Suzanne Houde is fed up with the lack of French services in the territorial health system. 

The soon to be 60-year-old has been in Yellowknife for 22 years with her husband and in that time, Houde says she has only seen French language services from the Department of Health and Social Services get worse. 

Suzanne Houde, a unilingual French speaker of 22 years living in Yellowknife, said she is scared to go to the emergency room at Stanton Territorial Hospital because she is not guaranteed French services.
Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

Houde, a unilingual French speaker, dropped by the Yellowknifer office Dec. 12 with her translator to point out that she has made at least 10 formal complaints to the Office of the Languages Commissioner this year. Explaining her medical problems or communicating with receptionists or setting appointments is very difficult in Yellowknife compared to many other Canadian cities she has lived in, she says. 

Her main and continued complaint is that front line workers, including receptionists and nurses at Stanton Territorial Hospital as well as receptionists at city health clinics have poor French speaking abilities. 

“The whole situation with the health department compromises (my) health, including my blood pressure,” she said through her translator, noting that she fears going to the emergency department. “The stress of not being understood by health professionals has an impact on (my) health and has been since I came here in 1997.

Houde provided copies of numerous letters of complaint to the Official Languages Commissioner, including those from 2019 seeking better service in French. Some are dated as recently as Dec. 11, 2019. 

A number of letters of complaints she provided regarding poor French services stretch back to 2016 and beyond, and are addressed to both the the NWT Health and Social Services Authority and Yellowknife Health and Social Services Authority. 

She said she has run into this issue when seeking help with her physiotherapy, orthopedic care, migraines and nausea as well as many other ailments over the years.

Being a unilingual francophone speaker is difficult when it comes to coordinating interpreters around her doctor appointments. In the past she has experienced no-shows by the interpreters, which leads to the cancellation of important appointments, she added.

Because she may be misunderstood, she feels unsafe when using the hospital’s emergency room, and at other times feels neglected and sometimes the subject of ridicule.

“It’s like I don’t exist to them,” she said through her translator. “Even if there is a sticker (in the hospital or clinic) that shows that services are provided in French you don’t get any.” 

She added that her personal health care file indicates that French is her first language preference, but it doesn’t seem to matter. 

“I have a lot of meetings at the hospital, and every time I have to have an interpreter,” she said.

Often that person is her husband who is bilingual, but he travels a lot and is often out of town.  “So I have to go above and beyond to get someone to translate for me – either a nearby staff member or employee to help with translation.”

She said that she has had meetings with the Official Languages Commissioner of the NWT and the Francophone Affairs Secretariat as well as Stanton Territorial Hospital senior management but the complaints never seem to help her or lead to proper follow-up. 

Audrey Fournier, coordinator with Reseau TNO Sante, said it is not uncommon for unilingual French people to experience language barriers in the health system. Her organization continues to work with partnering organizations, including the GNWT Health and Social Services department to improve resources that will help the francophone community.
Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

Houde said she wants to be a voice for others who may be in a similar situation as it seems many people don’t want speak up.

“(I) know other francophones have difficulty but they don’t want to talk about it very much,” she said, adding there is direct action the government can take.

“First, I want to see receptionists that can speak French. I would also like to see more francophone interpreters outside of business hours to fill in the gaps so that I can make appointments in the evenings and on weekends.”

Audrey Fournier is a co-ordinator with Reseau TNO Sante, an NWT organization which advocates for the francophone community in navigating the health care system. She said it is not uncommon for the francophone community to experience barriers, but over time, services are improving. 

“It is not unusual,” she stated in an email, but noted her organization tries to make structural changes to the health care system rather than engage with patients on an individual basis.

“There are still some cracks in the implementation and the planification that doesn’t always allow a continuity of care in French. But there is also a lot of work being done to change that.”

Fournier stated that francophone patients should receive health service in French because the GNWT has recruited a medical interpreter for the hospital this year, but more needs to be done by the government to hire bilingual staff. French patients should also be assigned to French-speaking health professionals as much as possible, she added.

Health authority responds

Lisa Giovanetto, communications officer with the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority stated in an email that the department provides several services that accommodate both unilingual Francophone and bilingual speakers.

She stated that staff are trained to offer an “active greeting” which is defined as “a way of greeting the public which informs them that they are welcome to communicate with the GNWT in either English or French when seeking information or a service,” she stated. 

Giovanetto explained that this can be “a sign, a personal greeting or a recorded message.”

“If the client indicates their preferred language is French, the employee will either deliver services directly, or by referral to a bilingual colleague, or via interpretation,” she added. 

Giovanetto also stated that staff also have access to the hospital’s full-time French medical interpreter at Stanton. That person “can attend appointments with clients/patients and provide in-person or over the phone interpretation services on-demand,” she wrote. 

French services coordinators who are located in each region of the NWT – at Stanton, Yellowknife, Fort Smith, and Inuvik, are also available. Giovanetto stated their roles are to “provide information, system navigation services, and facilitate discussions/booking of appointment at any of our service locations.”

Giovanetto stated that in Yellowknife, there are French speaking clinic assistants at the  Frame Lake Community Clinic and Yellowknife Primary Care Centre. A live-language translator technological program called CanTalk is also available. 

As for specific appointments. Giovanetto said the patient is able to bring who they want to assist with translation, however the health authority has the medical interpreter who can also offer in-person or over-the-phone interviews at the patient’s wish.


Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa. Simon can be reached at...

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