The Myth of Montreal’s Bilingual Hospitals

with 203 comments

Dying generally sucks, but you do get a few perks: things like a 24h VIP direct line to a nurse you can call when weird things start happening to your mother’s cancer-ridden body.

The thing is, at night the system is rigged up so that you have to go through the Montreal General Hospital’s internal operator to get to the nurse.  Not the public operator used to communicating with the taxpaying public.  The internal switchboard lady.

Dispatch.  What service?

This being one of Montreal’s  “bilingual” hospital, in-house communications are in English.  It takes a few seconds for the operator to switch gears into French and a little bit longer for her to figure out French acronyms and terminology.

Selles?  Selles?  Shit!  What are selles?

Eventually I get the nurse on the phone.  The situation I’m describing is kind of gross and she recommends I take my mom to the emergency.

My mother used to be a patient of the Montreal Neurological Hospital’s Docteur Olivier, the French-speaking successor to the legendary Dr. Wilder Penfield who revolutionized brain science, and the living proof that Montreal’s English hospitals are, according to the Montreal Gazette, nothing but a “mischievous myth”.

“There are French ones and there are bilingual ones”, they explained after former Québec Prime Minister Jacques Parizeau was admitted to the Jewish General Hospital last week.  “Parizeau is getting that care in French – or, at least he is if that’s what he wants. Parizeau’s English is so fluently mellifluous he might just choose to use it.”

While I’m sure the staff at the Jewish will avoid the diplomatic faux pas of addressing Monsieur Parizeau in English, those of us who haven’t managed to come as close to breaking up Canada don’t quite receive the same level of consideration.

When my mother’s name was moved from the interesting cases list to the basket cases list, Dr. Olivier passed her file on to a Czech doctor who didn’t speak a word of French.  He greeted every patient in the clinic hallway with a single question:

Do you speak English?

Only about 40% of patients in Montreal’s bilingual hospitals are English-speaking so the doctor spent the first ten minutes of every second consultation sighing loudly as he fished around for an idle nurse, orderly or first year student who could translate his patients for him.  I got on his good side by setting aside my modest expectation that in 2009 my mother was entitled to receive health care in French in Québec.

The Neuro doesn’t have an emergency ward so that night I take her across the street to the Royal Victoria Hospital, named for the glorious British Queen who spoke German, English, French and Hindustani.  A doctor walks into our examining room wearing a hijab.  This is English Montreal, a tolerant, multicultural community where people value and respect each others cultures…

Do you speak English?


Really? Are you sure?

The doctor tells me that she can take a look at my mother now or that we can wait.  Mother’s been writhing in pain for about seven hours now, so I take her hand and tell her softly that it’s her turn to be bilingual.

Because my family refuses to live in Saguenay or Rosemont where we belong, we, like 1.7 million Québécois from Côte-des-Neiges to Val-d’Or — people like Jacques Parizeau, Yves Michaud, Pauline Marois, Éric Lapointe and the AngryFrenchMe — have been designated as wards of the McGill University Hospital Center.

Every single word of every single medical file of every single member of my family is written entirely in English.

Twenty-five percent of the province of Québec’s health care is administered by a medical establishment that doesn’t require it’s doctors to learn a single word of the language spoken by the majority of their patients.  The Charest government just gave McGill 3.6 billion dollars, half of the tax dollars earmarked for the construction of two university hospitals in Montréal.

No need to worry, according to The Gazette.  For that price they’ll even care for separatists.  Me and my mom’s can be assured that Montreal’s bilingual hospitals “are open to all, regardless of language, creed, ethnicity, or political conviction.”

The day shift doctor who showed up in the morning didn’t speak French either.  I don’t speak French I’m from Brazil, he told me, almost proud of himself.

I made him speak to me in Spanish.  He got the point and dropped the grin.

(Now let’s have a moment of silence for the millions of Mexican-Americans who don’t have access to health care in their own language.  Aren’t you just fucking proud to be Canadian right now?)

That night was a hard one, but it wasn’t the toughest yet.  I spent many other long nights at the Royal Vic and the Montreal General Hospital with my mother.  Tired, scared and confused by the quick succession of unfamiliar faces coming and going around her, my mother started to speak to me in English in those last few weeks of her life.

My father had started to do the same thing in the last days of his life.  So did my grand-mother.  So did my grand-father.

