Bilingual Nurse Protest Need Not Turn into a Language War – Editorial by Jamie Gilcig – March 9, 2012

CFN – Growing up in Montreal during the 70’s exposed me first hand to language silliness.     As an open minded young person I understood and even supported the desire of the French majority in Quebec.

The tools in my schools for learning French were near nil and my neighborhoods were mostly pure Anglophone.

My mom spoke perfect French; my dad spoke French that people understood, but he’d learned it on the streets.  It was almost never spoken in the house.

After all, business, and most things in life could be done without it; especially to a level of high proficiency.   We like millions of others, English and French left Quebec, but I returned as an adult.

When I worked in sports in the early 90’s there was a running gag among my clients.    I would jam at them in my brutal French and they’d go so frustrated some would pay me to speak in English as I’d refuse to stop speaking to them in the best French I could.  It was funny for no other reason than they knew I was doing my best to respect them.   To me business dictates issues.   If  a large part of my clients speak French it’s insane if you can’t service them; and of course vice versa.

Now when I finally gave up on Quebec society and left for the last time there was no malice on my part. I grew tired of many factors that will never change there.  No anger or hurt here as it truly doesn’t make sense for a majority to go beyond a certain point to accommodate a minority.

So living here in Cornwall Ontario and seeing this Bilingual nurse issued at our community hospital evolve to the nasty mess it’s becoming is for me personally very sad.

I’ve seen nasty and ignorant things said from almost all sides.  I’ve also seen outside forces enter the debate and that’s rarely a good thing.  The weirdest argument being that because Quebec has banana republic language laws we should treat our minority Francophone citizens the same.  That’s nuts.

The protest was simple enough and just.   The majority non-bilingual staff wanted better access to jobs and promotion without having to be of high proficiency in French; especially for non public jobs essentially because the working language of the hospital is English.

Not one member of the protesters I ever spoke to suggested that bilingual service not be offered to patients that requested to speak in French.

No brainer right?   Nope.    Zealots jumped in because that’s what zealots do.   We had benign comments about other languages and serving the public based on population which while making some sense really isn’t part of this protest or discussion.

The reality is that there are two Official languages in Canada; English and French.  Of course English far outnumber French in Canada; but it’s a principle that we as a society have embraced.

The Richelieu club show of force at City Council in Canada and now the Assembleé de la francophonie de l’Ontario (AFO) will surely turn what was a legitimate protest and request for dialog and communication into something that will raise tempers and divide the community.  Likewise people from outside of Ontario jumping into the fray attacking the French language also will fan the flames of intolerance and anger.

Some of the media in Cornwall have even fueled this potential language war by obfuscation of the truth and misreporting what’s been said or not said.

It’s time for the Hospital to step up and communicate; not simply spin because it plays into the language war.    If the Hospital wants to force Bilingualism on its staff they should simply state as such and then it’s up to the public to force the system to make sure our younger people come out of school with the proficiency in language they need to gain local employment.

This protest has always been about fairness; about retaining our youth, and having a stronger community.

Instead of turning this into a language war and tarring and feathering anyone that opposes certain positions as racists or bigots perhaps it’s time to have an honest discussion about what the people of this area, who have given so much to the hospital, really want?

And one day the leaders that sit around our council table and mayor  will have to answer some questions for why they hid and didn’t represent their citizens.

Speaking of which you can post what you think below.

Cornwall Free News



  1. This situation is simple to you because you have common sense. The problem that people with common sense have is dealing with people that don’t have it. The hospital has turned into a hostile work environment because of these unnecessary made up rules. With these artificial requirements for the french language causing staff disruptions that will lead to patient endangerment, what can this board be thinking? Does french come before qualifications? My wife has been there for 12 years and works a full work schedule and still will never be given a full time position. Do you think this makes any worker happy? Putting in the same hours, doing the same workload, dealing with all the same patients. There was a time where a black nurse wouldn’t have gotten a full time job either. Are the English speaking nurses the new persecuted minority? Unlike my wife, have we lost hundreds or thousands of qualified people, and how badly are we suffering because of it? Fair is fair, and it’s time to start removing board members if they cannot understand the damage they are doing to the operational efficiency of their facility through this bigoted policy. They do not deserve the positions they have. I invite any one of them to explain to me how my wife can work there full-time for 12 years and not be recognized as full-time.

