One of the reasons I moved to Québec in 2015 was because of the mélange of languages in which many Quebecers — especially in Montréal — live and work. Some are able to change languages from sentence to sentence; others will switch in the middle of sentences or speak in an ever-changing medley of languages.
The language dance happens most frequently between French and English, but other languages can be involved — such as Indigenous and immigrant languages.
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The reality of multilingualism goes very far back in Québec: the perceived founder of French Québec, Samuel de Champlain, even knew “a smattering of [Indigenous] languages, not enough to speak directly on sensitive questions. Most of his communications had to happen through interpreters.” However the mythic view of historical dominance held by some Quebecers is that “la langue française […] s’est implantée officiellement au Québec avec Samuel de Champlain en 1608” or, the French language was officially established in Québec with Samuel de Champlain in 1608.
As the leader of a tiny, vulnerable French outpost, Champlain probably thought more about making alliances with Indigenous nations, which would allow the French colonists to survive, than he did about official languages.
Indigenous nations, and languages, have endured — as have the descendants of the original French settlers (including me), joined by British settlers and a mix of immigrants from all over the world, to create a diverse and complex society.
And all of this contributes to why Bill 96 is so problematic. The proposed bill, “An Act respecting French, the official and common language of Québec,” will reduce the accessibility to health-care services in English, which will drastically and negatively impact Indigenous people. As a researcher and teacher of Inuit health, I find this deeply troubling.
Indigenous experience in Québec
Part of Québec’s complexity is ensuring equity for all its citizens. For Indigenous people in the province, equitable treatment can seem fleeting.
In the health-care system, systemic discrimination against Indigenous people has been formally recognized. In 2019, the Québec-mandated Viens Commission concluded that “it is clear that prejudice toward Indigenous Peoples remains widespread in the interaction between caregivers and patients,” and recommended “cultural safeguard principles” be incorporated into health services and programs for Indigenous people.
In October 2021, coroner Géhane Kamel’s top recommendation in her report on the death of Joyce Echaquan was that the province needs to recognize that systemic racism exists and take concrete action to eliminate it.
To receive health care in a language that you speak is obviously a dimension of cultural safety. So it’s all the more disappointing that a recently released plan to reform the Québec health-care system ignores systemic discrimination and cultural safety for patients.
The problem with Bill 96
In an analysis of Bill 96, Montréal lawyer and advocate Eric Maldoff says:
“Even when the staff and institutions have the option to use another language, Bill 96 strongly directs them to avoid exercising it and specifies that a language other than French should not be used systematically, such as by establishing translation services. There is an option to use a language other than French in case of health, public safety and natural justice. However, it seems aimed at dealing with a health emergency of an individual.”
Nunavik Inuit in northern Québec have been identifying challenges within the health-care system for years. A report prepared by the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services says: “Many [Inuit] do not understand medical terms and translation is sometimes inefficient, as many terms do not have an equivalent in Inuktitut. Consequently, many people struggle to understand their health problems and to follow medical advice.”
Ninety-eight per cent of Nunavik Inuit speak Inuktitut as their first language. This should be celebrated, not hindered during the Decade of Indigenous Languages, which Canada supports. Although many Indigenous people in Québec — including most Inuit — may have recognized rights to services in English, many, including myself, think Bill 96 will create greater impediments to accessible health care for Inuit and First Nations people. The bill will worsen health and health care, instead of improving it.
Multilingualism shouldn’t be a threat
Bill 96 will also create new challenges in education for Inuit and First Nations people who use English.
Indigenous students will now have to complete an additional three French-language courses to receive a CÉGEP diploma (typically required for university admission). In practice, most Inuit, and about half of First Nations students have been predominantly educated in English and will struggle with an additional French requirements.
Québec Premier François Legault recently defended the draft Bill 96 by saying: “If Québec is bilingual, unfortunately the attraction in North America to English will be so strong it will be a matter of time before we don’t speak French in Québec and we become Louisiana.”
Turning into Louisiana is a commonly deployed bogeyman in Québec, to imply that without restrictive measures on the use of other languages, French is endangered.
For most Québec residents, there is broad consensus that French should be protected. But many of us believe that multilingualism — including Indigenous languages — need not threaten French.
This is an updated version of a story originally published on May 5, 2022. It clarifies that many Indigenous people in Québec have recognized rights to services in English.