Quebec must give ‘clear direction’ on how French law impacts Inuit, says professor
Bill 96 adopted by province on Tuesday
A professor of family medicine in Montreal says Quebec’s newly adopted Bill 96 will need to offer “clear direction” on how the French language legislation will affect Inuit in the province.
The new law, which increases protections for French in Quebec businesses, court systems and social services, passed in a 78-29 vote at Quebec’s National Assembly on Tuesday.
In recent weeks, Bill 96 faced strong opposition from Indigenous groups concerned it will create barriers for English speakers trying to access education and health services in the province.
Richard Budgell, an assistant professor of family medicine at McGill University, said he’s concerned the law could not only affect access to health services for Inuit living in Nunavik, but also for those who have to make “thousands” of trips every year to southern Quebec for specialized medical care.
Inuit patients tend to go to Montreal’s bilingual health institutions where there is a better chance they’ll get service in English, but Bill 96 directs health-care employees to function in French “to the greatest extent possible,” Budgell said.
“Unfortunately, there will be people who will interpret this as a licence to refuse to provide service in English and that could put any patients in a situation of much less cultural safety in terms of accessing good, safe health care,” he said.
“People are going very long distances to receive necessary health care, and they come to a largely bilingual city. And many efforts are made by many people to try to provide services in English, but it’s not guaranteed.”
Budgell said it will likely take at least a year and possibly close to two years before the law takes effect. In that time, he said, the Quebec government will need to be very clear in the wording of the law itself regarding the way Indigenous groups will be affected.
“What people need is … clear direction,” he said.
“If there is an exemption, how will it be applied? In health care, I don’t know how you create an exemption that says any health-care professional that you encounter will speak to you in English. I don’t know how you make that happen.”
Education experts are also raising red flags about the bill’s wording.
In an open letter published May 20 on Nunavik’s Kativik Ilisarniliriniq school board website, president Sarah Aloupa urged Quebec Premier Francois Legault to include formal French language exemptions in the bill for all Inuit students enrolled in college programs in Quebec.
In its current form, the bill would cap the total number of students allowed in English-language CEGEP schools — which are publicly funded Quebec post-secondary schools — at 17.5 per cent of the total provincial CEGEP population. Students at English CEGEPs would also have to take extra French-language courses as part of their studies.
“In reality, Bill 96 will only create two separate college systems, with different requirements for each. Adding additional requirements for college graduation for Nunavik Inuit who have chosen to pursue their college education in English is not acceptable,” Aloupa said in the letter.
The statement from the Nunavik school board echoed concerns from other Indigenous groups in Quebec, including the Cree School Board and the Assembly of First Nations in Quebec-Labrador, which earlier this week issued a statement criticizing the passing of the bill.