Josh Freed: Let's come down from our Bonjour-Hi hysteria

Josh Freed: Let's come down from our Bonjour-Hi hysteria
Josh Freed: Let's come down from our Bonjour-Hi hysteria

The government wants to take the “Hi” out of “Bonjour-Hi!”

Our nice little Montreal greeting was just denounced by Quebec’s entire National Assembly. Stores can still legally say “Bonjour-Hi” to customers — but the conversation wont be government-certified.

Naturally, the motion was led by PQ leader Jean-François Lisée, who never saw a divisive issue he didn’t want to exploit. But this time he managed to drag in the other parties, including the Liberals.

What will he want condemned next by the government – chanting “Go Habs, Go!”?

To Lisée, our mild “Bonjour-Hi” is a new English Menace, the creepy edge of “creeping bilingualism.” Encourage it and next thing you know waiters will be chirping “Have a nice day!” and “Would you like fries with that?” in our best French restaurants.

In fairness, it wasn’t just Lisée who felt “insulted.” Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault was “annoyed,” Québec solidaire spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois was “irritated” and even Premier Philippe Couillard’s own language minister, Marie Montpetit, has said she finds it an “irritant.”

It’s all too bad. Quebec’s unique little greeting is a way for stores to say “welcome” to tourists, while sussing out what language local customers are comfortable speaking. It’s also a way to make sure we aren’t two Quebec anglos about to have a long interaction in fractured French.

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I usually choose to run with the “Bonjour” part and speak French in stores — unless I’m in a tech repair shop, where it’s hard enough in English to understand techies saying: “Your motherboard’s CPU voltage regulator circuit is fried.”

In food, SAQs and restaurants I find everything sounds tastier in French. Who wants to eat beef stew when you can order boeuf bourguignon? Who wants a liver steak when you can have foie de veau, médium-saignant? I also prefer a cinq-à-sept to happy hour.

But to me “Bonjour-Hi” is a small nod that we live in a French city with a large anglo and international population. Besides, the “Hi” part is less than half the size of the “Bonjour.”

So it’s sad to see it’s created such a huge fuss. Maybe that’s because it followed immediately after last week’s Adidas Affair. A young francophone manager opening a newly-renovated store spoke a few apologetic words in French — then switched entirely to “cooler” English — breaking the code of how we do business in Quebec.

To me it was just a silly youthful mistake and the store apologized. Quebec’s official language is French and most anglos long since made their peace with that to help keep social peace, and keep Quebec French.

But Adidas-gate created an immense uproar in Quebec media that required the premier to denounce it in the National Assembly, to protect his political posterior.

Reading French papers I could see the episode genuinely wounded many francophones, including several I much respect. They included Le Journal’s always-sensible Lise Ravary and La Presse’s popular columnist Patrick Lagacé, who both experienced a cultural “shock,” reminding them of a time when French was not the language of work or business here.

I’m sorry they were upset by the manager’s insensitivity. That said it was one person — who apologized — not a mass protest in the streets demanding the return of the legendary unilingual saleslady at Eaton’s.

I’m also sorry many francophones disapprove of “Bonjour-Hi.” In a 2012 poll, 80 per cent said they didn’t like it – though I suspect that number would be much lower today, as Quebec youth become more comfortable with English as a second language.

Still, we all don’t like some things in Quebec, but accept them as a linguistic compromise.

I don’t like important highway safety signs written entirely in French, but accept them as the price of social harmony. I don’t like some hospital and pharmacy signs that are half the size of French ones and hard for many elderly anglos to read – especially since equal-sized indoor signs are legal.

I’m not even crazy about pressing 9 on the phone for English. To be fair: “We’re No. 2!” But none of these things are worth a fight to me, if they make my francophone neighbours feel more secure.

The latest language stats show a tiny drop in the predominance of French at work in recent years. But French is still used on a regular basis by some 94 per cent of Quebec workers, the same figure as 2006.

After decades of French being largely entrenched as the language of work, I wish we could chill out a bit for a couple of years and celebrate what we have now — instead of constantly fearing what might happen someday.

Our little bilingual store greeting is a true reflection of Montreal’s spirit, a city that shows great language generosity for all on its streets. So despite government disapproval, I hope stores don’t say goodbye to “Bonjour-Hi.”

Au-revoir-goodbye.

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