  2. I don’t have your “common sense” as you say, Wyatt.
    Your “common” may be vulgar; inferior; low-class; …
    Oxford Dictionary

  3. THANK YOU, THANK YOU , THANK YOU for writing a honest and open article. I am one of the protesters that participated in the peaceful protest. My mother is from Montreal Quebec and as Chris Cameron and the rest of the protesters said, this isn’t about the french against the english. Its about people like my 15 year old daughter being able to have a chance at getting a job in our beloved city when she graduates from University. We shouldnt have to be driven out of our own city. We are just asking for fair, thats all, plain and simple. We want no more or no less. The hospital has no problem accepting our english tax dollars, our english donations but not our english nurses. This makes no sense. I also feel it was an embarrassment to have most of city council sit by and do nothing. They say they have nothing to do with the problem. Council, these are the people that voted you in, the people you are there to represent. Wake up council members, your young tax payers are moving to Toronto. Your population hasn’t changed in 60 years! Wake up!

  4. The concept of “common sense” is alien to vulgar members of low class “distinct society”. Nothing new here.

  5. I enjoyed your article and thank you for writing it. I loved the line….”This protest has always been about fairness; about retaining our youth, and having a stronger community.” I 100% agree.

    My husband is an english speaking man, born and raised in Cornwall, attended french Catholic school to ensure his opportunities would be open if he lived in this area. After college he met me and we traveled around North America for about 12 years getting amazing nursing experiences, however, never once did my husband have the opportunity to use his french language skills.
    One year ago we decided to move our family to Cornwall, we recognized I may have a challenge, as I am english speaking person and I suppose, a novice level of french speaking ability. But, at no time had it occurred to us that my husband would too fall short on the french language requirements. Within a very short period of time, that was made very clear, with his first interview for a nurse coordinator community position. The ad stated bilingual, however, the entire interview was completed in french and he was at the end that they were looking for someone whose first language was french and if they didn’t find that, they would call him back. He never heard from them again. He eventually found a part time job and worked in it for about 8 months when a full time position opened up doing his exact job with just more hours and benefits. He was told he could not have it based on his french testing which he had tested at intermediate instead of advanced. However, he skills are still adequate enough to do the position on a part time basis. Here is a child of Cornwall, wanting to come home to raise his child where he was raised but if positions that allow someone security with full-time hours and benefits, I fear our child will one day be moving elsewhere.

  6. Emily, Rachel should be ashamed of you. Tammy invite Jamie to next New Years party.

  7. Author

    Wow! Tammy takes a lot of heat for her positions; many of which I don’t agree with; but she’s a true politician who isn’t afraid to state her position and even defend it.

    And as opposed to some of the thin skinned ninnies on Cornwall Council disagreeing doesn’t mean you have to hatch a conspiracy to wipe out a business.

  8. @Admin

    I’ve know Tammy for 30 years. I’m serious about her having Jamie at the party. And any of my boycott comments are jokes. Jokes. son. Lighten up everybody. Even in turbulent times there must be some levity.

  9. I am starting to think it is the people who need to step up and direct our politicans to present suitable, respectable, cost efficient and fair choices for the provincial citizens to decide on.

  10. Unlike Mr. Gilcig, I’m an anglophone that hasn’t left Montreal.

    Despite anglophones’ minority status here, we have several hospitals and other health-care facilities that not only serve patients in both languages, but operate in English. That’s in addition to the fact that most francophone hospitals also serve patients in English.

    I’ve read that Cornwall is 30% francophone – more than the anglophone population of Montreal in relative terms. With so much demand for services in French, it’s understandable that the need for bilingual nurses will be high. Apparently, it’s even higher in their external hiring at the moment because they have a lack of nurses with the required French skills internally. According to the hospital website, of 217 vacancies last year, 132 were advertised with a bilingual requirement, but in the end only 57 were filled with people who met the bilingual requirement, and the remainder with unilingual English-speakers.

    The hospital writes, “It is important to note that, because the hospital allows internal unilingual nurses into designated positions, our current external requirements for French is high in an attempt to maintain our inventory of nurses who speak French.”

    I also understand that the hospital in Cornwall resulted from the amalgamation of an English hospital and a French one, and therefore many people who previously worked in French are now forced to work in English, since that is the only operating language.

    The wholesale elimination of a hospital operating in English, to be merged into a French one, is not something we would take lying down in Montreal. This is precisely what has happened to Cornwall francophones, and yet this aspect of the issue is not even addressed in the debate, which is only to do with maintaining services to the francophone public.

    So what have we learned? A French hospital was eliminated, replacing jobs in French with jobs in English. Furthermore, the current amalgamated English hospital is far from meeting its objectives for bilingual hiring, which has undoubtedly affected the quality of service to the 30% of the population who are entitled to quality service in French. Who is complaining again?

  11. Author

    I.Hall in 2003 I had surgery, a gastric bypass, at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, the Hospital I was born in, and one that predominantly is an English hospital.

    The morning after, a Saturday, the staffer working the food trolley car spoke not a single word of English and had brought me the wrong tray. Instead of some broth she tried to serve me a full breakfast that would have gravely injured my health.

