Despite having worked on the sales floor at several Montreal retailers, I don't recall ever using "bonjour-hi" as a greeting. One manager I had at a store downtown told us never to use the term because we should only speak French to customers. His suggestion didn't ruffle any feathers among the staff, even with those, like myself, where English was our first language. During the last few weeks, however, debate over the term "bonjour-hi" has become Quebec's latest linguistic crisis.
On November 30, at the Quebec National Assembly, members voted 111-0 in favour of a Parti Quebecois-sponsored motion inviting retail and service workers to "welcome (customers) warmly with the word 'bonjour.'" Many English Quebecers immediately took offence that the motion, while non-binding, was meant to eradicate "hi," and by a leap of the imagination, negate their language and presence. The motion became Quebec's most high-profile language controversy since Pastagate in 2013. But, as noted in the Montreal Gazette, this debate has seen "uncharacteristic intensity" from Anglophones.
During Pastagate, there was a sense of humour about the outsized reaction, but with bonjour-hi, humour has been in short supply. It's not that a crackdown on English is without precedent, but lately the way controversies get framed in North American media is different.
This is the first language crisis since Donald Trump ascended to the American presidency on a wave of anger and frustration with political correctness. Scandals are now almost indistinguishable from one another, because, whether large or small, they're treated with a similar level of urgency. Look no further than Anglophone newspaper coverage of the bonjour-hi fallout to see this conflation in action.
An editorial in The Suburban, Quebec's largest English weekly newspaper, called the vote against bonjour-hi "the suppression of expression." Photos of three National Assembly members graced their December 6 cover under a headline that could have been a Donald Trump tweet: "SHAME! Anglo MNAs vote against 'BONJOUR-HI'"
Under the headline "Couillard repents, but anglo group too furious to forgive," the Gazettequoted excerpts from a letter written to Quebec Premier Phillippe Couillard by James Shea, president of Anglophone non-profit the Quebec Community Groups Network. "English is not a toxin from which the culture of Quebec must be protected," he wrote, in part.
Quebecers are no strangers to divisive news stories and angry rhetoric.
One of the many letters to the editor of the Gazette said the vote showed Anglophones "are second-class citizens and our language is a pollutant in Montreal." Another likened it to the "betrayal" felt by Quebec Muslims by a recent bill enforcing religious neutrality: "The feeling that our concerns are being brushed off is similar to the condescension felt by visible minorities whose demands for an inquiry on systemic racism were rejected as 'putting all of Quebec on trial.'"
Quebecers are no strangers to divisive news stories and angry rhetoric. But for a motion that Couillard called an artificial crisis and PQ leader Jean-François Lisée called a "trap," this story became a controversy of large magnitude only when left in the hands of the public audience.
Quebec has seen large-scale cultural and political crises over corruption scandals, referendums, the Bouchard-Taylor commission and the Charter of Quebec Values. In addition, across North America weighty issues about political correctness and race, among other topics, are dominating airwaves and headlines. But make no mistake, bonjour-hi is not in the same category. You can't, for instance, conflate the consequences of a bill that affects the religious freedoms of a minority, like Bill 62, with sometimes not hearing the term "hi" when shopping in Montreal.
Many hotly-debated issues, from the supposed war on saying "Merry Christmas" to removing Confederate monuments, are defended based on tradition. Similarly, this is how the word "hi" was poised, as a marker of Montreal's bilingual reputation. Increasingly though, there is a tone-deafness to this argument that forgets about mitigating historical factors.
It was only last month at a store launch on Ste-Catherine Street where the manager announced he'd say a few words in French to "accommodate" the city and the media as though it was a great kindness. The bonjour-hi outcry also neglects the subtext that, especially in the commercial sphere, Anglophones used to hold the balance of power.
Historian Mathieu Noël discussed this in a paper on Quebec's language conflicts, writing, "English-speaking merchants, who formed a minority in New France, soon took control of the economy and would seek to impose their will on the French-speaking majority for the next 200 years." Noël added that during this period "the language of business, the workplace and social integration would essentially be English."
"It's fitting that this controversy happened near Christmas."
The fevered pitch of the debate also centres it around the idea of a general "Anglophone community," ignoring nuances and realities. Often this is through the viewpoints and voices of middle-aged, middle class white Anglophones. Though Anglophones represent only 7.5 per cent of Quebec's population, the once relatively homogenous group contains people from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Historically, Quebec Anglophones were mostly white Anglo Saxons, and in the past immigrants who identified as Anglophone were mostly from the United States or United Kingdom. Now, almost half come from Africa and Asia. People in this latter group, for instance, will likely look at the bonjour-hi debate without the historical baggage that older Quebec-born Anglophones will bring.
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It's fitting that this controversy happened near Christmas, because leading up to the holiday, Trump bemoaned that people can't say "Merry Christmas" anymore in a manner echoed by the bonjour-hi controversy. But according to new data from Pew Research, more than half of Americans say it "doesn't matter" if they're greeted in businesses or stores with "Merry Christmas."
Underneath the bombast of how bonjour-hi has been discussed, the only polls we've discussed have been political ones. I'd wager if we were to look closely enough at bonjour-hi that it's just as much of a non-issue.
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