World Day Against Aids: Let’s not Forget Ontario’s Francophonie
In the past year, my Office has received a number of complaints from residents of the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa concerning the lack of French-language services for people living with HIV or AIDS. On the occasion of World Day Against Aids taking place tomorrow, December 1st, 2012, I wish to highlight the extent to which these services are crucial for Francophones affected by the pandemic.
As I mention in my 2011-2012 Annual Report, the complainants who contacted my Office alleged that when they approached community support organizations – largely funded by the Ontario government – they did not receive adequate, equivalent service in French.
Not all the complainants were necessarily decrying a total absence of service. A number of them were greeted or provided with guidance in French. But the linguistic duality seldom went beyond the reception desk. And when it came to actually supporting the person living with HIV or AIDS, the services were available only in English (counselling, help finding a residence, etc.).
People living with HIV or AIDS are literally fighting for their lives, and they have to both share and understand complex, sensitive information. They have to be able to describe physical and mental conditions, symptoms and side effects in precise terms. They have to receive and understand critical advice regarding lifestyle, the legal and health consequences of certain practices, how to obtain long-term and emergency assistance, and how to take medication.
Clearly, explaining or understanding such nuances in one’s second language requires intellectual gymnastics, and Francophones living with HIV or AIDS are sick of being linguistic acrobats when they are already dealing with all sorts of challenges. They therefore sought the assistance of my Office to exercise their right to a continuum of social and therapeutic guidance in French.
I naturally wanted to shed light on this apparent inequality and we therefore conducted an investigation. Our findings were not very flattering.
On one hand, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care stated that, although organizations operating in the HIV/AIDS sector were in fact supported with public funds, they have no legal obligation to provide service in French because they are not government agencies and do not provide services on the government’s behalf.
On the other hand, the Ministry pointed to the many actions it had taken to improve services for Francophones living with HIV, even though those actions amounted to nothing more than having provincial awareness campaigns translated and funding some information, testing and training events.
Though commendable, those efforts do not solve the fundamental problem raised by the complainants, which is the lack of tailored support services in French to help Francophones deal with their illness and the wide-ranging medical, personal and social repercussions that it has in the long term.
The Ministry advised us that it was working on a provincial HIV/AIDS strategy and in the same breath hinted that the matter was outside our purview. I obviously do not claim to be an expert in health policy. However, I am an expert in the language rights of Ontario’s Francophones, and I intend to make sure that people who every day deal with a disease that brings them face to face with abandonment, stigmatization, pain and even the end of their lives can count on an organization partly paid out of their pockets through the government, to meet their needs.
I therefore hope that the strategy being developed by the Ministry will fully integrate French-language services from the start and will include not only comprehensive obligations in that regard for government-funded partners but also the incorporation and adequate funding of Francophone organizations that are fully empowered to provide services to people living with HIV or AIDS.