A language bill sends shivers down the spine to some Quebec hospitals

Quebec Premier Francois Legault is pictured during a news conference after meeting with Canada’s provincial premiers in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, December 2, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio/File Photo

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MONTREAL, April 22 (Reuters) – A planned change to French language laws in Quebec could see understaffed hospitals in the Canadian province grapple with hiring headaches during a labor shortage while battling the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, critics say.

Language remains a sensitive issue in the predominantly French-speaking province, where dissatisfaction with the dominance of English helped fuel the rise of the Parti separatiste Québécois (PQ) in the 1970s.

According to Eric Maldoff, president of a coalition of health institutions that support the use of French but want the sector to be exempt from the law.

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Under proposed Bill 96, administrators, for example, would have to take “reasonable means” to avoid including other languages ​​as a job requirement.

“If you can’t recruit the people who can provide the service, it’s hard to get the service even if it’s licensed,” said Maldoff, who served as an adviser to former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Quebec, the second most populous province in the country, has one of the highest job vacancy rates in Canada, with vacancies in the health and social assistance network being of particular concern, wrote the Institut du Québec non-profit in 2021.

The bill, which would also bolster the use of French in small businesses and colleges, is being considered by lawmakers. It is unclear when or if it would be approved by the provincial legislature.

Changes to Quebec’s language laws are tricky because they have sometimes triggered constitutional challenges. The Quebec government, however, incorporated language into Bill 96 in an effort to circumvent these legal issues.

Elisabeth Gosselin, spokeswoman for Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, said there was no need to worry. She said the law would not change the rights set out in the province’s existing health law.

“There is nothing in the bill that will prevent a citizen from receiving adequate care,” she said.

The government of Quebec Premier François Legault, which faces an election in October, proposed the bill following concerns about a decline in the use of French among businesses in downtown Montreal, the largest city in the province, and among senior executives.

On Thursday, the Montreal-based Canadian National Railway Company (CNR.TO) came under pressure from pension fund Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over a lack of native French speakers on the company’s board of directors.

Last year, the chief executive of Montreal-based Air Canada apologized after suggesting he didn’t need to speak French, one of Canada’s two official languages. Read more

“It’s important to understand that French will always be in a vulnerable position in North America,” said Wednesday Legault, who served as a PQ member of the Quebec Legislative Assembly from 1998 to 2009.

Although exceptions are cited for public health and safety, the bill has sown confusion over who is entitled to health services in English and other languages, alarming newcomers, including refugees , Maldoff said.

It also allows healthcare workers’ decisions and their French skills to be challenged through anonymous complaints, which would have a chilling effect, he said.

The Quebec Department of Justice did not respond to inquiries about who would be able to get services in English under the proposed law.

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Reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal Editing by Denny Thomas and Paul Simao

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