Trudeau's language flap puts access to English-language health services in Quebec under microscope

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to answer a question about access to mental health services in French at a town hall event in Sherbrooke, Que., pushed a thorny issue back into the spotlight.

Communicating in 2nd language adds to stress, says report on anglophones in Quebec's Eastern Townships

Judy Ross is one of the founders of Mental Health Estrie, a service which helps Anglophones navigate the public heath system. (Claude Rivest/CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to answer a question about access to mental health services in French at a town hall event in Sherbrooke, Que., pushed a thorny, longstanding concern of anglophone Quebecers back into the spotlight. 

Judy Ross, the woman who asked the question, wanted to know what was being done to ensure anglophones can get the services they require in their own language. She didn't get the reply she was hoping for.

"I didn't want it to be about the language issue, I wanted to draw attention to mental health services," said Ross, one of the founders of Mental Health Estrie, after seeing the flurry of coverage surrounding Trudeau's French-only response to her question.

A report last fall by the regional health authority in the Eastern Townships, the CIUSSS de l'Estrie – CHUS, found anglophone residents face barriers to service, including doctors who only speak French and documents that are only available in French.

'Increasingly complex' health care system

That report makes a number of recommendations, which include training health professionals to provide better services in English and supporting more health research and increased access to health care in the region's linguistic and cultural communities.

''It's normal for anglophones to prefer, especially in matters of mental health, speaking to a health professional who is comfortable in English,'' Dr. Mélissa Généreux, public health director for the region, said at the time.

''Having more websites translated would also be a plus, especially with a health care system that's becoming more and more complex.''

Another report, from 2011, found that "communicating in a second language adds to the stress experienced by those suffering from a physical or mental illness."

Political fallout?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses for photos with students the Tim Hortons coffee shop at Bishop's University in Sherbrooke. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)
Trudeau's insistence on using French in Sherbrooke angered groups representing the region's anglophone minority, which makes up about six per cent of the population.

Rachel Hunting, the executive director of the Townshippers Association, an advocacy group for the region's anglophones, said based on what she saw Tuesday, she doesn't think better access to English-language health services are in the works.

"It really feels like our highest level of government in Canada is perpetuating the notion that it's OK to not speak English to an English speaker in Quebec," Hunting said.

with files from Claude Rivest and Benjamin Shingler

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