Opinion: Quebec group warns of threat to English health services

The government plans to revamp a provincial access committee in a way that will compromise its independence and make it toothless, says the Quebec Community Groups Network.

The Montreal Gazette 6 minute read September 7, 2021

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 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 health-care 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.”