Deal with Quebec aims to improve wide array of services for francophones

Okalik: pact might improve French health care


French-speaking Nunavut residents are unlikely to receive medical attention in their native tongue, because there are few French-speaking doctors and nurses in the territory.

But that may improve, says Nunavut's premier, following an agreement he signed with Quebec on Aug. 22 that calls for both governments to work more closely together in providing French-language services.

Premier Paul Okalik acknowledged that medical services in French is "something we lack in this territory," during the signing ceremony in Nunavut's legislative assembly.

But he said the deal, called a "partnership and exchange agreement for francophone affairs," may lead to more French-speaking doctors from Quebec visiting Nunavut.

"They could make a side trip and deliver services in French," he said.

Okalik said the agreement, signed by himself and Quebec's minister of intergovernmental affairs and francophones within Canada, Benoit Pelletier, "may not be monetary, but it will greatly assist [francophones] in getting services, en francais."

A report released by l'Association des Francophones du Nunavut in December 2006 found that none of Nunavut's doctors spoke French, and the ability of nurses and visiting specialists to speak French was spotty.

Sixty per cent of Nunavut francophones interviewed for the report said they were unhappy with their ability to receive medical services in French.

While Nunavut's francophones speak English to some degree, the language barrier becomes a problem in emergency situations, explained one respondent to the report, because "when you're stressed out, you become unilingual. In those situations, you need an interpreter."

The report acknowledged that such services also remain inadequate in Inuktitut, and that fixing this should be the health department's first priority.

But it said more efforts should still be taken to recruit French-speaking nurses and doctors, considering there are between 800 to 1,000 francophones in Nunavut, according to the association's own numbers.

Statistics Canada puts the number much lower, at about 425, in a 2001 study.

Last week's promise to improve access to services in French was welcomed by Daniel Cuerrier, the Francophone association's general director.

He suggested Nunavut could also learn how to improve its education system from Quebec.

He pointed to how education is offered in English, French and Inuttitut in Nunavik. Parents have often asked for Inuktitut to be offered in Trois Soleils school in Iqaluit, but Cuerrier said that's not currently possible, due to how the school receives funding.

But it could one day happen, he suggested, if the Conseil Scolaire francophone d'Iqaluit learned from the Kativik School Board.

The agreement touches on many subjects, from education and health to economic development, so Cuerrier said it's early to say how much it will affect the lives of francophones in Nunavut. "It's not quite precise on what it will focus on."

"If we're looking for a pot of gold, that's not in the agreement. There are a few dollars," he said. "It's really a government thing."

Such a pot of gold would be welcomed by the francophone association, which is cutting spending this year after running up a deficit over the last year.

Cuerrier declined to say how far in the red the association is, as financial statements have not yet been shared with the association's members, other than, "too much."

"But it's been a very tough year," he said.

In 2006 the association celebrated its 25th anniversary with a splurge of events, such as parties with music played by visiting musicians from Morocco, Haiti and Quebec.

"This year will be more quiet, I guess," he said.

The association plans to continue to support the Qimualaniq Quest, a dog-sled race from Iqaluit to Kimmirut started this year, although they will likely need to find more sponsors, Cuerrier said.

Other projects have folded.

The association's magazine, Le Toit du Monde, published its last issue in May. Cuerrier said the association hoped the magazine, which published quarterly since 2001, would eventually pay for itself, but they were unable to sell enough advertisements to break even.

"It's too hard to support for a small organization like us," he said.

The association's contributions to the weekly French newspaper l'Aquilon, published from Yellowknife, are also currently suspended, although it will likely resume in the autumn.

And the association's popular Friday lunches also ceased this summer, due to the departure of their cook, Jean-Francois Caron. But another cook in town has been hired to resume the meals in September, Cuerrier said.

The association annually receives more than $1 million each year from a half-dozen federal funds. But accessing this money has become more difficult since the Conservatives were elected, Cuerrier said.

"There have not been cutbacks, per se, but the processes have slowed down a lot."

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