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Dispute at Jewish Hospital Marks Quebec Language Feud

August 22, 1996
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A flare-up over the use of the French language at a local hospital has thrown into sharp relief a bitter ongoing battle about the future of Quebec.

The battle was left unresolved in October, when separatists narrowly lost a referendum to determine whether Quebec would remain a part of Canada.

Both before and after the referendum, the separatists, mostly French speakers, have left Jews and other ethnic groups in Quebec with the feeling that they are unwelcome.

The latest flare-up was sparked by an incident in July at the Sir Mortimer B. Davis Jewish General Hospital here.

A patient, Normand Lester, who is a television journalist for the French- language component of the CBC, Radio Canada, complained that nurse Paula Matthews refused to address him in French, even though he had previously been speaking with her in English.

The nurse purportedly told him, “You know how to speak English. You spoke English before. This is an English hospital.”

The flap became front-page news in the local French media, editorialists on both the English and French sides have written profusely on the subject and radio talk-show lines have been ringing off the hook.

B’nai Brith Canada entered the fray, asking Radio Canada ombudsman Mario Cardinal to investigate whether Lester exploited his position as a journalist to create “a major controversy from an isolated incident.”

The French Language Office, which monitors compliance with the province’s bilingual regulations, subsequently said that the hospital was complying with every facet of the law.

Nonetheless, Gilles Rheaume, vice president of the ultranationalist Quebec Sovereign Movement, called on supporters to hold a silent vigil last Friday outside the hospital.

Some 100 separatists joined the vigil, which took an anti-Semitic turn when some of the demonstrators gave a Nazi salute.

An 83-year-old woman, Anka Votcky, lunged at one young protester, screaming and spitting at him.

“We did everything for this country,” said the Czechoslovakian-born Votcky, tears streaming down her face. “What do those punks do?”

The demonstrators then got into a shoving match with a group of about 50 anti- separatists who had also converged on the hospital.

Police intervened to separate the two sides.

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