Anyone still wondering why I’m angry?

Add to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to Twitter SHARE.  ALL THE COOL KIDS ARE DOING IT.

Written by angryfrenchguy

April 12, 2010 at 7:00 am

203 Responses

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  1. I feel for you Heidi. I too had a similar experience but in Montreal. My parent had suffered from two heart-attacks and was in ICU, when she came to, she suffered memory loss as she had been revived. If it weren’t for their children, she would not have understood what they were saying to her. Thank goodness she is still here today and that she has us. Our elderly were not as fortunate as we are, or our children and French was taught only at the grade 5 level and there wasn’t much of it.
    On a brighter note, I recently took my child to the Montreal Children’s hospital (another bilingual hospital) and the language I heard most was French however, doctors/nurses etc…spoke both languages. There was even a Hindi gentleman who didn’t really understand either language and they went and got an interpreter for him. I must commend the hospital on their service and care!
    I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea for immigrants to learn French, or have a working knowledge of French either prior to arriving in Quebec, or once they are here and they should definitely be followed up on. They are offered French courses upon arrival but unfortunately are not checked up on afterwards.
    Sorry to hear about your parent Heidi. :(


    July 20, 2010 at 9:39 pm

  2. go to the south shore…they only speak french there!!!!!!!


    July 19, 2012 at 11:56 am

  3. The Royal Vic and the Neuro are on land donated by a wealthy English man named Hugh Allen Allen and his rich English friends poured enough into the hospitals to make them what they are today. It has been an English hospital since it’s inception and why not, English money built it.
    When I go to the Hospital here in Verdun I am expected to speak french. The Verdun General is a French hospital and always has been. It was built and paid for by French people. That’s the way life works. It’s not done to antagonize or harm anyone. It’s life. Ed brown


    October 23, 2012 at 1:48 pm

  4. About the bilingual hospital thing.
    There is a problem of general bilingualism in Quebec. The government does not want you to be bilingual. The school system gives a general dumpster quality education where languages, writing, maths etc are below level of expectation to obtain a highschool diploma. Teachers are not expected to perform and produce a proper level of litteracy,and funtionality in basic subjects. So don`t expect people to be bilingual, they can`t even write properly in their own mother tongue.

    Now. The facts in this presented article stating stating that doctors, medical professionnels who in their line of work have to deal with patient and communicate with them, cannot even speak french and sometimes speak a barely understandable english should not be acceptable. Higher standard of language knowledge in french and english shoud be required from all professionnels to practice in Quebec.

    The minimum they could have done was to find someone to translate for you in the hospital. This can be done and you can request it. All you nead is someone able to translate. But the most important conideration these days, is to find a doctor who won`t screw up or butch the job or leave patient in pain refusing to give them pain killing mecication. I saw this in a nursing home and can testify to it. When the moral standard goes down everything else follows.
    The province of Quebec is politically french speaking, but the power in place does not understand it neads to improve the quality of teaching in schools to promote this. But they can`t even do that. The other reality is Canada is an English majority and so is the USA our closest nabour. So Quebec is a small minority in a sea of anglophones. Quebec`s policies are misguided , inefficient and set for failure in the long run. If you are french speaking you nead basic english and if you are Anglophone you nead French to get along with people and work. You caqnnot come to the work place speaking no French and no English. This is totaly unacceptable.

    Baby G

    April 4, 2013 at 12:58 pm

  5. So, you and your mother both speak English, but instead of taking the care these dedicated medical staff offer gratefully, you piss and moan and refuse to speak it? Making the doctor speak to you in Spanish rather than the English you so clearly fluently command?

    You are an idiot.


    May 30, 2013 at 9:24 am

  6. You have shed a ray of suihnsne into the forum. Thanks!


    October 5, 2013 at 12:27 pm

  7. So, the 94% French speaking population funds anglo institutions with 28 % their Health Care budget in order not to be served in their own language.

    Only in Québec..