    After getting assistance from another patient she returned with a Sandwich; something I also could not eat. Montreal’s linguistic reality is not a good one for the English minority. It’s just that they and the rest of Canada have given up on Quebec. The same way now that you have full private medical services available in spite of our Medicare Health Act.

    IF nobody enforces laws or regulations why have them?

  12. Mr. Gilcig, what you describe is quite unlike my experience of the health care system here in Montreal. My mother, who is elderly and doesn’t speak French well, has had her share of headaches with the health care system, but never a single one related to an inability to get service in English.

    It may be that less attention is paid to the language abilities of non-medical staff like orderlies, security guards and food service workers, which in the vast majority of circumstances (though not all, as you describe) are less important than those of nurses and doctors. Even so, I’ve always found the level of service in English entirely satisfactory.

    The only time I’ve ever encountered any difficulty was one time in the Laurentians, but even there staff did their best to provide service in English. That was in a health board office in Sainte-Agathe, a community which is 5% anglophone.

    Let me ask you, during your stay at the Royal Vic, did you encounter any doctors or nurses that didn’t speak English? I’m guessing you didn’t, based on my experience. I personally find it hard to believe that francophones at the hospital in Cornwall will be able to expect this level of service, even assuming they meet all their objectives for bilingual hiring. Given that only a quarter of nurses hired there last year speak French, it seems clear that service in French cannot presently be of the same quality as in English.

    I also don’t agree with your conclusion that the linguistic reality in Montreal is not a good one for anglophones. There are always improvements that can be made, but overall public services are adequate.

    Businesses here make a good effort to provide bilingual service, compared to Ontario. Here’s an example. I went to the Metro supermarket chain’s website today. I noticed that their Quebec website was bilingual, while their Ontario one was in English only. This seems typical to me.

    Most businesses here have bilingual retail staff. Consequently, many francophones must speak English to get jobs. If this is what you call “discrimination,” I think you’ll find a lot of it here.

  13. Author

    I.Hall. The linguistic life of an Anglophone in Quebec is one of slow erosion linguistically. And of course my one anecdotal situation is not the “norm” in Montreal or at the Royal Vic. The point is that I didn’t make a big deal of the issue at the time nor now. I didn’t have a bus load of people shipped in to support a position that wasn’t related to the actual protest that’s going on in Cornwall.

    Nobody in the protest group has said that there shouldn’t be bilingual service at CCH; only that there is an issue with the hiring process and gaining advancement for those who do have positions who have not attained a level of French that probably is higher than really needed.

    As for Quebec, well one of the reasons I stopped shopping at the big newly built Metro in Valleyfield is that repeatedly when I’d stop at the cash I’d say “hello” not “bonjour”. That usually is a tip off that I wish to do my transaction in English. Repeatedly the clerks did not only respond, but when I continued in English there was not a smidge of attempt to serve me in my language in spite of my purchase. It too was about the only experience I had in Valleyfield like that so now when I shop there I go to Maxi or other stores. Valleyfield sees a lot of shoppers from Cornwall; heck even our Economic Developer, Bob Peter’s wife likes to shop there. See, no bus loads or protests needed.

    My point in the article is quite simple. Take the politics out of language issues and the solutions are usually easily attainable.

  14. Of course, I’ve also had the experience of not receiving service in English in private businesses in Quebec. It depends whether you’re in an area with a lot of anglophones, and even if you are, it’s not guaranteed. Nonetheless, in areas with many anglophones, even francophone employees are able to serve you in English most of the time.

    On the other hand, I have a hard time believing that a francophone speaking to a random anglophone cashier in eastern Ontario will be able to say “Bonjour” and usually get service in English. My impression is that more often than not the answer will be “Sorry, I don’t speak French,” so that many francophones wouldn’t even bother.

    Let’s back this up with some statistics from the 2006 census. In the Montreal census metropolitan area, where the English minority population is 22% (by “first official language spoken”), 44% of people with French mother tongue use English regularly at work. In Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, where the French minority population is 23%, only 16% of people with English mother tongue use French regularly at work.

    I don’t know what you mean by “taking the politics out of language issues.” It seems to me that the hospital is in the best position to decide what level of bilingual hiring is necessary to guarantee service of equal quality in French. Claiming that a bilingual requirement in order to better serve the population amounts to “discrimination” is about as political as you’ll get.

    Since we’re on the subject of comparing health care services for anglophones in Quebec and francophones in Ontario, let’s look at some statistics specific to this topic.

    In southeast Ontario (Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry plus Prescott and Russell), the official language minority (French) is 41.3% of the population. In the Montreal metropolitan area, the corresponding figure for English is 22.3%. Based on this, one would expect far more doctors and nurses to be able to serve the minority population in southeast Ontario than in Montreal.

    In Montreal, 26% of doctors use English most often at work (exceeding the 22% minority population), 69% use it at least regularly at work, and 90% know it. For nurses, the figures are 24%, 55% and 60%.

