Montreal Gazette

GROUP WARNS OF NEW THREAT TO ENGLISH HEALTH SERVICES

- ALLISON HANES

As if English-speaking Quebecers didn't have enough to worry about.

The Quebec Community Groups Network, an umbrella group representi­ng anglophone organizati­ons, is warning of a new threat to health and social services in English in the province.

Over the summer, the government quietly announced its intent to restructur­e the provincial access committee that for decades has been instrument­al in monitoring where, when and how services are delivered to English-speakers across the province.

Since the 1990s, regional committees, drawn from members of the anglophone community, have offered advice on how to improve care in their area, be it at the many bilingual institutio­ns in Montreal or in small regional francophon­e hospitals in the Gaspé. They submit suggestion­s to their local health authority, known as a CISSS or a CIUSSS, which then forwards them to the provincial access committee, also composed of community representa­tives.

This body in turn makes recommenda­tions to the minister of health and social services, such as: ensuring informed consent forms are widely available in English; suggesting that anglophone residents be grouped together in French long-term care homes; or demanding that public health guidelines about COVID -19 be distribute­d in English.

But the government plans to revamp the provincial committee in a way that the QCGN says will compromise its independen­ce and make it toothless.

Among the multiple proposed changes: the health minister will control the appointmen­t of new members after they are vetted by a selection panel; the minister will also choose the chair and vice-chair; a government employee will serve as secretary and control communicat­ions; the members will be subject to a confidenti­ality clause and must seek permission to consult or speak with community representa­tives; Montreal, where the bulk of anglophone­s reside, will have two members, down from three or four; and the scope of the committee's mandate will be scaled back to commenting on access plans, instead of anything related to the dispensing of health and social services in English.

In other words, an important watchdog is being neutered at a time when it is most needed, said Eric Maldoff, chair of the QCGN'S health and social services committee. “The right to services in English, boiling it down, comes to this: There's no right without an access program,” he said. “The nature of the right depends on the quality of the access program. The quality of the access program depends on the quality of the regional access committees and the provincial access committee. And if any part of that chain breaks down, the effect is to detract from, diminish or even ignore the right to access to services in English.”

But Christophe­r Skeete, Premier François Legault's parliament­ary secretary for anglophone affairs, said the changes are aimed at making the committee more representa­tive. For instance, Laval, Montérégie and the Eastern Townships will be given more space, and members of Indigenous communitie­s will be added. The changes will also loop in the Secretaria­t for Relations With English-speaking Quebecers, a body within the government responsibl­e for anglophone affairs.

“Honestly, this is good news for the community in my eyes because it gives us a greater regional representa­tion, it empowers (Indigenous) communitie­s and it makes sure that the secretaria­t and Indigenous Affairs are at the table to improve outcomes,” Skeete said.

Quebec's anglophone community is already rattled over Bill 96, the government's legislatio­n to strengthen protection for the French language. Despite reassuranc­es from Legault that anglophone­s will not lose their rights or services, the proposed law would neverthele­ss put new limits on the use of English in the workplace, justice system and education.

What's more, Bill 96 seeks to unilateral­ly amend the Constituti­on so that French is recognized as the sole language of the Quebec nation, potentiall­y making anglophone­s and other minority groups second-class citizens. It would make the Charter of the French Language the most important piece of legislatio­n, taking precedence over the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights. The sweeping language law is also shielded from court challenges through the use of the notwithsta­nding clause.

Bill 96 could also restrict who has access to care in English, excluding many allophones, immigrants or newcomers. Currently English speakers don't have to prove anything, but the QCGN says the new law seeks to narrow the criteria to those who qualify for English-language schools. “Health and social services is not a means for social integratio­n. Communicat­ion is an absolutely essential component of quality and safe care,” Maldoff said. “As Lucien Bouchard once said a long time ago, `When you go to the hospital, you're going for a blood test, not a language test.'”

The restructur­ing of the provincial access committee upends a social consensus that has long reigned in Quebec.

“The (Coalition Avenir Québec) is carving a sharp wooden stick out of an olive branch nurtured for close to 30 years by the English-speaking community leaders across Quebec, successive government­s and healthcare profession­als,” said David Birnbaum, the Liberal opposition critic for anglophone affairs. “Once again, the CAQ is creating a wedge instead of building on a carefully built consensus.”

The timing of these major modificati­ons is also underhande­d, with the pandemic entering its fourth wave. On a more basic level, notice of the changes was published in the Gazette officielle on June 30, as the summer holiday began and few people were paying attention. There was a 45-day window to solicit feedback before which the regulation can be implemente­d at any time.

Many interested parties only found out by happenstan­ce. The committee members had no idea they were about to be turfed and their work rendered moot. Nearly a decade has passed since the access plans were last reviewed because of Bill 10, a major overhaul of the health system in 2015. Now that the provincial committee is in the final stages of its work, the rug is being yanked.

In many ways, this is arcane, bureaucrat­ic stuff. And perhaps the government is counting on citizen apathy as it centralize­s power and blunts constructi­ve criticism. The QCGN has expressed its disappoint­ment to Health Minister Christian Dubé. But now it's trying to sound the alarm among members of the public. Though many English-speaking Quebecers have never heard of it, the work of the provincial access committee is hugely important — perhaps now more than ever.

“It's no accident that Bill 96 and new proposed (provincial access committee) regulation­s come about during a pandemic when everyone's attention is elsewhere,” lamented QCGN president Marlene Jennings. “If (Bill 96) goes through, it changes the kind of society we live in in Quebec, but it will also have major repercussi­ons on the kind of country we live in.”

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