December 5, 2017 8:30 am

COMMENTARY: Quebec’s ‘Bonjour-hi’ debate is cheap — and dangerous — politics

Quebec and Canada flying flags photographed in Montreal.

Denis Beaumont / The Canadian Press Images
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“Hi.” One word. Two letters. So much power.

Who knew that a modest greeting could undermine the established social order, threaten a culture, destroy a language — and command the attention of over one hundred politicians who, doubtless, have more important things to do?

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In Quebec it can — when paired with the word “Bonjour,” at any rate. In a unanimous motion last week, members of Quebec’s National Assembly reaffirmed French as the official and common language of Quebec, recognized that 94 per cent of Quebecers understand it and urged “all merchants and their employees who have contact with local and international clients to warmly greet them with the word “Bonjour.” Not “Bonjour, hi.” Just “Bonjour.”

READ MORE: Quebec passes motion for store clerks to stop saying ‘bonjour, hi’

Why? To hear politicians and pundits talk, you’d think “Bonjour, hi” is the linguistic equivalent of a North Korean nuke. PQ Leader Jean Francois Lisée called it an “irritant and example of galloping bilingualism.” Sociologist and writer Mathieu Bock-Côté tweeted, “From one stage to the next, French fades away. And with that, the Quebec people fades away.” Eric Bouchard, director of the Mouvement Quebec Francais, went even further, using the occasion to rail against hospital elevators programmed to make bilingual floor announcements.

I’m a Quebecer born and bred, and I lived through the waxing and waning of the Quebec separatist movement. It hurts my soul to see this divisive debate being reopened now.

Yes, the use of French in the workplace has declined by four per cent in the last decade, according to Statistics Canada figures. Yes, Quebec’s “francisation” program for new immigrants appears to be an expensive failure. And yes, the manager at an Adidas store recently made a giant faux pas when he apologized for using French at a store opening — in a province where the official language is French.

There will always be government targets unmet, and people who act out of ignorance. But to extrapolate from these failures a trend involving millions of people who use a two-letter word is not the answer.

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Making people afraid to utter the word “hi” by National Assembly fiat is risible, sad and petty. It recalls past incidents of Quebec making itself an international laughingstock through bureaucratic overreach — like the infamous “pastagate” incident of 2013, when an Italian restaurant was told to change its menu items from the language of Dante to that of Molière.

It’s also dangerous. By demonizing a social convention, you tear at the ordinary things that knit a community together. A greeting — designed to make a customer feel welcome, to show openness to a tourist, or simply to be polite — becomes a symbol of repression. This casts a chill on ordinary human relations.

And those relations are precious, for, in their absence, life can become very unpleasant. Quebec’s politicians may not remember that. Many Quebecers do.

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As the child of immigrants whose first language was neither English nor French, I learned both as a preschooler: my parents wanted me to fit in with Quebec society and our francophone suburb of St Hubert. But my French wasn’t as good as my English — and the neighbourhood kids knew it. They taunted me with cries of “Maudite anglaise” when, as a wobbly five-year-old, I tried out my new bike on Payer Boulevard. In my attempt to speed away, I fell off, my pursuers whooping in triumph.

A year later, a more serious victory: the separatist Parti Quebecois came to power. My parents promptly sold their house, rented an apartment in Montreal and put all their savings into an American bank account. Why? They were afraid that their new home province would separate, its currency would plummet and they would lose everything they had worked for. (That’s what happens when you grow up during the Second World War  and play with piles of worthless German marks).

Fast forward a decade to Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, where I saw the other side of the coin. My Quebecois boyfriend told me about his father being denied a bank loan in the 1960s because he was francophone. Other students had similar stories. We were the next generation, still trying to figure things out. We talked, we listened and we learned. We said “Bonjour” and “Hi.” We called things “cool” in conversation. We knocked back “shooters” at parties. We hung out at “la grande salle” at school. And we learned the most important phrases: “Je te comprends.” “Tu me manques.” “Je t’aime.”

READ MORE: Quebec language police ease up on use of some English words by francophones

Thirty years have passed since then. Attempts at a constitutional recognition of Quebec failed. The 1995 referendum saw Quebec vote to remain in Canada by the narrowest of margins. Meanwhile, Bill 101 obliged generations of children to go to French school and then work in French when they graduated. Ottawa signed bilateral agreements on a host of issues, ranging from immigration to infrastructure.

“Quebec Inc.” — the province’s business class — asserted its power, and francophone Quebecers now dominate the highest levels of industry and society. They became “maitres chez nous” without resorting to political separation. So it’s no surprise that support for separation is now at its lowest level in years — just 36 per cent.

The “Bonjour-hi” debate turns the clock back decades — and not in a good way. It revives the old debate of Franco vs. Anglo, Quebec vs. Canada, us vs. them.

READ MORE: PQ calls for tougher Quebec language laws

Who wins in this scenario? At the provincial level, the Parti Quebecois is still desperately casting about for a path back to power in the next provincial election, slated for the fall of 2018. The Liberals are trying to burnish their soft nationalist credentials as they continue to trail the Coalition Avenir Quebec in the polls. On the federal level, the Bloc Quebecois is looking for its own reason to exist, with polls showing that 47 per cent of Quebecers support the Liberals.

Who loses? Everyone else. All the ordinary Quebecers, the ones just trying to get along, live their lives, get through the day. Banishing “Bonjour, hi” isn’t about saving the French language. It’s about scoring cheap political points without regard for the consequences.

Tasha Kheiriddin can be heard between noon and 2 p.m. ET on Toronto Talk Radio AM640. She’s also a columnist with Global News and iPolitics.cawhere this piece first appeared.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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