    Canada Libre

    October 27, 2013 at 12:53 pm

  8. Here is another one for you folks: I had to be hospitalised in Shawville Québec and at the time, wasn’t fluent in english…Nobody could speak to me in french and we had to speak by signs. This hospital is paid 100% by the majority of French Québécois as the costs of having 3 English Universities, 200 English schools, numerous english hospitals…I wonder if french people in the ROC have the same chance???No

    Yves Perron

    October 28, 2013 at 1:47 pm

  9. Wow, what a horrible isolated incident for you in Shawville! Well, it’s not supposed to be that way (they are supposed to be able to provide care in French), but at least they used signs to make an effort to help you. Unlike that isolated incident a couple of years ago in Quebec where the paramedic attending to a 2yr old child refused to respond to his parents unless he was addressed in French; as was his “right” (all this in the middle of the emergency, before care was finished, plus i believe he was actually very able to understand English). Once the parents switched to French (these blokes can speak french too, you see), the paramedic then responded to the situation. It was in the Anglo news, but I doubt Le Devoir gave much attention to it (they are too busy publishing the wisdom of Michel Brule). Now, this maudit anglais can acknowledge that my example was an isolated incidient; but can you?

    Il y a plusieurs écoles francais dans le ‘reste-du-canada’ monsieur Perron. I grew up in Quebec, and now live in Ontario. There are many french schools in the ROC. And as for french ‘immersion’ schools? they can’t keep up with the demand for it in the ROC; parents line up to send their kids. And the demand is not declining. Yes, these are the same ‘ostie d’blokes’ who are a threat the french language and allegely say ‘speak white’ to french people (speaking of myths). English schools in Quebec? Look at the numbers over the last 40-50yrs. Many have closed or converted to french; you should be proud! A lot of cleaning has been done, but there is still work to do. «Que l’on continue!», right?

    French universities in ROC? There may not be many, but I know there is at least one in Ottawa, and York U has Glendon, which is a French campus. I’m sure there is at least one in Acadia, so there is at least 3 right there. And the infamous English hospitals? Yes of course. The same ones anglo quebecers are reminded of every time as soon as they utter so much as a syllable of an opinion. Thanks for remembering to remind us of how so utterly privileged we are!

    By the way, the french schools and universities in the ROC, I think they are paid for by taxpayers too, possibly many of whom are English… shocking. I never hear the same kind of complaints from English taxpayers in Ontario that some of their money is being spent on French instiutions. As a former anglo quebecer, I feel like I can identify with french people in the ROC. French Canadians in the ROC don’t have a perfect situation, no sir, far from it… things could be better. But, even if you believe anglo quebecers have it better, at the same time absolutely no one in the ROC questions whether this is their home, both legally and in spirit, equal to anglos or anybody else. In Quebec, when the majority say ‘le Quebec aux quebecois’, let’s be honest, they do not mean including anglos like me (or even aboriginals who pre-date everybody) no matter how many generations of my family are from quebec or how much effort anglos make to function in french. Even when we are home, we are reminded by the majority that this is not our home. But hey, this white rhodesian is being selfish again; we don’t deserve such a morsel of respect. My apologies. As a privileged anglo I should be happy and not talk back. But Angryfrenchguy, if supposedly 94% of quebecers can now function in French (which is approaching 100%) and you are still not only not-happy, you are not even not-angry, I don’t think you will ever be happy. Seriously, even at 100%, it doesn’t matter what we (non-quebecois quebecois) do, or how many english schools close or how many anglos leave, many of the majority (real quebecois) will still always be ‘angry’, and that is both sad and scary.


    January 10, 2014 at 5:03 pm

  10. Brazilians don’t speak spanish. Why would you want the doctor to speak spanish? You’re being a hypocrite. I understand that having a family member in a hospital and needing help can be distressful. But I believe that communicating is more important than grammar/rules/language/bullshit. Being humble is important for understanding. No matter how pissed off and hard a unfamiliar language may make you feel.
    @Yves Perron, it sucks when you expect service in french and don’t get it. But i’m sure that not being fluent is not an excuse for not being able to communicate. I’ve seen Brazilians get everything they need with gestures and sign language. If it works, use it. Also, I want you all to remember that you are not the only people/country who have to co-exist with English as a second language. I’m sure you all write and speak english better than I and better than a lot of other people around the world. Use it to your advantage!

    thanks for the sharing your experience in text.


    February 2, 2014 at 7:21 pm

  11. Is this a joke? You are crying about someone helping you in another language? Get over yourself.


    August 20, 2014 at 10:49 am

  12. Disagree with those who complain for not having French services. I work in an English hospital. We have to speak French to be hired. You French staff in hospitals and the population can’t make efforts, are complaining for nothing. The English business and population are running the province. Do a research, you’ll see statistically. Idiots.


