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“Speak White” and the Health Implications of Québec’s Bill-96

Sara Press//

In 1968, French Canadian poet Michèle Lalonde wrote her polemical poem, “Speak White,” to protest the linguistic colonization of Québec by Anglo-Canadian politics and commerce.[1] The derogatory slur, “speak white,” had been used by Anglophones throughout the twentieth century to deride the Québécois and non-English immigrants for speaking their mother tongues in public. Lalonde’s poem was an impassioned response to what many French Canadians perceived to be the province’s linguistic plight, but it was also a political statement mired in irony for Québec’s non-white and non-French-speaking populations who themselves felt persecuted by what they believed to be draconian French language laws.

Over half a century after the poem’s initial début, “Speak White” now takes on new significance in the wake of an historic language bill passed in Québec in May 2022. Bill 96, known officially as An Act Respecting French, the Official and Common Language of Québec, is designed to bolster Bill 101, the French-Language Charter, which was passed in 1977.[2] According to Erin Hurley, Bill 101 solidified French as both “the language of the majority,” as well as “the language of political and economic power in Québec.”[3] Following years of activism throughout the 1960s and 1970s,[4] Québec nationalists saw Bill 101 as a successful step towards centering French language and culture in the province.[5] Many Anglophones and non-native French speakers, on the other hand, saw the bill systematically relegate them to second-class citizens, resulting in a mass exodus of Anglophones from the province over subsequent decades.[6] Today, non-French residents of Québec fear that Bill 96 will have similar outcomes.

French Canadian politicians have described Bill 96 as “a moderate response” to what they believe to be the “declining use of French in the province.”[7] Québec’s premier, François Legault has frequently invoked the formerly French state of Louisiana as an ominous reminder of what Québec could become without protective language legislation.[8] But while politicians like Legault urge onlookers to accept this new language law as moderate, many see Bill 96 as significantly more restrictive than Bill 101—and potentially more dangerous. Whereas Bill 101 made French the official language of Québec, Bill 96 now requires “civil servants to speak and write exclusively in French while on the job except in certain cases, such as access to health care and social services in English where health, public safety or principles of natural justice require the use of languages other than French.”[9] While the above exceptions are somewhat encouraging, critics note that the bill’s language concerning health care “is vague, and seems to pertain more to healthcare emergencies than day-to-day operations, long-term or special needs.”[10] In short, many fear that the new laws will have potentially devastating effects on the medical system.[11]

A patient’s ability to articulate her physical and emotional concerns to a medical professional is central to seeking and receiving adequate treatment, but this basic element of health care has been compromised by Bill 96.[12]Indeed, the bill actively discourages medical practitioners from speaking English and other languages. According to Eric Maldoff, a Montréal lawyer and the chair of the Coalition for Quality in Health and Social Services, “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 translational services.”[13] This directive seems dangerous, especially given that “twenty percent of Canadians (6.8 million people) reported using a mother tongue other than English or French” in the 2022 Canadian census.[14] In other words, while record-breaking immigration and a greater diversity of languages have increased the need for translational services and medical interpreters in health care,[15] Bill 96 is limiting language services rather than expanding them. Unfortunately, minoritized groups are likely to suffer the most.

According to the Institut de la statistique du Québec, the province, which has an estimated population of 8.8 million, “grew by 149,900 people in 2022, the largest annual increase in the past 50 years.”[16] Of this number, 146,400 people came from international and interprovincial migrations.[17] This historic level of migration to Québec is noteworthy in relation to Bill-96, because the bill states that new immigrants and refugees in the province will only have access to medical and social services in English—and languages other than French—for the first six months of their residence in Québec.[18] This “grace period” to learn French seems unreasonable given how challenging it would be to learn all the medical and bureaucratic jargon one might need to successfully navigate life in a new city, province, and country. But new immigrants and refugees are not the only group of people affected by these language laws. Indigenous peoples in Québec, who have spent centuries adapting to a new life and language on land that was theirs before the French arrived in the 17th century, will also be adversely impacted by Bill-96.[19]

Although Indigenous people in Québec are, in theory, eligible for Bill-96’s language exceptions, many argue that the bill will be a further barrier to equitable health care for them.[20] According to Richard Budgell, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at McGill University, the Nunavik Inuit peoples of northern Québec have struggled with the province’s medical system for years, due in part, to language barriers.[21] This is unsurprising, given than “Ninety-eight percent of Nunavik Inuit speak Inuktitut as their first language.”[22] Unfortunately, the systemic marginalization of this language—and other First Nations’ languages—poses a challenge for many Nunavik Inuit and Indigenous peoples seeking medical care in Québec. Beyond linguistic barriers, Indigenous peoples and people of colour in Québec continue to experience worse medical treatment because of systemic racism.[23] Thus, while Québécois settlers once associated the phrase “speak white” with speaking English, for many Indigenous people, new immigrants, and refugees in contemporary Québec, “speak white” resounds clearly as “speak French.”[24]

Works Cited

[1] Hurley, Erin. Styling a Nation: Theatre and Belonging in Québec. 2000. City University of New York, PhD Dissertation. 198.

