:

The dinosaurs of nationalism like the St. Jean organizers who tried to stop two local bands from singing in a foreign dialect called English – a move reminiscent of the old days of the Apostrophe SS.

Somehow, despite only printing about 150,000 copies, one of them was leaked to one of Montreal’s million or so francophones, who passed it on to Gilles Rhéaume. He’s now hopping mad and has filed a complaint with the Quebec Press Council (via Montreal City Weblog).

It was only on Sunday that someone thought to talk to Freed about it, and he took the time to explain to La Presse’s Patrick Lagacé what “Apostrophe SS” means. Yeah, it’s a Nazi reference, which are almost always crude, but it’s also decades old (he even uses it in referring to the past), and it’s a play on words (or, rather, letter). He’s even used it before.

Some francophones might not get it. Or they might take it too seriously. But, of course, Freed wrote this in The Gazette, and he wasn’t writing for a francophone audience.

Considering all that was lost in translation, perhaps one should be provided next time.

A footnote: I edited this piece on Friday night, and wrote the headline “Politics ruin the party”. Had I known it would get disseminated so much (and misunderstood), I might have tried for a more absurd, more memorable headline at least.

UPDATE (June 27): Freed uses his next column to explain himself. In a nutshell, the Apostrophe SS went all Nazi death-camp on apostrophe-S-es, not people.

Inside Bill 60

Laurent Maisonnave on his iPhone

Laurent Maisonnave on his iPhone, not that he'd ever cancel his contract unilaterally

The Quebec Liberals this week announced Bill 60, proposed legislation that would strengthen (or “modernize“) consumer protections particularly where it concerns long-term service contracts like cellphones. The bill has already (and unsurprisingly) gained the support of the Union des consommateurs, and others. Cellphone providers have stayed silent for the most part, though their advocacy group says the bill is redundant because the industry is already looking to self-regulate (those who buy this please raise your hands).

The full text of the bill is online (PDF). It hasn’t been debated in the National Assembly yet, so it could very well be changed significantly before it becomes law.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Changes to contracts must come with 60 days’ notice and the consumer has the ability to cancel the contract without penalty if the changes involve “an increase in the consumer’s obligations or a reduction in the merchant’s obligations”
  • Such changes can’t affect “an essential element of the contract” like the nature of the service offered
  • Fixed-term service contracts can’t be unilaterally cancelled by the provider
  • Consumers can’t be required to pay penalty fees beyond simple interest charges for missed payments
  • Merchants are required to fully explain existing warranties before asking customers if they would like extended warranties
  • If you buy an item second-hand that’s still under warranty, manufacturers can’t require that you prove the previous owner abided by the warranty’s conditions
  • Gift certificates and gift cards cannot have expiry dates, and must come with written explanations of how to check the balance on them. They also cannot be subject to fees
  • Contracts must come with various things in writing, including the total dollar value of “inducements” (like free cellphones)
  • Contracts cannot be automatically renewed
  • You can’t be charged for service while the device you use to access that service (assuming it was provided with the contract) is being repaired
  • Consumers can unilaterally cancel contracts and pay back the value of any inducements provided at contract signing (or 10% of the remainder of the contract, or $50, depending on the circumstance)
  • Advertisements must include the full cost of services, less taxes (though it’s hard to see how this would be enforced since cellphones, cable, Internet and other services come with different plans)
  • In case a company breaks any of these provisions, the government or a recognized consumer advocacy body can seek an injunction forcing the provider to comply
  • The bill also contains some minor provisions dealing with travel agents

A lot of these are common sense (no one should be allowed to unilaterally change a contract without the other side’s consent, and companies shouldn’t get free money out of gift cards). Others will probably be criticized because they allow loopholes that lead to abuse (for example, if I know Rogers is about to change their contract, can I get a three-year free iPhone deal and then cancel the contract a week later without paying a penalty and get a free iPhone?). Still others are open to interpretation (we could expect arguments about whether a certain change really increases the obligation of a consumer).

Others sound like they could be downright annoying, like being forced to sit down while a Best Buy employee reads out the complete text of a manufacturer’s warranty to you.

But all in all, it’s a good bill, and provides some valuable protections for consumers against abusive contracts. Law-abiding businesses should be able to point out loopholes that might be exploited against them, but let’s hope the lobbyists don’t start torpedoing parts of this bill just because it might cut down on their bottom line.