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'Last-minute' amendment to Quebec health bill would allow agency to revoke hospital's bilingual status

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A new amendment to Quebec's mammoth health-care bill would allow the new Sante Quebec agency to revoke a health-care institution's bilingual status — a move English-rights activists say is shocking.

With only days left before the parliamentary session is set to end before the holiday break, the surprise amendment was introduced Tuesday during a parliamentary committee debate on the proposed legislation, known as Bill 15. The bill has more than 1,200 articles and there have been hundreds of amendments introduced since it was tabled last March.

The new proposal concerns communities that qualify, under existing laws, to receive services in a language other than French if the numbers warrant it. What was revealed this week, first reported by the Montreal Gazette, is that the government wants the board of directors at Sante Quebec to be able to revoke the status of institutions like hospitals if the minority community has shrunk below 50 per cent based on census data.

But the health-care system doesn't poll on language of service, so it would be up to the provincial language watchdog, the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), to collect it.

The Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), which represents anglophones communities in the province, said the "last-minute" amendment threatens English-speaking people in Quebec and is calling on the province to not adopt the bill in its current form.

"We are shocked that Health Minister Christian Dubé would try to drop an amendment like this into Bill 15 at the last moment, days before the government is about to invoke closure to ram this bill through the Nation Assembly," said Eva Ludvig, President of the QCGN, in a statement on Friday.

"This is part of a very nasty pattern with the CAQ: it seems the only way they feel they can protect and promote French in Quebec is to restrict or deny the rights and access to services of the English-speaking community here – even when those minority-language rights are guaranteed by law."

Debate on the amendment was suspended on Thursday as André Fortin, the Quebec Liberal Party's health critic, asked for specifics on the threshold the government would use to revoke a health-care institution's status.

"Honestly, the text of the bill is not clear," Fortin said during the Health and Social Services Committee meeting on Thursday.

He told CTV News on Friday that minority communities are threatened by the new amendment.

"If you go to … an institution that has bilingual status, they have an obligation to offer your services in that language," he said.

"[If you go to] another health institution, if you walk into the CHU Quebec here in Quebec City, people will do their best because people are good-hearted and they'll try to find something and they're supposed to have an interpretive service and they'll do their best to accommodate you.

But if you walk into a bilingual institution, you're supposed to have that care in your language. That's what's at stake here with this amendment. It's that the CAQ government, PQ government and other governments down the road could come in and say, 'I'm removing it for everybody' and nobody has any recourse at that point."

During debate, Fortin compared the amendment to the language law stripping municipalities of their bilingual status unless a resolution to keep it is adopted, however, in this case he said hospitals do not get the same veto power.

Quebec Solidaire MNA Guillaume Cliche-Rivard said the amendment is another example of the hundreds of proposed changes that were brought in without proper consultation.

The health ministry confirmed to CTV News that the right to English health care is enshrined in Article 16 of Bill 15, which the government is hoping to adopt by the end of the session next week.

When asked about the amendment on Friday, Health Minister Christian Dubé said he would be open to dropping the amendment if that right to English service could not be maintained.

"I will withdraw it if I'm not able to realize or to put in place the commitment that we've made," the health minister said.

"There will be no changes in services for anglos or in the status of their hospital. I just want to be clear on that."

Dubé had to admit that he didn't understand the amendment.

"We're up to 1,200 sections (...) I didn't understand that one. I didn't understand the details", he said, adding that "the opposition is doing a very good job. They asked a question and I said, 'I'll check'".

Political analyst and former NDP leader Tom Mulcair told CJAD 800 host Andrew Carter on Friday that, since Bill 101 was adopted, there has never been an attempt to remove the recognition of the right to English service until this week. He applauded Fortin and Cliche-Rivard for challenging the government in the debate.

"They're going to remove access to health and social services in English. [Premier Legault] and the people around him have been denying it up and down, saying it's absolutely not true and, of course, now we have the proof," Mulcair said.

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