New Brunswick’s official languages commissioner says the recent debate over health services is missing the point by focusing on the contentious concept of duality instead of following the existing law.

Michel Carrier addressed the issue of health services following the release of his annual report on Thursday.

He said his office receives between eight and 10 complaints every year from New Brunswickers who have experienced problems receiving health services in their language of choice, which is guaranteed by the Official Languages Act.

The official languages commissioner said 90 per cent of those complaints come from francophones who are unable to access French services.

Fundy-River Valley MLA Jim Parrott, a former heart surgeon in Saint John, ignited a controversial debate over the quality of health services in the province. He said he was opposed to duality in the health system, but supported the principle of bilingualism.

New Brunswick has duality in the education system, which means there are separate systems for anglophones and francophones. That is not the case, however, in the health system.

The Official Languages Act says health authorities can operate internally in their language of choice. When it comes to delivering services to patients, the law says citizens have the right to be offered service in their language of choice.

But Carrier said that point is often missed in the health debate when the discussion is focused on duality.

"People recognize that every hospital, whether in Bathurst or Hartland, must serve people in their language of choice and must be able to do so," he said on Thursday.

"So it is not a question of having a hospital working only in French or only in English and if you want services in your language you're going to have to go across the street, or down the street …  that is not what people are asking for."

Health plan coming

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Michel Carrier says citizens are guaranteed the right to have health services offered in their language of choice. (CBC)

Last week, the Alward government promised to unveil a plan for more services in the Vitalité Health Authority.

Dr. Hubert Dupuis, the president of Égalité santé en français, an organization that is seeking equality in health services in French, has said the provincial government is failing to live up to a promise to offer more services in francophone institutions.

Dupuis said his group wants equality of services, but not duality.

Dupuis said last week the provincial government will roll out a "catch-up" plan for health services in the Vitalité Health Authority.

Health Minister Hugh John (Ted) Flemming III said this week that he was concerned about the "sustainability" of health spending.

Carrier said citizens realize the ability to receive health services in their language of choice will not happen immediately. But he said there is an expectation that there will be a "progression."

"And we are going to recognize as a government, as a group, as a people that providing health care in your language of choice is more than a legal right, it is something for your safety, it is something to make sure you are treated as best as possible," he said.

"So the debate continues. Unfortunately, we hear duality thrown in the wind for many situations."

The official languages commissioner said institutions such as the New Brunswick Heart Centre in Saint John are an example of an institution that has worked hard to offer services to patients in the language of their choice.

The legislative assembly is in the process of revising the Official Languages Act. The special committee looking at the act is holding hearings behind closed doors.