Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée admitted today that his proposal to ban the customary bilingual greeting "bonjour/hi" in stores and businesses was part of a plan to test Premier Philippe Couillard on language issues.
"I set the oldest trap in the book," said Lisée.
The motion urging businesses to drop the English half of the greeting and opt for "bonjour" instead carries no legal weight, but was passed unanimously on Nov. 30.
"I knew he wouldn't want to do it because he doesn't believe in it," Lisée said about backing Couillard into a corner with his motion. "Publicly, he couldn't say he didn't want it, so he had to vote for it, even if he doesn't like it."
During question period at the National Assembly Thursday, Lisée asked Couillard point blank whether he regretted throwing his support behind the motion.
"I'm not talking about going back on this decision," Couillard responded. "I believe we underestimated the impact that it would have on our English compatriots."
Couillard offered an olive branch to anglophone groups that criticized the move by switching from French and addressing the assembly in English at one point.
"Although French is our official language, the English language is not a foreign language in Quebec," he said.
The premier tried to reassure anglophones that they are valued by addressing them directly.
"I want to say to our English-speaking Quebecers, there are no different classes of Quebecers here, only one class: the first class. And English-speaking Quebecers are first-class Quebecers, like all of us are," said Couillard in English.
Caught in the international spotlight
Since the motion passed, it has drawn criticism from English communities across the province and thrust the issue onto the world stage.
"I expressed concern about how this issue would be treated in a ridiculous way outside of Quebec," Couillard said.
He said that he felt his fears had been justified upon seeing the onslaught of news coverage, much of which focused on linguistic divides.
"I'm not happy to see international media talking about the relations between French and English communities this way," he said.
Couillard referenced the 2013 "Pastagate" controversy, another incident in which the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) was widely mocked and derided for cracking down on an Italian restaurant for featuring words such as botiglia, pasta and antipasto on its menu.
Irritant or 'mark of respect'?
Martin Coiteux, the minister responsible for the region of Montreal, told CBC's Daybreak that while he voted in favour of the motion, he doesn't have a problem with "hi."
"It's a good thing to say 'bonjour,' but in my interpretation, it doesn't exclude 'hi' as well."
Coiteux said that for him, the motion was more about encouraging businesses to use the French greeting than preventing them from using the English one.
"I think it's important that when we provide services to our customers that we provide them in their preferred language."
The original motion put forward by the PQ called the traditional "bonjour/hi" bilingual greeting "an irritant," — a clause that was taken out after Couillard objected, calling it offensive.
Coiteux told CBC Thursday morning that he doesn't have any problem with the English word or its use in commerce on the West Island.
"I do not see it as an irritant, I see it as a mark of respect."