Legault says English health-care worries over Bill 96 are 'disinformation'; experts disagree

Stopping through Laval on Tuesday to make some remarks on transit, Premier François Legault instead found himself peppered by questions about Bill 96 and the direction of language politics in Quebec.

He took the opportunity to say that there's been "disinformation" spreading, in his opinion -- and that on one important question, health care, many critics of  the bill are wrong.

Health care will still be provided in English whenever the patient prefers, as it is now, Legault said.

"I want to be very clear, and I'm happy that you asked this question," he told the reporter who asked.

"I want to reassure everybody speaking English, even if their fathers went to an English school or not... [providers] will not refuse to treat a patient in English if it's needed," he said.

"I want to be very clear, there is no change at all in the actual situation of services given to anglophones and immigrants in English in our health-care system -- that's clear."

The term used by Legault, "disinformation," means intentionally spread falsehoods, while "misinformation" is usually used to describe incorrect information that people unknowingly spread in good faith.

ON HEALTH CARE, CONFUSION REIGNS

The confusion over the details of health care under Bill 96 has been growing for several days, ever since the Quebec legislature passed a series of final amendments to the bill, in preparation for its likely passage in early June.

The National Post published an article claiming that only paper-holding historic English-speakers will be able to get health care in English, or immigrants within their first six months in Quebec.

Doctors and other health staff have also expressed concern about the bill to other outlets, saying they believe it will limit their ability to communicate in English whenever needed.

Officially bilingual institutions like the Jewish General Hospital will also be able to keep providing care to all patients in English.

MNA Christopher Skeete, who is the English-speakers' liaison for Legault's ruling CAQ party, has been frequently discussing the issue on Twitter, saying the fears are wrong and mentioning different provisions in the bill that he says would keep English in use in health care.

He said, for example, that there's a carve-out in the rules for English speakers, as well as a "grandfather clause" for people who have been receiving English services up until now.

He also said the system is "complaint-based," meaning a patient would have to be unhappy about receiving services in English and complain to language watchdog the OQLF in order for a doctor or nurse to be penalized or asked to switch languages.

CTV News has asked Skeete and the CAQ for a final explanation of whether, or how, health-care access in English would change under the bill, and whether they're considering passing another amendment to make the bill's provisions clearer.

LEGAL EXPERTS SKEPTICAL OF LEGAULT'S COMMENTS

More legal experts weighed in on Tuesday, with the dean of McGill's law school, Robert Leckey, writing in a long analysis on Twitter that he doesn't believe Legault's reassurances count for much, nor is there reason to believe from the bill's wording that there is, in fact, a broad exemption for all English speakers.

For one thing, English services depend on staffing, and the bill makes it harder to justify hiring English-speaking staff, Leckey pointed out.

It also bars the administration from making "systematic use" of non-French languages -- another general barrier to setting up bilingual services.

As for the exemption, one section of the bill says that "an agency of the civil administration may depart from [the French requirement] by using another language in addition to French in its written documents... where health, public safety or the principles of natural justice so require."

But Leckey questioned if that was indeed a "broad carve-out" for all health services for all English speakers.

"The exception for health may be interpreted narrowly – even limited to situations of life and death," he said, especially when comparing with the rules laid out for the other two exemptions, natural justice and public safety.

More than that, the bill talks about maintaining known English-speakers' services, but it doesn't provide any guidance on whether staff or patients can speak in a third language if they manage to find someone to serve them in it.

"It says nothing about a Greek-speaking person who has found a social worker who speaks her language," said Leckey.

"Or a therapist who can speak the mother tongue of an autistic child from Afghanistan."

His entire analysis can be read here:

Are health and social services exempted from the obligation #Bill96 imposes on the civil administration to use the French language?

— Robert Leckey (@DeanLeckey) May 18, 2022

Lawyer Eric Maldoff agreed, saying the bill is much too unclear to rest easy with Legault's broad assurances.

"If he means what he said and nothing changes, why are health and social services covered in this act?" he asked.

The stakes are high, he added.

"It is well established, a mountain of studies, research reports -- effective communication is essential to safe and effective health and social services," Maldoff said.

Legault's political critics also added some suggestions, saying it would be easy to fix the problem before the bill passes.

"If Mr. Legault was serious, he would tell his minister, 'Remove health and social services from Bill 96,'" said former NDP leader Tom Mulcair. "That would settle the problem.: 

The CAQ has not yet responded to a request for comment and to clarify the bill's implications.

'ANSWERING... ALL ANGLOPHONES' QUESTIONS'

Legault was also challenged on the bill's restrictions for English CEGEPs and on his refusal last week to agree to an English election debate in the fall, which led to the debate being cancelled.

It was the first time he's spoken about the bill since a major protest on the weekend that was attended by thousands of English speakers.

LISTEN ON CJAD 800 RADIO: Tom Mulcair: is Legault misinformed or lying about the impact of Bill 96?

"French will always be vulnerable in North America," Legault said. "It's a question of survival."

As for CEGEPs, he said that since, according to his statistics, only nine per cent of Quebec college students are English speakers, it's "reasonable" to cap English CEGEPs' enrolment at 17 per cent of the provincial total, or at 2019 levels.

As for declining the English debate, "French is the official language in Quebec," the premier said.

His spokesperson said last week that the decision was a question of workload, and that Legault needed to leave enough time to prepare for the two French-language debates in which he's taking part.

"I will participate to two debates and I think that it doesn't mean I'm not answering, like I'm doing right now, to all anglophones' questions," Legault said.

Newsletters

Breaking News alerts, info on contests, and special offers from partners