In 1977, Quebec passed legislation called “La charte de la langue française,” or The Charter of the French Language. Known simply as Bill 101, it cemented French as the official language of the Canadian province, and its effects were far-reaching. One unwitting victim was one-third of this bright red and white neon atop a downtown Montreal mill, flashing out the Five Roses flour brand.
The sign has been a fixture on the Montreal skyline since the late 1940s. It was originally erected to advertise flour made by Ogilvie, the company that owned the mill. In 1954 Ogilvie bought out an Ontario company called Lake of the Woods, who had been making flour since the late 1880s. The sign was changed over to the Lake of the Woods stalwart brand called Five Roses.
Before Bill 101 passed, the Five Roses sign read in three rows: “Farine - Five Roses - Flour.” Since “farine” means flour in French, now the official language, the offending English word was quickly removed from the sign. The other two lines continued to flash their familiar pattern: “Farine,” “Five Roses” – “Farine,” “Five Roses”. (The only reason the English words “Five Roses” escaped the language ax was an exception in Bill 101 for brand names).
1993 saw Five Roses bought out by the food giant ADM, but the sign stayed on. In 2007, after selling the brand to Smuckers, ADM was reluctant to keep advertising flour that now belonged to their competitor, and they shut it off. For a dark and dreary month, the sign remained dark.
Luckily there was enough public outcry, and with some pressure from preservationists at Heritage Montreal, Smuckers relented. They agreed to pour the needed funds into restoration and maintenance of the sign, and nine years and over a million dollars later, the lights are still on. At least for now.