I was recently at a downtown bookstore spending my hard-earned cash on two more books I plan to add to the ever-growing pile I barely have time to read these days.
The cashier addressed me with a polite “Bonjour/Hi!” and continued in broken French. I replied in French. It was clear to me that this woman was struggling with the language and her accent — to state it politely — was not easy on the ears. Since both books I happened to be purchasing that day were in English, she theoretically could have had the excuse to switch over to English to serve me. She didn’t. And neither did I. We continued our polite niceties in French, I paid, we wished each other a good day and off I went.
The chuckle-worthy oddity of two obvious English speakers addressing each other in French in public while engaged in a private conversation involving only the two of them is so mundane, so typical a daily interaction for Montreal allophones and anglophones that hardly anyone would ever think to talk about it or make it the subject of a column.
French-speaking Quebecers worried about the survival of the language routinely get to hear the hyperbole of a Richard Martineau and a Sophie Durocher, or the existential linguistic dread of a Mathieu Bock-Côté, but they don’t get to hear our reality. While it’s drilled in to many Quebecers that the French language is constantly under attack — and no one in their right minds would doubt that reality — it becomes tiresome when the finger is somehow always pointed at people like me who list their maternal language as English or “other” as the primary offenders.
A typical Montreal reality is also one that has countless anglophones and allophones going on about their day interacting with each other in their second or third language and thinking nothing of it. Because, speaking in French, even for those whose first language isn’t French, is the perfectly acceptable norm here in public and nothing to write home about. It’s part of being a Quebecer. If we minded or felt that this was a horrible imposition, we wouldn’t be living here to begin with.
CAQ proposal is petty and inapplicable
I didn’t think much about this latest interaction until I saw the news that the CAQ — intent on adding to its ever-expansive list of legislation that, just like Bill 21, is a pointless solution in search of an imaginary problem — is planning on introducing legislation that will ban the use of “Bonjour/Hi!” in business establishments in the province.
Duplessis would be proud. This micromanaging government is in every possible way a betrayal of the Quiet Revolution and its outright rejection of state paternalism. In many ways, the CAQ is proving to be as downright provincial in its employment of distraction tactics as Doug Ford’s government in Ontario, when he made $1 beer a campaign promise. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, no one ever lost an election by underestimating the public’s intelligence.
Fifty-three per cent of Quebecers are functionally illiterate, our high-school graduation rate is the lowest in the country, we have serious issues with how the French language is taught here and we’re desperately in need of more teachers. Our labour shortages are at record highs, we have businesses begging for more employees and closing their doors or reducing their hours because they don’t have the staff to accommodate clients. Senior-care homes are in dire need of more funds and more staff to take care of an increasingly aging population. Our nurses are overworked and underpaid.
If you ask, Quebecers rank the economy, education and health as their top three priorities. Young Quebecers consider the environment the most important issue to be tackled. Our world is on fire, climate refugees are the next big escalating global crisis and the far-right has reared its ugly head almost everywhere with its anti-immigrant and xenophobic hate. We have real problems begging for real solutions.
It almost makes sense that the odd “Bonjour/Hi!” in downtown Montreal, which aims to do nothing more malicious than communicate to the majority of tourists frequenting these stores that they are welcome and can be served in their language, would be so offensive and require urgent action. After all, it’s much easier for any government to pretend that this is the real emergency… It requires nothing more than a proud declaration of “Au Québec, c’est comme ça qu’on vit,” a bit of chest-thumping and the CAQ’s voting base who live in les régions who think Montreal has been invaded by hijab-wearing Muslims implementing Sharia Law and anglophones running amok grabbing people by the lapels and forcibly shouting “Hello!” in their face lap it all up.
“Bonjour/Hi!” isn’t for my benefit
Let me make myself very clear here. As a trilingual born-and-raised Montrealer, I sincerely do not care about “Bonjour/Hi!” I have no affinity for it. I much prefer the classier sounding “Bonjour/Bienvenue” as a greeting. I don’t go anywhere in this city expecting to be served in English or demanding that I do.
“Bonjour/Hi!” could die a quick death tomorrow and not only would I not care, I probably wouldn’t even notice. That’s how rarely it happens to me or even registers in my daily life. I also have dreams of a true bilingual country where French-speaking Canadians can be served in their language from sea to sea, so I know I’m an eternal optimist who will probably die disappointed with everyone in government. But that’s for another column…
To those saying that the greeting should be insulting to me as an English-speaker, because it implies that I don’t understand what “Bonjour” means, allow me to explain, dear friends. This silly bilingual greeting isn’t for my benefit or for other allophones or anglophones living in Quebec. It’s for the throngs of tourists who wander around the city, desperately trying to navigate our complicated street and parking signs and who routinely stand at a corner looking at a map waiting for one of us to save them.
It’s for paying foreign customers who, yes, appreciate our French joie de vivre, but also appreciate the courtesy of being reminded they are welcome and can be served in the language of their choice — the same way Florida and Vermont business owners throw up French signs in their storefronts and even on their parking metres to show similar appreciation, and I’ve yet to hear a Quebec snowbird complain about that. Why doesn’t that specific bilingual greeting trigger them and grate on their ears, I wonder?
Businesses don’t need this added burden
Bricks-and-mortar businesses are suffering because of Amazon and online stores. They know they need to “up” their game and in many cases that means doing whatever they can to welcome their clients and create a personalized shopping experience. When did common courtesy and simple business savvy become a calculated attack against the French language? It’s bad enough to get a damn greeting in this city sometimes, can we stop haggling about the language people use to say hello?
Most importantly, at the end of the day, not only do I find this latest CAQ salvo unnecessary, pointless, divisive and an example of populism of the worst kind, it also betrays a serious misunderstanding of this city’s reality. Montreal has always been much more multilingual, multicultural and cosmopolitan than the rest of Quebec and attempting to transform it into something homogenous and monochromatic in order to appease the concerns of those whose daily reality is vastly different is doing no one any favours.
There are a million constructive ways to promote and strengthen the French language here and in the rest of Canada. Encourage the French language. Teach it properly. Make it shine and promote a culture that is rich and vibrant and confident in its ability to attract others to its fold. Appeal to business owners to put forward a French face to emphasize what makes this city so unique and so different from the rest of the country. Do all that and more. I’ll be 100 per cent behind that, the same way I am behind Bill 101 and always have been.
But to attempt to vilify a private business owner and put the brunt of an unenforceable law on their shoulders as a way of bypassing your responsibility as a government to implement real measures to protect the French language is not only counterproductive and futile and possibly a violation of free speech; it’s pure folly. To do so is to not understand human nature and how people react to being told they can’t do something.
There is a huge difference between protecting and promoting one’s language and attacking someone else’s. That breeds resentment. You’d think that people who were once told to “Speak white” would get that. Love of language begins at home and at school. Not at a downtown Gap store.
Banning a simple greeting that is nothing more than a quick and efficient way for service workers to determine your language preference is so reactionary and so over-the-top as a move that the only thing it manages to communicate is a profound insecurity in our ability to teach, share, promote and pass down the French language to the next generation.
As much as I support Bill 101 because it’s the only concrete way for this province to remain francophone as the demographics change, every kid of allophone, immigrant parents will tell you that you don’t need laws to enforce that passing down of culture and language; you only need love (and a lot of collective guilt).
If you can’t instill that love and pride without threatening people with petty fines, then it’s game over. Bonne chance/Good luck! ■