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Quebec passes motion calling on store clerks to greet customers with 'bonjour'

PQ Leader Jean-Francois Lisee speaks at the legislature in Quebec City on Oct. 31, 2017.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Mariya Sadat greets customers in various languages at the Old Montreal souvenir shop where she works.

She'll use "bonjour," "hi," or, if it seems appropriate, she'll try a few words of Spanish, Urdu, or German to make them feel welcome.

"I want to keep my customers happy and leave them with good memories of when they come to Canada," she said by way of explanation.

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But while multilingual greetings may seem like common-sense customer service to Montreal retail workers like Sadat, Quebec's provincial politicians appear to disagree.

On Thursday, the legislature unanimously adopted a motion calling on store clerks to stick with a simple "bonjour" when addressing customers instead of the hybrid "bonjour/hi" often heard in Montreal.

The national assembly members voted 111-0 in favour of the motion, which is not coercive.

The PQ says too many people are speaking both French and English to customers and notes that "bonjour" is one of the most recognized words in the French language.

In 2012, Quebec's language watchdog found that French-only greetings in Montreal had declined to 74 per cent from 89 per cent since 2010. Over the same period, bilingual greetings rose to 13 per cent from one per cent, it added.

Leader Jean-Francois Lisee said the vote reaffirms that French is Quebec's official language.

But in several Montreal stores, news of the motion was met largely with shrugs and head shakes.

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Sam Mokhtar, a part-time salesman at a sports memorabilia store, believes a bilingual greeting is a source of pride for the city.

"It's good for commerce, for the city, for Montreal's reputation to be bilingual, to be welcoming to the world here," the 75-year-old said.

"Around here, everyone is in agreement, it's all about commerce," he added, gesturing at the shopping mall around him. "Politics don't work here."

Karam Gebran, who co-owns a coffee shop in Montreal's Old Port that's popular with tourists, believes a unilingual French greeting sends a signal to customers he doesn't speak English.

"It gives the wrong message," he said, adding that customers are often worried when they enter his store and see the French-only menu behind the counter.

Most of the retailers who spoke to The Canadian Press on Thursday said they speak multiple languages, not just English and French.

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Mokhtar speaks Arabic and Greek. Sadat, who moved from Afghanistan 18 years ago, has learned English, French, Spanish and Urdu in addition to her native Persian.

"I don't see a problem with it," she said. "Canada is multi-culture, multi-language."

But Lioudmila Zoueva, who runs a flower market out of a small downtown kiosk, said she personally prefers a French-only greeting because she's more comfortable speaking the language.

"'Bonjour,' I think it's universal, everyone understands it," she said. "'Bonjour/hi' to me sounds a bit stupid and repetitive."

Despite her preference, she said politicians should be focusing instead on more important issues, such as threats to small businesses and the city's plan to close her kiosk as part of a renovation to the square.

"Saving local public markets is very important, I wish they were debating that," she said.

The 'bonjour/hi"debate in the national assembly Wednesday was triggered by census numbers that day suggesting a slight drop in the use of French in the workplace.

Premier Philippe Couillard called the debate ridiculous but admitted his preference for a French-only greeting.

PQ house leader Pascal Berube believes saying only 'bonjour' is the right approach.

"It's about being original and being ourselves, and being ourselves is a major francophone city with an anglophone community," Berube said Thursday.

"First thing you have to say, I think, is 'bonjour.' It's about respect, it's easy to understand."

The original PQ motion sought to describe the expression 'bonjour/hi' as an 'irritant' but Couillard said such wording was aimed at creating an "artificial crisis and a clash between the English and French languages in Quebec."

The contentious word was dropped and the motion that was adopted read as follows: "It (the motion) invites all merchants and all employees who are in contact with local and international customers to greet them warmly with the word 'bonjour."'

Caroline Harper, who owns a store in Montreal and another in suburban Pointe-Claire, called the bilingual greeting a sign of courtesy and said it sends the message customers can be served in either language.

She also said it is smart business.

"Retailers are struggling," she said in an interview. "If we don't do everything we can to welcome people, especially tourists, we'll lose sales."

James Shea, who heads Quebec's main English-speaking advocacy group, said the bilingual approach is a "sign of respect for the English language in Quebec."

He also said it is quite a debate for just two words.

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