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  • Writer's pictureTrevor Greenway

Critics warn Bill 15 will mean no health care in English

Gatineau MNA Robert Bussière says that anyone who lives in Quebec before the government adopts Bill 15 will have their rights to English healthcare grandfathered in.

Anyone who moves to the province after his CAQ government passes its healthcare reform bill, well, he isn’t so sure.

His words come just days after Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé tabled an amendment to Bill 15 that would give the province’s new health authority – Santé Quebec – the power to strip English services in places with less than 50 per cent anglophones. Critics were quick to call out the amendment, arguing that it would restrict English-speaking Quebecers’ right to healthcare in their first language, but Bussière defended the bill and said local, English-speaking residents have nothing to fear.

“Chelsea is a good example where [the population] is less than 50 per cent English speakers right now, and, if I remember well, the municipality keeps giving the services in English,” said Bussière. “I was in La Pêche for 28 years, and we were always under 50 per cent, but we chose as a municipality to keep giving English services, even though we were not obliged to.”

Chelsea passed a bilingual designation bylaw earlier this year, as did close to 90 cities, towns and villages throughout the province, to continue to provide English services to residents. La Pêche does not have bilingual status, as 58 per cent of residents list French as their first language, but the municipality still offers some English services to residents. In Chelsea, English speakers account for 47.8 per cent of the population, according to 2021 Census data.

“If you go to the hospital and you were born in Quebec, you’re entitled to your service in English, and that will continue forever,” said Bussière. “If you are here at the time when we adopt [Bill 15], you’re allowed to have your services, and we will continue giving them to you.”

When asked what happens if someone moves to Quebec after Bill 15 is tabled, he said he didn’t know.

However the MNA’s comments on the matter seem to be out of line with his own party. There has never been any talk from the CAQ government about grandfathering in English health rights, and healthcare watchdogs in the region say they aren’t convinced that the CAQ will protect them.

If Quebec decides to strip bilingual health services based on regional population numbers, which has been mentioned, all English speakers in the MRC des Collines region would be affected. According to 2021 census data, 39,545 residents in the region list French as their first language, compared to just 14,020 English speakers. That converts to just over 25 per cent of residents whose mother tongue is English.

This is what has healthcare advocates worried, as they say they aren’t clear on what data the government will use when defining populations and who will ultimately decide to revoke a health institution’s bilingual status.

“Of course, it affects the community. Our community is so bilingual. I live in Chelsea, you’re in Wakefield, and we know how important these services are,” said Marcel Chartrand, referring to where this reporter works out of. Chartrand’s a spokesperson for Vigi Santé, a healthcare watchdog group in the Outaouais.

“We try to maintain a level of services for anglophones as clearly as possible, especially in the health system. If that change occurs, it would impact everywhere in the MRC des Collines,” added Chartrand.

Quebecers from across the province have been fighting against the bill with more than 6,400 residents signing a petition against it in just six days. The Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) was expected to present the petition to the National Assembly Dec. 5.

A day after Dubé tabled his controversial motion, he backpedaled and said he didn’t understand the impact the amendment could have on English-speaking communities. He is now awaiting further clarification from experts, namely the Office québécois de la langue française. He told reporters in Montreal on Dec. 4 that he is prepared to trash the amendment if it’s determined that it would threaten the bilingual status of hospitals or the possibility of obtaining services in English.

However, Quebec Liberal party Health Critic André Fortin said he and his party are “struggling to understand” how CAQ couldn’t have anticipated such an amendment would have a major impact on English speakers in Quebec. He said Dubé and his lawyers “downplayed” the impact during caucus discussions but then backpedaled when he was called out publicly.

“It’s pretty plainly obvious to us and to a lot of English-speaking backers that removing bilingual status from any healthcare establishment is going to ensure or is going to make it so that some people just don’t have access,” Fortin told the Low Down. “People need healthcare in their own language; you have to understand what the prescriptions you are given entail; what your condition requires in terms of care; you have to be able to understand the healthcare professionals that are treating you; so for him to not see the impact and bring forward an amendment like this is shocking.”

Bill 15 is the province’s major healthcare reform bill and will centralize healthcare services, with one central body – Santé Quebec – making the decisions for the province’s 17 administrative regions.

QCGN president Eva Ludvig accused the government of rushing the bill through and said the latest amendment contributes to a “very nasty pattern” from the CAQ government to trample on one culture’s rights to boost another’s.

“We are shocked that Health Minister Christian Dubé would try to drop an amendment like this into Bill 15 at the last moment, days before the government is about to invoke closure to ram this bill through the National Assembly,” said Ludvig. “It seems the only way they feel they can protect and promote French in Quebec is to restrict or deny the rights and access to services of the English-speaking community here – even when those minority-language rights are guaranteed by law.”

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