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By Gordon Lambie
Local Journalism Initiative

The Provincial Government has issued a call for expressions of interest and applications to be on the Provncial committee on the dispensing of health and social services in the English language after having dismissed the entirety of the previous committee through a regulation change in the latter half of 2021. The committee, also sometimes referred to as the provincial access committee, is charged with advising the government on the way that health and social services are delivered in English across the province and also on any evaluation, modification, and approval the government may make with regard to the access programs of each individual institution in the province.

The Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) first sounded the alarm about the dismissal of the previous committee members in late August, describing the change as ‘robbery through legislation.’ At the time, Eric Maldoff, Chair of the Quebec Community Groups Network's Health and Social Services Committee argued that the change, drafted quietly over the summer, wiped out years of work to try to ensure that the committee was an active and informed representation of Quebec’s English-speaking communities. Beyond undoing past work, however, Maldoff argued that regulation changed the way the committee will be formed in a way that would impact its independence from the government itself.

Later in the fall, Liberal Member of the National Assembly David Birnbaum sponsored a petition calling on the government to reaffirm the mandate and independence of the committee. By the time it closed on Dec.8, that document received 4,533 signatures.

“Two days before the petition was tabled in the National Assembly on Dec. 10 – in the middle of a public health emergency during which the population is fully fixated on COVID-19 – the government stealthily enacted a new regulation governing the provincial committee,” said QCGN president Marlene Jennings in a press release issued by the organization this week. “The committee’s members were all terminated, creating an acute void at a critical time for the English-speaking community.”

In November Christopher Skeete, the Coalition avenir Québec Member of the National Assembly for Sainte-Rose and Parliamentary Assistant to the Premier for Relations with English-Speaking Quebecers told The Record that the change, which at that point was still in draft form, was part of an effort to de-centralize representation on the committee. He described the existing committee as dysfunctional and Montreal-centric.

As a part of the organization’s reaction on Wednesday, however, QCGN Executive Director Sylvia Martin-Laforge argued that the government moving ahead with the change only adds more dysfunction to a situation that the previous committee was trying to resolve.

“The government will continue its review of access programs prepared in 2019 and 2020, along with recommendations submitted to the minister last July by the former committee members,” Martin-Laforge explained. “Current access programs are wildly out of date having been approved a decade ago, prior to a massive reorganization of the province’s health-care network.”

While Skeete assured The Record last fall that the work of the previous committee was not being thrown away, Jennings argued that keeping the work without the committee could be problematic.

“If there are questions, no one representing the English-speaking community will be authorized to answer,” said Jennings. “And, at a time when the English-speaking community requires knowledgeable representation able to provide the government with facts and evidence, this new regulation delivers a committee whose membership, functioning, and communication will more than ever be under government control.”

Gerald Cutting, President of Townshippers’ Association, told The Record that regardless of any assurances offered by the current government, he’s concerned about the control the new structure of the committee gives to governments with differing opinions on the English-speaking minority.

“This opens up the door for the kind of political appointment that might not be in the best interest of the English community,” he said.

Cutting also expressed a deep concern that this change is happening at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic runs the risk of people missing out on what is going on or not understanding its significance.

“There is a very real possibility that these people will fall through the cracks,” the Townshippers’ president said.

While restating all of their concerns about the change, both the Townshippers and QCGN representatives acknowledged that the decision has already been made and committed to engage actively with the new selection process.

“Faced with a fait accompli, the QCGN aims to ensure the new committee is composed of members of our community who are truly committed to ensuring we have access to essential health and social services in our own language,” Martin-Laforge said.

“We want to ensure that we have someone who will represent the rural English community,” Cutting added, going on to say that the association plans to back a number of local candidates at its board meeting next week.

The deadline to apply for the new committee is Feb. 5, 2022, at 5 p.m. The application form can be found on the website of the Ministry of Health and Social Services at https://www.msss.gouv.qc.ca/en/ under the “Organizational Portrait of the Network” heading and the “Call for Expression of Interest and for Applications” subheading, by clicking on the link marked ‘Members of Comité provincial pour la prestation des services de santé et des services sociaux en langue anglaise.’

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