[2] Magder, Jason. “Explainer: Breaking down the key points of Bill 96.” Montreal Gazette. May 13, 2022.

[3] Hurley, Erin. Styling a Nation: Theatre and Belonging in Québec. 2000. City University of New York, PhD Dissertation. 204.

[4]  This period of activism coincided with the “Quiet Revolution” and radical shifts towards secularization, state welfare, and separatism in Québec.

[5] Hurley, Erin. Styling a Nation: Theatre and Belonging in Québec. 2000. City University of New York, PhD Dissertation. 204.

[6] Bill 101 has had lasting implications for population demographics in Québec. For example, “A 2016 study by the Fraser Institute revealed that between 1971 and 2015, roughly 600,000 more people left Québec for other parts of Canada than moved in.” See Valiante, Giuseppe. “Legacy of Québec’s Bill 101 40 years on.” National Post. August 25, 2017.

[7] Serebrin, Jacob. “Bill 96: Quebec public servants now required to make ‘exemplary’ use of French.” The Canadian Press. June 1, 2023.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bruemmer, René. “Bill 96 will impede access to health care in English, legal experts warn.” Montreal Gazette. May 18, 2022.

[11] Importantly, health insurance is not listed as an exception in Bill 96, meaning that non-French language speakers will now be required to navigate the insurance system solely in French. See Hanes, Allison. “RAMQ hung up on senior for speaking English; Health insurance isn’t part of health-care exception for Bill 96.” Montreal Gazette. July 21, 2023.

[12] According to a study by the Canadian Pediatric Society, “In Canada, poor proficiency in English or French is significantly related to self-reported poor health.” See Hui, Charles. “Access to appropriate interpretation is essential for the health of children.” Canadian Pediatric Society. September 2022.

[13] Budgell, Richard. “Bill 96 will harm Indigenous people in Québec. We need more equitable language laws.” The Conversation. May 5, 2022.

[14] Hui, Charles. “Access to appropriate interpretation is essential for the health of children.” Canadian Pediatric Society. September 2022.

[15] Devereux, Mari. “Medical interpreters face high demand, low reimbursement.” Modern Healthcare. February 2, 2023.

[16] “International migration drove Québec’s strong population growth in 2022.” Institut de la statistique du Québec. May 24, 2023.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Marchand, Laura. “What’s in Quebec’s new law to protect the French language.” CBC News. May 21, 2022.

[19] The political tensions surrounding the “official” language of Québec can be traced back to the province’s colonial roots. As Richard Budgell notes, “the mythic view of historical dominance held by some Quebecers is that…the French language was officially established in Québec with Samuel de Champlain in 1608.”[19] Of course, this founding myth, central to the centuries-long political struggle between French and English settlers, has conspicuously overlooked the Indigenous peoples on whose land European settlers staked their claims to nationhood.

[20] Budgell, Richard. “Bill 96 will harm Indigenous people in Québec. We need more equitable language laws.” The Conversation. May 5, 2022.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] The death of a 37-year-old Atikamekw woman named Joyce Echaquan in 2020 brought these issues of systemic racism in Québec to the fore. Echaquan, who did not speak French, was repeatedly taunted in French by two health care workers at a hospital in northern Québec where she was being treated for stomach pain. Hospital staff gave Echaquan morphine after she tried to convey concerns about a heart condition and pacemaker that could not handle the drug. She died shortly afterwards; but the scenes of her taunting were filmed via Facebook livestream. For more on this story, see Kirkup, Kristy, and Tu Thanh Ha. “Indigenous Woman Records Slurs, Taunts of Hospital Staff Before Her Death.” The Globe and Mail, September 29, 2020.

[24] I recognize that this is a huge and multifaceted topic that is open to debate and could be pursued further in many directions. I have chosen to focus on how this bill affects marginalized individuals’ access to healthcare in the province, but that does not mean I do not respect and appreciate many aspects of Québec culture, including the French language.

Cover Image: “Drapeau du Québec au vent.” AzertyFab (Creative Commons)

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