Quebec’s anglophones, francophones and allophones should all be on their smart phones demanding to know what in the name of Saint René Lévesque just happened in the National Assembly.
“We are not a small people,” the late premier, Lévesque, famously said after his victorious Parti Quebecois stunned everyone on election night in 1976. “We are something like a great people.” Wherever he is now, Ti-Poil, as the scant-haired Lévesque was affectionately dubbed, must be madly shrugging his shoulders in embarrassment at provincial legislators voting to dissuade Quebecers from using the hybrid greeting “Bonjour-Hi” publicly.
The phrase is good-natured and handy, especially in Montreal, where both languages are used when one doesn’t know which the other person speaks. It’s customarily, though not exclusively, used in business to make interactions not just civil but convivial.
Given that, the only great thing in the attempt to quash mere civic politeness was the huge amount of offence it caused. How could it be seen as anything else when it has reduced Quebec, again, to an international political laughing stock?
Unfortunately, the sheer triviality of the unanimously adopted “Bonjour-Hi” motion exacerbates the serious problems it represents. And that will continue to plague Quebec long after the external mocking and internal mortification abate. Those problems can be grouped in two categories:
The first is the way language, almost 40 years after Bill 101 gave French-speaking Quebecers their majoritarian due, continues to be manipulated to foment tension and discord for shabby political gain.
Both the governing Liberals and the Opposition Parti Quebecois are addicted to inventing surreal linguistic conflicts that pit primarily French-speaking and English-speaking Quebecers against each other. Allophones, who have neither language as a mother tongue, are caught in the crossfire. It is, frankly, a painful co-dependency that a great people should have overcome long ago.
Alas, the PQ needs periodically to indulge in rounds of bat-the-anglos to demonstrate how it remains Quebec’s sole staunch defender of French. It tends to do so by pandering to a vocal minority who insist French is not just Quebec’s majoritarian language, language of government transaction and most common language, but also its lone public language.
Given that there are approximately 128 languages spoken by students in the Montreal school system alone, the demand defies basic demography. The PQ’s declining fortunes show the effect of sacrificing reality to ideology. Still, the idea is frequently upheld with a fervour that would have made Lévesque cringe.
The Liberals, sadly, also require manufactured argy-bargy around language to vaunt as the voice of political reason. Their saving role is to soothe the pride of a group often called Canada’s best treated minority – as if English-speaking citizens are some hybrid of hospital patient and rescue shelter pet.
The divide-and-conquer gambit couldn’t be more crass, yet some still fall for it. Like the family that shouts at the dinner table because it’s the only way to be heard, Quebecers find themselves taking sides in language squabbles their better judgment says are irrelevant to life outside the political bubble.
Therein lies the second problem. Quebecers traditionally look to government to resolve problems other Canadians might see as entirely private matters. The trait is blamed on the mythical dominance of the Catholic Church. Isn’t everything?
But the “Bonjour-Hi” debate offends democratic freedom precisely by using language to cross a boundary of state intrusion no citizen of Quebec should tolerate. It’s not about the language one speaks. It’s about one’s freedom to speak at all.
Most benignly, it interferes with Quebec’s basic social architecture – the normal relations between citizens – by politicizing natural common courtesy. At its more toxic, it’s state intrusion on the capacity of free citizens to speak privately to each other.
So, Quebecers can regard it as jumped politicians barging in where they have no business. Or they can see it as the state testing the boundaries of soft tyranny. Neither is a great choice.
It’s one Quebecers of all linguistic stripes will continue to face unless they put aside smallness to truly become something like the great people of René Lévesque’s vision.