Yesterday I went to a medical appointment at a clinic inside a large hospital. The process of getting this appointment was cumbersome, to say the least, and it was 10Km away from where I live, not easy to reach by public transportation, and no bike stations were available nearby. After much consideration I decided the best way to get to the hospital was to simply park my Bixi outside the hospital and pay the overtime fee because walking one hour or taking a cab was not an option.
When I got to the clinic I was informed that I needed a hospital card, so I went to the front desk and asked for one. The lady spoke very little English and passed me a piece of paper in French with instructions to call RAMQ (Quebec's healthcare) in order to extend my health insurance card because it had expired recently.
I called and a pre-recorded message greeted me. I couldn't understand much but I understood that their menu changed and English was no longer an option. I tried my best to navigate throught the phone system in French, but it got me nowhere.
I went to the cafeteria and I saw a bored man on his phone. I asked him if he spoke English, he said yes. I asked him if he was busy and if he could help navigating the phone call. He asked me what I wanted to to, I said "ask for an extension on my health card", he said "you can do it online", "but the lady gave me this". He grugingly acceeded to help me navigate the phone call, not before asking where I was from. "Mexico" I answered. He seemed satisfied I was not an ignorant Canadian (though I am).
After two minutes he insisted: you can do this online. I searched on the website. "See, here you can do it"-- I see what you mean, but I don't need a new card, I need an extension on the old one because I have an appointment right now. He asked me to see my health card. "Your name is Mark MacKay and you are from Mexico?" he eyed at me suspiciously. I explained I grew up in Mexico to a Mexican mother and a Canadian father. I felt mutual mistrust: I didn't trust that the guy knew what I actually needed, and he didn't trust the sincerity of my plea and my background. I said "thanks, let me go back to the lady at reception to ask her".
I came back and explained my situation to her. "There is no service in English anymore?" she asked incredously. Yes, and I don't know French, I don't know what to do, is there anybody at the hospital who can help me? She said no. After a couple of seconds of consideration she asked me to dial the phone number and put it on the speaker phone. When the part of the voice recording stated that English was not an option anymore, she shook her head.
She navigated the system with me. A supervisor came and said we shouldn't be conducting a phone call together. The lady explained "this patient doesn't speak French and they changed the phone system to French only". The supervisor shook her head too and consented to our call. Even with her native Fench the call went through three dead ends before we reached the right option, and got ahold of a human being on the other side of the line.
Finally I was able to get into my appointment, two hours late. About that I don't complain, I was fortunate that all the human beings I met were decent people, even the guy who insisted that I should do it online (which was impossible), was trying to help. This is stupid government policy that just adds work to the overburdened healthcare system because what are you going to do? Tell a patient that he's out of luck because he doesn't speak French and he can't receive healthcare? No, because some politican decided to remove English from the phone system, now probably hundreds of healthcare workers have to work as improvised translators.
Some weeks ago I was walking down the street behind two young women. They were conversing with each other, but not in the same language. One spoke French, the other English, but they understood each other perfectly and each spoke the language of their choice. How wonderful to be able to have a conversation like this, where you express yourself at your full capacity in your native language, and then listen to the other person express themselves in their full capacity too.
This is where I would like to arrive, eventually. If I am not to speak French, I ought to at least understand it when it is spoken to me. This "no English policy" doesn't create more French speakers, it just creates resented and stubborn English speakers.
Today someone spoke some words in French to me. I said "can you repeat what you just said, but slowly?", the guy said the same thing but in English. "Thanks for the translation" I said "but I would still like to understand what you said in French", he smiled and repeated what he said. I made out a couple of words which were similar to Spanish and then understood how it translated into English. He was elated.
How can it be that people are so gracious about language, yet politicians are not?