    In southeast Ontario, 24% of doctors use French most often at work (far less than the 41% minority population), 40% use it at least regularly, and 40% know it. For nurses, the figures are 29%, 56% and 58%.

    What we see is that, despite the francophone minority there being double the anglophone minority in Montreal, roughly comparable numbers of nurses use and are able to use the minority language. In fact, in Montreal, 53% of francophone nurses are bilingual, whereas in southeast Ontario, only 38% of anglophone nurses are bilingual, despite the higher minority francophone population.

    Southeast Ontario doctors are actually far less likely to be able to provide service in French (40%) than Montreal doctors are to do it in English (90%). In many situations, one may need to go to a specialist, and in these situations one can’t simply choose one’s doctor. So if you get a doctor who doesn’t speak your language, you have to put up with it. Evidently, this must happen much more often in southeast Ontario than in Montreal.

    My conclusion is that, as far as health care services in their language goes, Franco-Ontarians would be thrilled if you adopted Quebec’s “banana republic language laws,” as you put it.

  15. @ I.Hall: “So if you get a doctor who doesn’t speak your language (French), you have to put up with it (English)”.

    Oh poor you, humiliated to speak the language of maudit Anglos. How about immigrants who don’t speak neither language feel when they need to see a doctor or are hospitalized with an illness? Do you think their lives are cheaper than the precious yours?

    Count your blessings that you speak English.

  16. I.Hall aka it’s ain’t perfect but it’s ours aka Lulu is going in circles in his fruitless attempts to distort the reality. As someone said, there is lies, damned lies and statistics.

  17. Not sure why you added Prescott & Russell to SD&G, but south east Ontario using Our Francophone map goes all the way to Kingston.
    SD&G numbers from the 2006 census give a very different picture.
    Total – 108585
    English only – 62,400
    French only – 2,325
    Niether French or English – 205

    We seem to be expanding services to bilingual, if we were not spending 42 cents of every tax dollar on Ontario health programs already, it may be different, but we should just try to help the French only that need the help. That way the few who feel more comfortable in French would still be served.

    Ontario population in 2006 – just over 12 million
    English only – 10.3 million
    French only – 49 thousand
    Neither French or English – 266.635

  18. Eric,

    Why are you talking about the number of people who speak only French? First of all, people may be able to have a conversation in English but be uncomfortable receiving health care in that language. But more importantly, what you seem to be implying is that because francophones in Ontario have mostly made the effort to learn English, they’ve forfeited the right to be served in their language. (Or that anglophones should have more rights because many of them haven’t bothered to learn French.) In other words, the more you do to accommodate the other group, the fewer rights you have by your logic. That’s undemocratic and backwards.

    Mr. Gilcig seemed to be agree with me that Quebec anglophones should have the right to health care in their language, and the fact that I’ve learned French, like most anglophones here, shouldn’t force me to relinquish that right. What matters is one’s language preference. And 41% of the population in southeast Ontario prefers French.

    The reason I grouped Prescott and Russell with SD&G is that the source that I linked to for the statistics on nurses and doctors grouped them together.

  19. Laura Lee,

    I think you may have misunderstood. I’m not francophone. I’m anglophone, and I believe in a bilingual Canada.

    I live in Quebec, where most people speak French, and I care very much about my rights as a member of the English-speaking minority. I also feel that French-speakers in Ontario should have the same rights that I have here.

    Here in Quebec, there are also people who speak Italian, Spanish, Chinese and many other languages. But only the English-speaking minority has schools, hospitals and universities that operate and provide service in its language. That is because as one of the two official languages of Canada, English is not like Italian, Chinese or Spanish. As you know, the other official language of Canada is French, and it is not like Italian, Chinese or Spanish.

    In Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, 70.4% of the population has English mother tongue, and 22.1% has French. The third language is German, at 1.1%. You appear to be saying that, because service cannot be provided to the 1% who speak German, the 22% who speak French should not expect service in their language. I don’t think this is a sensible argument.

    Likewise, in Canada, the third-largest group, which is either Mandarin or Cantonese, is about ten times smaller than the second-largest group, French. (It’s hard to tell exactly because those who just answer “Chinese” on the census can’t easily be classified as Mandarin, Cantonese or other.)

    You argue that since immigrants don’t have the privilege of being served in their language, francophones shouldn’t either. In your view, only anglophones should have this privilege. As I mentioned, in Canada, English and French have special status that sets them apart from other languages. What you’re saying is that only English should have that status. Rather than anglophones and francophones being equal, with other language groups having fewer rights, you would prefer for anglophones to have the most rights, and for all others, including francophones, to have fewer rights.

    Whether you have one language group with the most rights or two language groups with the most rights, neither solution provides full equality for all groups. However, there is more equality if the two largest groups have equal rights.

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