Opinion letter: Francophone and Acadian communities demand better access to health care in French

Since mid-August, the nation has been pulled into a lightning-speed electoral campaign. Despite the ongoing pandemic, which highlighted the reliance of provinces and territories on the Federal government’s support to better respond to the crisis in both official languages, the issue of available health services in French is virtually absent from the current national campaign.

In Canada, more than 8 million people have French as their first official language. Out of these, more than one million reside, live and work in a minority setting.  Across the country, Francophones are struggling to be heard on an issue that matters most to them: their health. Access to quality health services in French remains inaccessible, inequitable, and often non-existent in most provinces and territories of Canada.

Several hundred thousand Francophones still do not have access to adequate health services in French, let alone quality of care. The numbers speak for themselves: in Ontario, only 33% of Francophones say they could carry on a French conversation with their family doctor, and the picture gets worse the further west we go. In Manitoba, it is 16% and in Alberta 3%.

The impact of language barriers in health is considerable: it is known that they compromise the quality and safety of services. For example, language barriers are the source of diagnostic delays, reduced quality of available information, and poorer management of chronic diseases. Language barriers also increase the length of medical stays, the likelihood of medication errors and the risk of experiencing adverse medical outcomes.

While federal parties are promising major investments to increase the number of physicians or to better support mental health – all necessary investments particularly in the context of a pandemic – the health needs of a million French-speaking Canadians are being ignored. All federal parties must recognize the federal responsibility to engage the provinces and territories in increasing access to health services in the language of the minority. If we do not, we will be widening the gap in health outcomes between linguistic majority and minority communities. A fear echoed by anglophone and Indigenous populations in Québec this past week.

Furthermore, federal transfers in health care must include linguistic obligations to ensure equity for minority-language services across the entire healthcare continuum, including early childhood, mental health, drug addiction supports, home care and long-term care for seniors, telehealth services, just to name a few.

As all the political parties confirmed their commitment to modernizing the Official Languages ​​Act, the next government will have to seize the opportunity to recognize the role of health as an indispensable component of the vitality of Francophone and Acadian minority communities and ensure meaningful support is provided to the provinces and territories.

Health in French is fundamental for Francophones and Acadians living in a minority situation; together, we can do better!

Anne Leis, PhD, Chair of the Board, Société Santé en français