Thank you very much.
Hello ladies and gentlemen.
On behalf of the chair of the board of directors for the Société Santé en français, Dr. Anne Leis, I thank you for the invitation to appear before your committee.
Created in 2002, the Société Santé en français is made up of a secretariat and 16 provincial and territorial networks. The purpose of the organization is to increase access to health care services in French for francophone minority communities across Canada.
The SSF and the networks have built and maintained partnerships and strong ties with policy makers, health care professionals, health services managers, post-secondary training institutions and communities. That way our communities' health care needs are on everyone's radar.
During the consultations on the renewal of the official languages action plan, Canadians across the country indicated that access to health care in their own language was a priority for their communities and themselves. That is understandable. Language is an essential element in providing safe, high quality health care and it is also a determinant of health.
Why is it important? Language barriers can be troublesome and often cause misunderstandings and misdiagnoses. They result in additional costs for health care systems and leave patients feeling powerless, stressed and dissatisfied because they don't feel understood by health professionals.
The SSF's main focus is on individuals, people like you and me, who need services in their own language, particularly when they are sick and vulnerable. Here are a few examples of real-life situations that we have encountered within the course of our work.
A seven-year-old child did not understand English and had to get chemotherapy treatments without being able to communicate directly with his medical team in his own language.
A teenager with mental health problems had to find the right words to explain what was troubling her and how she was feeling in her second language.
Francophone seniors who lived their whole lives in French or lost the use of their second language had to resign themselves to living out their days in a health care system where care providers were unable to speak their language.
An engineer from Quebec who was working somewhere in Nova Scotia took his pregnant wife to the emergency room at the hospital because she was in severe pain. They were both in a state of panic and unable to find the words in English to communicate with the health care professionals.
Often people put off going to the doctor or do not go at all. Language barriers also cause stress for health care professionals who cannot communicate effectively with their patients or offer them quality services. The message here is simple: when people are sick and vulnerable, they are not bilingual.
I will now talk about the modernization of the Official Languages Act. Together with the Consortium national de formation en santé or CNFS and with the support of legal counsel, we prepared arguments regarding the modernization of the OLA and its impact on health. In December, the CNFS and our organization finalized the document, and we sent each of you a copy.
We also helped our colleagues from the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada or FCFA to develop a model bill to modernize the Official Languages Act. Here is how the modernized act could improve access to health care in French.
We support the following recommendation made by the FCFA, which states:
Any agreement between the federal government and a province involving a transfer of funds must contain a binding language clause that advances the equal status and use of French and English in Canadian society and enhances the vitality and development of official language minority communities.
We cannot enhance the vitality and development of our communities without access to French-language health care services. For example, during recent negotiations between the federal, provincial and territorial governments on agreements pertaining to mental health care, home care, and palliative and end-of-life care, the CNFS and the SSF jointly recommended that Health Canada incorporate performance measures into its obligations toward our communities because communication and language issues are particularly critical in these areas.
Under the current legal framework, these services, which are made possible through federal funding, are delivered in both official languages only if the province so desires, and you know as well as I do that that does not happen in most cases.
The modernization of the Official Languages Act should make linguistic duality mandatory and non-negotiable in all transfer agreements, including those related to health.
When it comes to health care, the federal government already has the power to spend in areas of activity of its choice and can place conditions on the subsidies, conditions that would fall under the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories.
In the field of health, there is an instrument called the Canada Health Act, which recognizes the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories in health-related matters. It sets out five criteria that the provinces and territories must meet in order to be eligible for a contribution. They are public administration, comprehensiveness, universality, portability and accessibility.
In order to satisfy the criterion respecting universality, one hundred per cent of the insured persons of the province must be entitled to the insured health services provided on uniform terms and conditions.
In order to satisfy the criterion respecting accessibility, a province or territory's health care insurance plan must provide for insured health services on uniform terms and conditions and on a basis that does not impede or preclude, either directly or indirectly, reasonable access to those services. That includes francophones in minority communities.
In accordance with the bill proposed by the FCFA, we recommend that the modernization of the Official Languages Act include an amendment to the Canada Health Act, namely, the addition of linguistic duality as a sixth criterion. In order to satisfy that criterion, the provinces and territories would have to develop a program of access to health services for official language minority communities, taking into account the human, material and financial resources of each facility and the sociocultural and linguistic characteristics of the population served.
The OLA requires federal institutions to take positive measures to implement the federal government’s commitment to enhancing the vitality of francophone and anglophone minorities in Canada, supporting their development, and fostering the full recognition and use of both French and English in Canadian society.
We believe that the OLA must be modernized to ensure that the federal health obligations are fully respected in the contribution agreements reached with national organizations, including the Canadian Institute of Health Information, the Canadian Patient Safety Institute and the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
As you are no doubt aware, scientific data is needed to make real changes. We need that data to be able to measure results and progress. We cannot change what we cannot measure. Data collection falls under the responsibility of a number of organizations. The act should require federal institutions to collect data on official languages and ensure that they are analyzed in way that is useful to the communities. I am thinking, for example, of Statistics Canada, Health Canada, the Canadian Institute for Health Information and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
What is more, the federal government could encourage the provinces and territories to collect language statistics and offer them financial incentives if they include language preference on their health cards.
Given the nature of our work, we know that institutions often do not fully understand or have misunderstood the act and their responsibilities under it. Individual responsibility and the enforcement of the act in isolation makes it very difficult to implement cross-cutting measures that would make it possible to meet the objectives of the act.