April 26, 2002

Inuk nurse says Quebec law discriminates against her

Shirley White says she’s treated like a second-class nurse — because she can’t speak French

JANE GEORGE

KUUJJUAQ — In Nunavik, Shirley White is as rare as a precious diamond: an Inuk and a registered nurse.

But White is fed up with feeling like a second-class nurse in Quebec — and, worse yet, at Kuujjuaq’s Tulattavik Hospital.

"Am I a piece of wood? They completely ignore the fact that I’m a nurse," said a dispirited White.

White is outraged that her nursing diploma and her mastery of Inuttitut and English don’t merit equal respect — provincially or at her workplace.

Quebec’s nursing association, l’Ordre des infirmières et infirmiers du Québec, restricts White’s right to practice in Quebec to health-care institutions in what it wrongly terms on her 2002-3 license as "Indian reserves."

"To my understanding, we are supposed to be exempt from Bill 101, so I don’t understand why my license has this little stamp: ‘This person is authorized to practice the profession of nursing solely on an Indian reserve.’"

White is not mistaken that Bill 101, which Quebec calls The Charter of the French Language, "recognizes the right of the Amerinds and the Inuit of Québec, the first inhabitants of this land, to preserve and develop their original language and culture."

This law also specifically exempts Inuit and Cree from most of the provisions intended to promote and protect French as Quebec’s official language.

But this exemption only applies to Inuit when they’re on Inuit-owned land in Nunavik or within reserves.

Any member of a Quebec professional association must be able to speak, write and understand French. This means native nurses who don’t meet these criteria may only practice in health-care facilities on native lands.

While Sylvie Vallières, spokesperson for Quebec’s nursing association, said she couldn’t see any difference between Indian reserves and Inuit communities, she admitted there might be an error in the wording used on White’s license. She counseled White to ask for a correction.

But Vallières said the restriction on White’s practice would stand. She was able to produce amendments to Bill 101 from 1993 that give professional groups such as the Quebec nursing association the right to prevent Inuit who don’t speak French from working outside Nunavik communities or Indian reserves.

Because health is a provincially regulated sector, federal laws can’t offer White any protection, either, said a spokesperson from the office of Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages.

Back in the 1980s, when White was still a registered nursing assistant, there was no restriction on her practice. She continued her studies, receiving a nursing diploma through John Abbott College in 1995, under the false impression that she would be able to practice anywhere in Canada as a nurse.

White doesn’t have any immediate plans to move to Montreal, but said she would want to be able to work in an institution serving Inuit if she did.

"It’s the principle of the thing," White said

Meanwhile, linguistic barriers in the workplace compound White’s growing frustration over the restrictions on her practice.

"In my community, we’re supposed to be in the majority, but when you go into the workplace, you become a minority," White said.

Tulattavik Hospital presents an Inuk face to those who enter the building, and most of its clients are Inuit, but the vast majority of its health-care providers are French-speaking Québécois.

Doctors and nurses routinely speak French between themselves, often leaving White to guess at what they’re saying.

Speaking French to each other during emergency situations, they’ve left White, the only non-French speaking member of the medical team, totally out of essential conversations.

It’s an "automatic response" to communicate in French, they tell her.

"I’m tired of saying, ‘Can you speak English?’ When they come up, when they’re applying, they are supposed to be able to speak English," White said.

White feels many miss the point that they are in an Inuit homeland, even if it’s technically part of a majority-French Quebec.

"They say, "People are always speaking Inuttitut, and we don’t understand.’ "

White would like to see more Nunavimmiut enter the health-care professions. "But what’s the point of nursing, if every time I’m working, I feel like a second-class citizen?" White said.

White said she’d like to take her case to court, because she feels her human rights, as an aboriginal person, are being trampled on.

"It is a discrimination against my rights as an Inuk to force me to only practice my profession where they see fit than where I would chose to make my life. How can I believe that Quebec is really working to welcome Inuit into Quebec society when they impose such restrictions on my ability to circulate professionally in Quebec, my native province?"