A Court of Queen’s Bench judge has ruled that loosening the bilingual requirements for paramedics would violate the Official Languages Act in addition to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Justice Denise LeBlanc heard the case, which involved the province, the office of the official languages commissioner and CUPE, the union representing paramedics, in January.
The arguments surrounded Ambulance New Brunswick’s (ANB) legal obligations to provide bilingual service while respecting the seniority rights of its employees.
A 2018 ruling by labour arbitrator John McEvoy, whose decision found that ANB wasn’t complying with the paramedic union’s collective agreement, essentially putting language over seniority.
“The decision is not going to change our focus that Medavie is responsible to keep ambulances in service,” Premier Blaine Higgs said. “The main concern last year was two-fold. It was one, that we didn’t have ambulances on the road both in French New Brunswick and English New Brunswick that were being parked, and … there were multiple reasons that were identified, and that we had long-term individuals that were not able to seek long-term employment because they weren’t bilingual.”
Earlier this year, a radio dispatch and phone system were put in place in communities where monolingual paramedics work, but LeBlanc found that option didn’t meet the requirements of the constitutional right that all New Brunswickers have to be served in the language of their choice, French or English.
“EM/ANB is dedicated to meeting its obligations under the province’s Official Languages Act. That did not change with the McEvoy ruling and does not change with this decision,” Chisholm Pothier, a spokesperson with Medavie Health Services, wrote. Medavie Health Services is the company that oversees ANB.
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At the province’s legislative assembly, the decision was expected by members of the opposition party, who were behind the judicial review of the McEvoy decision.
“It was expected that the decision would come out the way it did, that the hiring practices have to respect the Official Languages Act, that they would trump seniority in ensuring that people seeking government services like that would be given the opportunity to have services in the official language of their choice,” explained Rob McKee, Liberal MLA for Moncton Centre.
The Green Party says there’s still one problem in the forefront, an apparent “management problem” within ANB.
“We need to cancel the contract with Medavie and bring the management of our ambulances and extramural back under the public sector so that we have direct control over how it’s managed to fix the problems that they’ve got,” David Coon, the province’s Green Party Leader, said.
The People’s Alliance Party says the issue isn’t about language but that it boils down to human resources and the fact the province does not have enough bilingual paramedics.
“The courts can rule whatever they want, but citizens still need service,” explains People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin. “The courts can have their lofty positions and all these things, but the practicalities just don’t add up.”
Michel Carrier, the province’s acting commissioner of official languages, said he’s “very satisfied with the court’s conclusion” in a statement issued on Wednesday.
“Ambulance N.B. must respect New Brunswickers’ language rights and provide services of equal quality in the citizen’s language of choice in every part of New Brunswick,” he said.
“This decision reminds us of the paramount importance of being able to receive services in one’s official language.”