On October 15, I penned an opinion piece on Bill 96. It remains clear to me that this bill needlessly sows confusion regarding the eligibility of hundreds of thousands of anglophone Quebecers to receive healthcare in English, and would also prove a major hindrance to Quebec companies seeking to tap into the vast potential of the global economy.
I believe that, by and large, this even more severe and counterproductive version of Bill 101 should be shelved. However, this ship has sailed, and it is virtually certain that the Legault government will not back down from enacting some version of Bill 96. Hence, faced with such prospects, the only thing we can realistically strive for at this point is damage control. And there are indeed several ways this proposed legislation could be made less bad.
Let’s take the example of English health services, which is possibly the most egregious and despicable aspect of Bill 96. The legal codification of the concept of historic anglophone minority status as a criterion that determines one’s eligibility to receive services in English has been a source of great uncertainty among my anglophone Quebecer friends, and for good reason. Given that the Charter of the French Language overrides other laws, a sensible government would immediately recognize that it is playing with fire. Meanwhile, Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) MNA Christopher Skeete has been adamant that Bill 96 does nothing to limit the availability of these services to all English-speaking Quebecers.
But addressing the shortage of doctors in the province also means introducing several key reforms, all of which have already been tested in other countries with universal taxpayer-funded healthcare systems.
The first dose of reform would be to increase the participation of entrepreneurs and the private sector in the provision of healthcare services. Having a greater number of privately run facilities in the province would improve health system access and complement the efforts of the government-run system. Despite many unfounded fears, greater private involvement need not threaten universality. Rather, proof of its efficiency can be seen in countries with high-performing universal systems such as Sweden, France, and the United Kingdom.
The second dose of reform is to increase the number of doctors in the province. In 2019, the number of physicians per capita in Quebec was 52 percent lower than the average – the average in other high-income OECD countries with universal taxpayer-funded health systems. It’s no wonder so many Quebecers do not have access to a primary-care provider.
The shortage of doctors is due in part to regulatory barriers that impede the integration of physicians trained outside the province. Quebec has the lowest proportion of foreign doctors in the country, at just 8.2 percent, compared to the national average of 25.7 percent, despite an agreement with France that’s supposed to make it easier for French doctors to practice here. One problem is that the application process can take two years to complete.
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If the government is genuinely intent on securing English healthcare services for all anglophone Quebecers, it should simply amend Bill 96 to include an exception to its general provisions. To make matters even easier, the language it should use is already featured in Quebec’s Act Respecting Health Services and Social Services: “English-speaking persons are entitled to receive health services and social services in the English language.”
Quebec’s companies, and its economy in general, would also be better off if Bill 96 were defanged of the severe limitations it puts on firms wanting to hire bilingual talent. In these modern times, there’s no getting around the fact that our economies are globally intertwined and that English is the lingua franca of business. It would be perfectly feasible to amend Bill 96 in order to assert that these limits do not apply to Quebec firms with substantial revenues coming from outside Quebec, say 33 percent or more. And why not extend this exemption to businesses for which anglophones represent over 60 percent of sales?
Obviously, these are arbitrarily chosen numbers, and we could debate endlessly about the proper threshold to set. My point is simply that it is possible to carve out exceptions and limit some of the worst legislative excesses contained in this bill, and that men and women of goodwill would be well-advised to put forward their own recommendations. Politics is the art of the possible, and we should be realistic in our expectations.
In his inaugural address, Premier Francois Legault expressed his wish that 90 percent of Quebecers graduate from high school, with the current rate being 82 percent. As things stand, francophones are lagging behind anglophone Quebecers when it comes to educational achievement. Realistically, in order to reach this 90 percent target, the French population would have to catch up to anglophones.
Interestingly, Quebec’s economic history clearly shows that this would be the best way to make French attractive to allophones and anglophones, thus promoting French. Why don’t we take action and make it a reality instead of trampling on the rights of our fellow Quebecers?
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute.
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