When OHS Laws Become “All Greek to Me”

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Imagine this.

A government safety official comes to your facility and hands you a document—some kind of official order. But it’s in Greek.

You ask the official to translate the notice. But he can’t. You call the agency. But nobody speaks English.

So you have no idea what the notice is or what you’re supposed to do about it.

The Plight of Jennifer Hodgins

It sounds like something out of a Kafka novel. But it’s not far removed from an incident that really happened in Quebec.

The incident, of course, involved not Greek but French. I guess it’s not true that everybody who lives in Quebec speaks or even understands French. There’s a remote town in Quebec 80 km west of Ottawa called Shawville where everyone speaks English and almost nobody speaks French. Jennifer Hodgins runs a spa in that town.

The other day, she got a notice from the CSST. She knew it had something to do with her workers’ comp premiums but it was in French. She asked an official to explain. But, alas, nobody at the agency could translate the notice into English.

Poor Jennifer Hodgins only wanted to pay her bill. But she couldn’t get anyone to tell her how; heck, she couldn’t even find out if what she had received was a bill or just an account statement.

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

The CSST didn’t break any laws. On the contrary, Quebec requires that all official communications with companies take place in French and doesn’t mandate translation.

But while it may be legal the whole situation stinks.

It used to be that when you called the CSST, you could press 9 for services in English. But the bilingual option has been discontinued.

The CSST official who handled Ms. Hodgins’s case acknowledged that the agency should have been able to find somebody who could have answered Ms. Hodgins’s question. “But not all of our employees are bilingual,” he explained.

Parlez Vous Sécurité?

I don’t begrudge Quebec for transacting corporate business in French. And neither does Jennifer Hodgins.

But what appalls me (I don’t purport to speak for Jennifer) is the hypocrisy displayed by the CSST. Few places on earth are more aggressive about protecting the language rights of the minority than Quebec. The fact that so many public communications by federal agencies are conducted in both English and French no matter where in Canada they take place is testament to that.

The CSST’s lack of concern for the language rights of its English-speaking constituents represents a breathtaking betrayal of this value. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Perhaps more disturbingly, the CSST’s failure to make a more earnest effort to provide English translation services to its non-francophone English speakers adds one more layer of complexity to their already challenging task of complying OHS and workers’ comp laws.