You had me at 'bonjour': Quebec's pointman on secularism sets sights on bilingual greetings

A month after taking on the French language portfolio, Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette says he hopes to ensure "bonjour" is the default greeting in the province's stores and businesses — not "bonjour/hi."

Simon Jolin-Barrette wants people to be welcomed in businesses and shops in French, period

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette was handed the French language portfolio a month ago. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The man who ushered in Quebec's religious symbols law has set his sights on another longstanding point of contention: how retailers greet their customers.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who was handed the French language portfolio a month ago, has begun to contemplate the issue, saying Friday he hopes to ensure "bonjour" is the default greeting in the province's stores and businesses — not the bilingual "bonjour/hi."

Jolin-Barrette made his comments after a committee meeting about steps being taken to reinforce Quebec's language-protection law, known as Bill 101. 

He said he was looking not just at state-owned organizations, but commercial businesses in general.

"People want to be greeted in French in businesses and shops as well as by the Quebec government," he said. "So that will be part of my reflections."

Jolin-Barrette said he's considering his options around the bilingual greeting and that "everything is on the table."

But he was quick to dismiss suggestions the outcome would be inspectors verifying how people are welcomed into shops.

"We're not in the frame of mind of language police," he said.

In the context of provincial language policy, Jolin-Barrette's intentions are neither radical nor new; the provincial legislature passed non-binding motions favouring "bonjour" over "bonjour/hi" in June of this year and in 2017, both times with unanimous support from all parties. (The 2017 motion did cause controversy).

As with anything related to language in Quebec, "bonjour/hi" is a thorny issue. 

Christine St-Pierre, the Liberal MNA for Acadie and the opposition critic on the French language portfolio, says the greeting is "always, always, always going to be a sensitive topic in Quebec, because the French language is so fragile."

"We're just two per cent of North America," she said. 

Geoffrey Chambers, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, said he opposes the government's plan to scrap 'bonjour/hi.' (CBC)

In Montreal, some view the double-edged greeting as emblematic of the city's bilingual identity. But for other Quebecers, the notion of bilingualism can be problematic, and the addition of the English "hi" is a warning sign. 

"It starts with that, and eventually you speak only in English," François Legault said in reference to "bonjour/hi" on CBC's Daybreak in 2017, around a year before he became premier.

Geoffrey Chambers, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, a non-profit advocacy group for English-speaking Quebecers, said that by taking aim at the bilingual greeting, the government is trying to pick at an old scab.

"It's not a bad thing. It shouldn't be prohibited. It won't be able to be prohibited. It just seems to me to be looking for a fight where we really don't need one."

Awaiting a plan

When pressed for specifics about his plans, Jolin-Barrette said repeatedly he was reflecting on the issue and would return with a plan in the coming weeks or months.

St-Pierre said the Quebec Liberal Party was in favour of policies to protect French in the province.

"I'm ready to look at whatever the minister puts on the table," she said. "I'm ready to discuss with him, to work in concert with him, to make sure French is well protected in Quebec.

"But you can also be certain that we support individual freedoms. And this government has a bad habit of suspending individual freedoms. We'll see what the government is going to do."

St-Pierre resisted condemnation of Jolin-Barrette's plans, noting that he had yet to deliver any specific policies or bills.

"I don't know what he has in mind," she said. "We will see what he wants to do. If he tables a bill, we will look at the bill."

Layton Audio owner Sheldon Cohen says his employees usually start by greeting customers in French. (CBC)

'It's a polite greeting'

In practical terms, each business seems to go their own way when it comes to determining how staff greet customers.

When people walk into Layton Audio in downtown Montreal, employees usually start with "bonjour," said owner Sheldon Cohen, who is an anglophone.

"We see which language they're most comfortable with, whether it's English or French," he said. "It's a habit that we do. We're in Quebec, so we assume French first."

He said he doesn't see why some people blow the issue out of proportion.

"You shouldn't get offended if someone says 'hello, bonjour' or whatever. There's no offence to it. It's a polite greeting."


John MacFarlane


John MacFarlane is a journalist at CBC Montreal. He also works as a filmmaker and producer.


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