'Bonjour/Hi' resurfaced in Quebec's English debate, but Couillard wants to move on

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard told Daybreak host Mike Finnerty there's nothing preventing people from saying "hi" in stores, a day after the controversy over "Bonjour/Hi" resurfaced in the English-language leaders debate.

'There was a disconnect,' Couillard says of Anglo reaction to the controversial motion

Quebec Liberal party leader spoke with CBC Montreal Daybreak host Mike Finnerty Tuesday morning after the first-ever televised English language debate in a Quebec election campaign. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard says there's nothing preventing salespeople from saying "Hi" in stores, a day after the controversy over "Bonjour/Hi" resurfaced in the English-language leaders debate.

In an interview on CBC Montreal's Daybreak, ​Couillard addressed issues raised by the English-speaking community and beyond, including access to health-care services in English, the deep budget cuts at the beginning of his mandate as premier and the Coalition Avenir Québec's immigration proposals. 

The customary bilingual greeting "Bonjour/Hi" in stores and businesses was the subject of heated debate last year.

Members of the National Assembly, including Couillard, voted unanimously in favour of a motion urging businesses to drop the greeting.

The legislation carried no legal weight but drew criticism from anglophone groups who felt unfairly targeted.

Here are excerpts from Daybreak host Mike Finnerty's interview with Couillard, edited for length and clarity:

CBC Montreal Daybreak host Mike Finnerty, left, and Quebec Liberal Party Leader Philippe Couillard discussed the Bonjour-Hi issue, which resurfaced during yesterday's debate. (Charles Contant/CBC)

On Bonjour/Hi

Mike Finnerty: Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée called you a hypocrite because you co-sponsored the motion. For the record, do you regret telling people through a motion in the National Assembly that it is somehow not right to utter the word "hi" in Montreal stores?

Philippe Couillard: This is not the way we looked at the motion. That's probably what comes out of this for me, retrospectively. The way I still look at this motion, it really told Quebecers what I've been saying all along: that we are in Quebec, which has an official language, of course, which is French, but in which all Quebecers and particularly English-speaking Quebecers are welcome. And, yes, French is the official language, but English is not a foreign language in Quebec.

MF: So why shouldn't people say "hi" in stores?

PC: Why not? There's nothing preventing people from saying "hi." People can say what they want, you know. Actually, the final shape of it was much better than the first one, and I felt it reflected the consensus I just indicated. 

MF: That's not what they came away thinking when this motion passed in the National Assembly. They came away thinking their language — it just doesn't fit, that it shouldn't be spoken out loud, and people were offended.

PC: But, see, Mike, this is exactly what I meant when I said it stood out as an event during that time. That, for me was the gap between the reaction of English-speaking Quebecers, which I heard loud and clear and the fact we were under the impression that it reflected what Quebec should be, and there was a disconnect here.

You can listen to the full interview here:

Health-care reforms

MF: The entire board of the MUHC resigned on your watch and in protest at the handling of the health-care reform, that's something that François Legault pointed out last night.… Many in the sector feel that the MUHC and St. Mary's and other institutions have been distanced from the English-speaking community and that reforms have stretched them beyond their limit.

Do you accept that the health-care reforms have not gone smoothly and that there are issues that need to be addressed?

PC: There are always challenges with reforms. The point of the reform was to unite our institutions around the patient; that is exactly what is happening right now in the system. There's a new board by the way at the MUHC, completely coming out of the community itself. There were management issues, let's just say that.

The new board is on the job. There's a new CEO. The spirit is good. And again the change in structure, which is not the main part of what happened … we are in the right direction. Of course, we have issues adapting to it, like any reform. The good news is that structural reform is over.

Now we have the means to inject significant funds in health care … and by the way we did this — $6 billion. More people are finding family doctors. Wait lists, the wait times are going down in ERs, in surgery. Is it good enough? No. But we are going in the right direction, that's what we should say. 

MF: At the MUHC, they feel squeezed. Do you accept that? 

PC: Health care budgets always are going to be squeezed, by definition. We have almost infinite needs and limited resources. That's the definition of a public health-care system. So people have to manage funds well, go by priority and always think about patients. 

MF: So what's actually better now with the health-care system? 

PC: Well it's the flow of patients. I see it when I travel around Quebec. You know the flow from one institution to the other one now, it's not anymore about 'it's my problem, not your problem' or vice versa.… It's about what does this patient need? It's beneficial. By the way, no party has said they would change that. Just by the way.

Immigration and values test

MF: One of the things that slightly surprised me was that none of you is picking up on is [Legault's] proposal that immigrants to Quebec should wait six years to become citizens, instead of the three years.
PC: Well, it's one part of the horrible things he wants to do with immigrants. First, we benefit from the presence of immigrants in Quebec. Fifty per cent of the jobs that have been taken up since 2006 have been taken up by immigrants. So we absolutely need immigration. 

It's fair in an election campaign to discuss the targets. How many immigrants should we take in? Any society has this type of debate. But when the discourse moves to testing people and values on language, saying that this threatens French language in Quebec, having a negative discourse on immigration and threatening people with expulsion — I've never seen this before in Quebec. It's even as bad as the charter of values was in 2014. 

MF: And if you tell people ahead of time that come to Canada that, if they go to Quebec, It'll take six years to become a citizen … I'm just asking what do you think the impact of that would be? 

PC: I think it's very bad. It's bad for the name for Quebec internationally, obviously. 

MF: Would you want to come to Qeebec if it would take you three years longer? 

PC: It would add an obstacle. But again, it's ok to discuss how many immigrants we should take up every year. That's fine. All societies, all democracies do this. When it's not ok anymore is to threaten people. And they do feel threatened.

With testing them on values — which he cannot name them — and testing them on French and threatening them that if they fail they will be not desired in Quebec after three years. I've never seen this in Quebec before. This is bad. 

MF: Why are you OK with the federal test but not a Quebec test? 

PC: It's a test for citizenship. Does Mr. Legault want to talk about a separate citizenship? Maybe this is something he wants to talk about. We have one citizenship in this country and that is the Canadian citizenship, and that is where the testing happens. That was my question yesterday, and of course, I got no answer.

MF: La Meute, the far-right group, said that [Legault's] policy is exactly in line with their values. Is François Legault sending a signal to the far right, to those intolerant of new Quebecers, by saying that he wants to reduce immigration?

PC: What I will say is that La Meute doesn't like me. And I am very honoured that they don't like me.


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