La liberté ne s’accomode pas d’une discipline qui a pour devise: chez les autres on vous apprend comment penser; chez nous, on fait mieux, on vous apprend quoi penser.” ~ Jean-Charles Harvey, rédacteur-en-chef, Le Jour

As we were preparing this editorial on the latest resurrection of the “Bonjour/Hi” debate news came in that Premier Legault announced that there would be no legislation on this matter. Better late than never M. Legault, but this should never have been raised at all again.

The latest flack started last week when the Minister Responsible for the French Language Simon Jolin-Barrette announced that “all options were on the table” to rid Quebec of the dreaded phrase. Nonsense of course. And there has been a rumour about that Premier Legault actually dressed down his Minister in private for opening a door that led to speculation that the CAQ government might actually be considering legislation.

But what was interesting — and heartening for the maturity of our public discourse — is the reaction in the public square. PQ language critic Paul Arsenau said he “can’t imagine legislation. You can’t stop people from saying what they want. The government should encourage and persuade but not legislate.” The reaction from French media was just as candid and just as denunciatory. They didn’t want a replay of Pastagate that made Quebec a laughing stock around the world.

And being a laughing stock not something Premier Legault wants. He wants to do business. He knows well enough that another global reaction is not going to help Quebec. As he has said many times, whether one is a nationalist or a sovereigntist, it must be recognized that Quebec is not “sustainable” having to survive on $13 billion in federal welfare through equalization payments. Quebec takes 70% of all transfer payments. He understands that we need foreign investment.

But the following still must be said. Again and again. Even if some assume this would be a good idea, you cannot legislate what people say as Arsenau made clear. And any attempt to do so with digitalized tape recorder toting inspectors would be met by civil disobedience from Francophones and Anglophones alike. As civil rights attorney Julius Grey has warned so often, “we may not yet be a police state but we are an inspector state.”

The other thing that must be said — and shouted from rooftops again and again — is that this was a really bad idea. We must be a societynthat is open and welcoming. That is a truly good idea.

When a society begins attempts at legislating how people speak, it may be called many things but free is not one of them. It is precisely this society’s utter failure to get basic things right, that it’s governments — of whatever party — resort to exploiting division and discord to distract people from those failures.

The OQLF’s own figures released in the fall of 2018 demonstrated that 95% of all people questioned were able to get themselves properly served in French. What are the extremists aiming for? The statiscally unatainable one hundred per cent? And even if that were so, how is that goal to be abetted by the Orwellian suppression of personal expression.

This is about the never-ending demonization of all non- Francophones. This is about the never-ending exploitation of fabricated Francophone fears. This is about the never-ending paralysis of Quebec stuck in continuing culture wars with politicians always appealing to the lowest common denominator. This is dangerous stuff. Premier Legault may have recognized that.

A free society is not free if its legislature tells people what to think. Or in what language to speak. Most francophones are themselves tired of the culture wars. They want expanded opportunity too. There is perhaps one other ray of hope in this episode. The broad mass of Montrealers — of all ethnic and language origins — are deriding this overt display of mean and petty spirit. The people are smarter than the politicians. And gutsier. They are best exemplified by the salesgirl who when asked why she won’t drop “Hi” she looked right into the camera and stated with clarity and candour, “It’s about freedom of speech, right?” Yes it is. It so truly is.

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