Local hospitals and health boards are about to come under the microscope of the Office de la Langue Française, according to a letter obtained by Alliance Quebec.
In the July 14 letter sent to the 69 health-care institutions across Quebec that have bilingual status, Office president Nicole René outlined her plans for a Sept. 17 meeting.
The institutions will be reminded at the meeting that they must be able, at all times, to provide health-care services in French.
"Not all personnel have to be bilingual, but there should always be someone available who is able to offer services in French," René said in an interview yesterday.
The letter comes at a time when regional access plans for English-language health care have yet to be approved by the Quebec government. A decision has been delayed until late August or September.
"It's disgusting, frankly," said Michael Hamelin, president of Alliance Quebec.
"For them to find the time to drag in English-language institutions for 'consultation,' it's the kind of intimidation we're seeing day in and day out."
The Sept. 17 meeting is the first review of an agreement made with the Office back in 1989, in which the 69 hospitals and health boards pledged to provide plentiful access to French-language services.
René said the need for the meeting became clear after a number of complaints, similar to that lodged at the Jewish General Hospital last summer, came to her attention.
A patient at the Jewish General claimed that a nurse had told him to speak in English, an episode that sparked spirited demonstrations by French-language activists.
René's letter is the latest instalment in what has been a very active summer for the Office. Anglophone Web sites, business cards and street signs have all come under intense scrutiny in recent months.
Pierre-Etienne Laporte, Liberal language critic and former chairman of the Office, said the stepped-up campaign bears the fingerprints of Culture Minister Louise Beaudoin.
"There's no question that these people are responding to directives from above," said Laporte, contacted at his cottage in Kamouraska.
"Louise Beaudoin is an interventionist, a hard-liner, and bureaucrats respond to orders. There's no mystery in that."
Local hospitals are confident that their bilingual services will pass any review with flying colours.
"Our centre provides service in both official languages," said Jonathan Goldbloom, spokesman for the McGill University Health Centre, which includes the Royal Victoria and Montreal General. "We always try to respond in the language the person is most comfortable in. So we're meeting that objective."
Officials at the Jewish General and the Montreal Island regional health board concurred, adding that the letter from the Office probably isn't a prelude to a major crackdown.
"Since 1983, the Office de la Langue Française has recognized ... that certain health and social services establishments provide a majority of services to the public in a language other than French," the letter reads.
"Nevertheless, the recognized organizations ... must be able to communicate with the public in French and provide services in French when they're needed."
Others invited to the Sept. 17 "information session" include representatives from health-care workers' unions, the provincial health ministry, and the Quebec Hospital Association.
Whether or not hospital and health-board representatives choose to attend the optional meeting, René said, all of the targeted establishments will have to undergo a rigorous self-evaluation of their French-language services. Reports must be submitted to the Office by December.
"It's going to mean more bureaucratic work for hospitals at a time when they're having a hard time delivering health care," Hamelin said.
"This omnipotent agency is going to bury them in bureaucracy on the basis of nothing."