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Region program ensures patients can be served in both of Canada's official languages

Danielle Laxdal and Bassett family
Midwife Danielle Laxdal with client Chantal Bassett and her husband, Jeff Bassett. Front row: The Bassett children: Samuel, Liliane, and Colin.
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BY SUSIE STRACHAN
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, May / June 2016

When it came time to deliver her third baby at Winnipeg's Birth Centre last April, Chantal Bassett took comfort in the fact that she could speak to her midwife in French.

As a francophone who is fluent in English, Bassett says the ability to talk to midwife Danielle Laxdal in her mother tongue paved the way for effective communication at a crucial time. 

"Pregnancy and childbirth are such emotional and exhausting periods. I am so grateful I could chat at ease with Danielle without having to restrict myself to speaking English," she says.

"This was especially appreciated as my two young sons were happier and more at ease hearing me speak French with our midwife during prenatal appointments and home visits."

Janelle Ritchot has a similar story. She also worked with Laxdal to prepare for the arrival of her daughter, Sophie Poirier, who was born in January.

"French is integral to who I am," says Ritchot. "I can manage in English, but in a health-care setting where you have to talk about your pregnancy, it helps to be able to express yourself in the language you're most comfortable in."

Ritchot didn't make it to the Birth Centre for the birth; her baby's arrival happened so quickly that she had to call Laxdal and another midwife to do the delivery at her home. "Sophie was in a hurry to get here," she says in reference to her second child.

Winnipeg's Birth Centre has two French-speaking midwives - Laxdal and Kelly Fitzmaurice - who work with eight to 10 francophone clients at any one time.

"We see women from the local francophone communities, from rural Manitoba, and also from military families from Quebec, and French speakers from Africa," says Laxdal, adding the midwives provide pre-natal and post-natal care as well as during labour and birth. 

Laxdal, whose first language is French, says she has taken medical terminology courses in French, but finds that it's easier to use simpler language with her clients. She also has to take a client's culture into account. "I might have to explain how births are handled in Manitoba to a new mother from Africa," she says.

"There are cultural differences at work. And there are linguistic differences," she says. For example, in Canada, the phrase mal au coeur means nausea. But in other countries, it means heart pain, she says.

The Birth Centre opened in late 2011. It is one of many sites within the city where French language services are on "active offer," according to Dana Mohr, Regional Manager of French Language Services for the Winnipeg Health Region.

French language staff

French Language Services staff members, from left: Angèle Matyi and Dana Mohr.

The program, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, works to ensure both of Canada's official languages are spoken at 29 designated facilities and programs within the Region, and also provides document translation.

As Mohr explains, staff in designated bilingual positions are critical in reducing barriers between primary-care providers and patients who do not share a common language. When patients receive care in French, it allows them to better understand what their health-care provider is telling them, she says.

"When someone is sick, in pain, scared, or if they're elderly, they may lose any facility they might have in a second language such as English," says Mohr. "Imagine getting a cancer diagnosis. Most people have a hard time taking that in. If they don't understand the language, it's even harder."

Patients are also able to follow medical advice, understand how to take medications and generally have a better health outcome when they can speak to a health-care provider in their first language. "It really makes a difference for the patient," she says.

Since its inception in 2001, French Language Services has translated 2,700-plus documents, for a total of 1,615,000 words and counting, says Mohr. More than 20 French language workshops have been developed and taught, and there are over 1,000 designated bilingual positions.

"We encourage all bilingual people to use their French. We're also happy to see more bilingual anglophones coming out of the French immersion programs in schools applying for the designated bilingual positions."

Joyce Plante is an example of a bilingual staff member who looks for opportunities to use her French to help patients. She recently won the inaugural French Language Services Champion award during the international Semaine de la francophonie. A public health nurse working in St. Vital, Plante isn't a francophone, nor is she working in a designated bilingual position, but that doesn't stop her from enthusiastically using her French with her clients.

"Joyce often changes her days off to provide extra capacity for French school clinics and to be available for clients who are most comfortable receiving their care in French," says Mohr, adding that 53 employees from across the Region were nominated for the new bi-annual award.

Georgia Belanger is another anglophone who uses French when dealing with her clients. Belanger is a geriatric clinician with the Geriatric Program Assessment Team (GPAT) in St. Vital and St. Boniface.

"I grew up in the immersion system in Saskatchewan, and when I moved to Manitoba and began working as an occupational therapist at St. Boniface Hospital, I began taking courses through FLS," says Belanger. "I wanted to be more comfortable in the language, and that included using medical terminology."

She now speaks both French and English with her elderly clients, and laughs when she describes Franco-Manitobans trying to figure out her accent. "I'm pretty proficient in French, and my clients are patient with me. They often think I'm from outside of Canada when I talk to them, because I don't sound the same."

Along with speaking in French, there are other services provided to patients, such as consent and admission forms, appointment notices, discharge instructions and other information, says Mohr.

"When you see someone wearing a "hello/bonjour" name tag, you'll know they can speak with you in French," she says. "You can also ask for the services of a French interpreter if a bilingual staff member is not available."

Susie Strachan is a communications specialist with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: November / December 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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