    October 16, 2014 at 6:07 am

  13. I have no idea why the fuck you’re angry.


    November 24, 2014 at 12:52 am

  14. Anonymous, October 16, 2014 : « I work in an English hospital »

    An English hospital in Québec. Everybody gets the point, Thank you !!

    Canada Libre

    December 21, 2014 at 10:01 pm

  15. I think the underlining problem is that we are mixing public services with culture and politics. The role of a doc or nurse is to help the patient in any way they can. That’s their job. Of course learning the language of the patient is a big factor. I DO think that if possible, those docs should learn the major languages of their patients since communication is a big part of their job also. But on the other hand, there are exceptions. If a Doc is world reknown and only speak either French or English, the patient, if they really want to have the best care, will seek out this doctor, no matter the language. Same thing, if a Doc is really good but only speak French in an English community, maybe the hospital should still hire him since you don’t say no to this kind of talent! It’s then the hospital’s job to make sure there are translators and that the patient still get the best care, no matter the language. No patient should suffer because of their language, English, French or any other languages for that matter. Public services should be run like a business in that regards. Hire staff in function of target clientele and skills. If linguistic skill is lacking but other skill compensates, then put measure in place to rectify any problems that may occur.


    July 16, 2015 at 9:14 pm

  16. Sharon, you are spot on! I am English speaking, practicing Dermatologist in my home town, Mombasa,Kenya. My son lives in the predominant French speaking area of Rosemont. My wife and I are planning to live in Montreal on my retirement soon. I can’t speak French. We both have health issues. In an emergency I would need to use a Bilingual speaking Hospital and do not want to get involved in a futile language war when all I want is medical care. All of us are not savvy with languages. We love Montreal for the great city it is. I will be paying property taxes,school taxes,buying local produce ( Jean Talon Market ), using the local services…….yet this issue of language is creating rifts which I find so infuriating! A language essentially is a means of communication and should not have other connotations…..the idea that I can be penalized in any way just because I can’t speak a language sounds draconian. By the way my daughter in-law is French!

    Dr. Ajay Patel

    July 20, 2015 at 11:54 am

  17. Reblogged this on parlezvousanglais.


    November 5, 2015 at 9:23 am

  18. we are suppose to be speaking both languages here in Montreal and maybe even more for we got different nationalities and we should respect everyone involved just because your English does not mean u do not try to respect the other person who does not understand English you try to communicate in there language or get someone to do it . I speak both languages and also speak other languages because it is important in our society to be more involved especially in the hospitals


    April 17, 2016 at 1:39 pm

  19. We are NOT supposed to speak any other laguage in Montreal than the only official language here. Saying otherwise is plain racist.

    Réjean Drouin

    April 18, 2016 at 5:24 pm

  20. Hello, I am sorry for your losses. I am a nursing assistant, just finished my schooling and I can speak French, write and understand it, but I am not so good with medical terminology in French. I would like to find a school that can teach me French medical terminology, I will have more job opportunities anyway, I agree in some ways with you. It’s annoying to get service in a language other than the one people should be speaking according to the province they live in. Have a nice day :)


    March 27, 2017 at 5:21 pm

  21. No need to explain. I see why you’re angry….because you are Petulant and immature. Grow up.


    June 1, 2018 at 7:25 am

  22. I’m surpised the Brazilian guy spoke spanish as Brazilians generally speak portuguese the official language of Brazil. This calls most of your story into question.

    Jean Bernard

    November 19, 2018 at 7:26 pm

  23. Interesting. I have the same issue but I can’t find a Dr who speaks English. If you’re trying to get service on the West side, expect it to be in english. If you insist on speaking french in a bilingual region than I suggest you get a Dr on the East side. I live on the East side and no one speaks English, again, in a Certified Bilingual Region. But I agree, if anyone in a bilingual region should have to be bilingual it’s the health care system, if no one else. By the way, does anyone know of an English Dr who’s taking patients? I retired from the military over 3 years ago and still don’t have a Dr. Apparently I’m still on “the list” but I never hear anything.

    Patricia Rose

    October 13, 2020 at 2:58 pm

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