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Bill 96: If you don’t want to do something, one reason is as good as another

My maternal grandparents came to Canada from what is now the Ukraine, in the early 1920’s. My grandfather was sent a ticket by his cousin, my great-uncle Simcha. My grandmother and her four sisters were brought by his wife, my great-aunt Adelle. How they managed to save all that money while working sweatshop jobs in four or five years I will never know. Yossi and Rivka, my Bubbie and Zaidie, met when Yossi went to help bring the sisters and their luggage from the boat. Over the next few years they got jobs, bought a house, and started a business which employed a number of people. They had a daughter and a son who they sent to English affiliated schools, since the predominantly francophone Catholic schools of the day had no interest in dealing with “Les Autres.”

What they never accomplished was to become fluent enough in English to negotiate the healthcare system and other bureaucracies. From the age of nine my mother was pressed into service to be her parents’ English translator and cultural broker.

Now my work is largely with refugee claimants and new immigrants. Many of the refugees have arrived penniless, traumatised and disoriented. They struggle to negotiate this strange system, its expectations, and the snow. I am always amazed at how quickly they find work even in these hard pandemic times. They avidly attend French classes and bring their kids to the local French schools. What they find difficult is dealing with the health care system in a language not their own. Our clinic uses translators all the time and I have Google Translate always open. Many of our current residents are from these cultural communities and, themselves being fluent in French and English, they are also able to bridge the gaps so that our patients are well cared for.

The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government’s newly proposed law, Bill 96, plans to make it illegal for new immigrants or refugees to be served for any government services, including health care, in any language other than French, after six months in the province. The image of two fluent Punjabi speakers being forced to communicate in French because of government fiat strikes me as completely absurd, cruel and ultimately dangerous. In many ways this follows a pattern of the Legault government’s strategy: announce something completely unacceptable, wait for the flurry of protest and then walk it back. However, just in case this is not political grandstanding, let us consider the possible consequences.

We all know that good communications are the very basis of good medicine. How difficult will it be to get our patients to the right place at the right time? How will we ethically obtain informed consent? How about the elderly and demented, who can often lose their acquired languages? What about our many patients who are suffering from mental illness and PTSD as a result of war and torture? While it is conceivable that in six months one could acquire enough French to deal with a UTI or an Otitis Media, I doubt that effective medical care or social services for the complex issues facing our patients can be done without accessing care in other languages. This law, however, is the type of measure that plays well to constituents outside of Montreal where the CAQ has their power base and immigrants are rare. 

Health professionals of all stripes have protested against these measures. They see the death and destruction this bill will bring. Despite this the Minister championing this bill, Simon Jolin-Barrette has said “It was even written in black and white in Bill 96. Citizens will continue to have access to health care. There is nothing in the proposed legislation that will prevent Quebecers from getting treatment.” This seems disingenuous when the de facto effect of the law deprives a subset of the population from getting proper treatment.

I detect a theme in SJB’s (as he is called) legislative agenda. In 2019, he was the prime mover of Bill 21, which effectively banned women wearing hijabs, and men wearing Kippahs or turbans from being public workers in positions of authority, so that they cannot be teachers, police officers, or judges.  The government pre-emptively invoked the Not-Withstanding Clause, because this legislation patently contravened the Canadian and Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In February 2019, Jolin-Barrett cancelled 18,000 immigration applications from around the world that had previously been accepted by the immigration department of Quebec. The immigration lawyers association of Quebec won a temporary injunction from the Superior Court of Quebec preventing this draconian move which would have left those people in limbo for many years.  SJB, as Minister of Immigration, suggested a Quebec values test which immigrants would have to pass.

Also in 2019, during Jolin-Barrette’s term, the title of Minister of Immigration, Diversity, and Inclusion was changed to Minister of Immigration, Francization and Integration. I feel that this is a telling rebranding.

There is a pattern to all this:  forgive me if I say that the effects of Bill 96 on the education, health and social system, seem to imply that Non-European immigrants, particularly those whose religious affiliation is important to them and visible, are not welcome here.

Premier Legault, in the face of many scandals, has repeatedly said that there is no institutional racism in Quebec, but with this new law what looked like a duck, and walked like a duck, is starting to quack.

 My old mentor, Michael Klein, used to say, “If you don’t want to do something, one reason is as good as another.” And in this case The CAQ attitude towards members of different and vulnerable cultural communities seems to be seeking out reasons to alienate, and isolate “Les Autres” and encourage them to disappear.

In the meantime, if this law passes, I will go back to my old ways as an outlaw. Just as I supplied birth control to unmarried women and arranged abortions in the 70’s, I will continue to try and access safe and effective care for my patients to the best of my abilities, in whatever language they need.