A planned change to French language laws in Quebec could see understaffed hospitals in the Canadian province wrestling with hiring headaches during a labor shortage while battling the COVID-19 pandemic, critics say.
Language remains a sensitive issue in the mostly French-speaking province, where unhappiness over the dominance of English helped fuel the rise of the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) in the 1970s.
The sweeping legislation proposed by the nationalist Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government would, among other things, make it harder for hospitals to hire staff that speak languages other than French, complicating efforts to serve patients, said Eric Maldoff, chair of a coalition of health care institutions that supports the use of French but wants the sector exempt from the law.
Under the proposed Bill 96, administrators, for example, would need to take "reasonable means" to avoid including other languages as a job requirement.
"If you cannot recruit the people who can deliver the service, then it's hard to have the service even if it is permitted," said Maldoff, who served as an adviser to former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
Quebec, the country's second most populous province, has one of Canada's highest job vacancy rates, with unfilled positions in the health and social assistance network especially worrisome, the nonprofit Institut du Québec wrote in 2021.
Lawmakers are reviewing the bill, which also would toughen French usage in smaller companies and colleges. It's not clear when or whether they will approve it.
Changes to Quebec's language laws are tricky and sometimes have triggered constitutional challenges. Quebec's government, however, has embedded language in Bill 96 to try to bypass such legal issues.
Nothing to prevent 'adequate care'
Elisabeth Gosselin, a spokesperson for Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, said there was no need for worry. She said the law would not change rights set out in the province's existing health law.
"There is nothing in the bill that will prevent a citizen from receiving adequate care," she said.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault's government, which faces an October election, proposed the bill following concerns about a decline in French usage among downtown businesses in Montreal, the province's largest city, and among top executives.
On Thursday, Montreal-based Canadian National Railway Co. came under pressure from pension fund Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over a lack of native French speakers on the company's board.
Last year, the chief executive officer of Montreal-based Air Canada apologized after suggesting he did not need to speak French, one of Canada's two official languages.
"It's important to understand that French will always be in a vulnerable position in North America," Legault, who was a PQ member of Quebec's legislature from 1998 to 2009, said Wednesday.
While exceptions are cited for health and public safety, the bill has created confusion over who is entitled to health services in English and other languages, raising alarm for new arrivals, including refugees, Maldoff said.
It also allows health care workers' decisions and French language skills to be challenged through anonymous complaints, which would have a chilling effect, he said.
Quebec's justice department did not answer requests for comment about who would be able to get services in English under the proposed law.