Richard Budgell, an assistant professor at McGill University’s department of family medicine, teaches a course on Inuit health and says Quebec’s proposed Bill 96 could negatively impact access to English-language health services in Nunavik. (Photo courtesy of McGill University)

Quebec’s Bill 96 could impact Nunavik health services, professor warns

Proposed French law could affect access to health services, education, says Richard Budgell

By Madalyn Howitt

A professor of Inuit health in Quebec is “frustrated” with a new French language protection law, saying the complex legislation could negatively impact access to health services in Nunavik.

Quebec’s proposed Bill 96 aims to give French more prominence across the province by boosting protections for French to be spoken in businesses, education, immigration services and court systems.

However, critics of the bill say it would restrict services in English and create barriers to accessing health care and other social services.

“There’s a kind of spirit in the legislation in the health-care context, to discourage people working in the system from providing services in any language other than French,” said Richard Budgell, an assistant professor at McGill University in the department of family medicine.

Prior to joining the school, Budgell was executive director of the Quebec regional office of the First Nations Health Branch and was the federal negotiator on the Nunavik self-government agreement.

He is currently teaching a course on Inuit health with a focus on services in Nunavik, and notes that while roughly 98 per cent of Inuit in Nunavik speak Inuktitut as a first language, it is English, not French, that’s overwhelmingly likely to be spoken as a second language.

“That means that people seek health services in English because they know they can’t get them in Inuktitut, generally. Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem also,” Budgell said.

If the bill passes, however, it would direct health-care professionals to avoid speaking any language other than French, which diminishes the quality of care, Budgell said.

“It can impede healing and curing illness or disease, because medicine is obviously not just about prescriptions or surgery, health care is about communication. You want professionals to be in a position where they can communicate in a language that the patient understands,” Budgell said.

The legislation would also give the Quebec Board of the French Language Office increased powers of search and seizure to inspect businesses with 25 or more employees and ensure they are complying with the law.

The bill’s notwithstanding clause means individuals who feel their language rights have been infringed upon will not be able to challenge it through Canada’s or Quebec’s charters or rights and freedoms, which the Quebec bill would override.

It would also remove bilingual status from municipalities that do not have an English-speaking population of at least 50 per cent.

The proposed bill has faced opposition from many in Quebec’s anglophone and Indigenous communities.

Thousands of people in Montreal protested Bill 96 at a downtown march on May 15, and several First Nations leaders have denounced a clause in the bill that would require students attending English CEGEP, or general and vocational schools, to take more French courses, saying it could impact Indigenous language protections.

Budgell said while there are no CEGEP schools in Nunavik, the clause could still impact Inuit students moving to southern Quebec for post-secondary education.

“Because there are already barriers to post-secondary education for people coming from Nunavik, because of distance [and] the cultural difference, to put an additional challenge in front of Inuit students will not make things easier for them,” Budgell said.

The bill would also cap the number of students attending English CEGEP schools at 17.5 per cent of the total CEGEP population.

“This is all really disappointing, because I think we should be encouraging post-secondary achievement. I think we should be getting rid of barriers instead of creating new ones,” he said.

It is likely the bill will pass in its current form, given that Quebec’s government has a majority, Budgell said.

However, he hopes health-care institutions will be involved in implementation of the bill to push for guaranteeing services in English “to the greatest extent that they are able to within their institutions.”

“In the health-care system, I think we should be making health care more accessible and increase the cultural safety within the health-care system, and this seems to be moving in the opposite direction,” Budgell said.

Makivik Corp., which is the legal representative of Inuit in Quebec, and the Kativik Regional Government did not respond to requests for comment.

Ian Lafrenière, minister of Indigenous Affairs for the National Assembly of Quebec, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Bill 96 is expected to come to a vote in the National Assembly at the end of May.


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(2) Comments:

  1. Posted by Truestory on

    Get Nunavikmiut to become Nunavummiut. Better for them.

  2. Posted by Tulugaq on

    Unfortunately, this professor is trying to spread fear in people to advance his own agenda while the bill doesn’t change anything in terms of health services. Anglo-Quebeckers are the most fortunate minority in the world with their own education and health systems that are often better than what is available to the majority of Quebeckers. Further, the bill exempts people that are part of the JBNQA of its application when that would be in contravention to the agreement.

    That being said, health services should obviously be in Inuktitut in Nunavik (and Nunavut) as this is the language spoken by the vast majority of Nunavimmiut. The education system should put the emphasis on training Inuit to become nurses and doctors and, as well, ensure that medical staff that work in Nunavik speak Inuktitut or have an opportunity to learn the language in a specific time frame. This is a much more important challenge than fighting for English as a colonial language.


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