French-speaking Ottawa residents file complaints over language access at vaccine clinics

The local government of Ottawa’s French Language Services (FLS) branch saw an increased number of complaints regarding French language services in 2021, according to a report the branch compiled last week.

The rise in complaints is likely a direct result of poor language access planning in the early days of COVID-19 vaccine campaigns. In 2021, the branch received 60 complaints, nearly half of which were in regards to the city’s vaccine clinics’ lack of adequate French language services. That’s nearly 40% higher than the five-year average of 43 complaints. Up until now, 2017 was the year with the most complaints, with a total of 47 complaints.

The FLS branch noted that 24 of the city’s complaints regarding language access were in response to issues at vaccine clinics throughout the city. 36 additional complaints were filed in response to other language access issues — had it not been for inadequate language services at vaccine clinics, 2021 would have been a better-than-average year for the city’s language services branch.

Twenty-two complaints against the city’s vaccine clinics noted that patients were not able to access vaccine services in French. Two additional complaints concerned poor or inconsistent translations of COVID-19 vaccine-related information on signage, such as grammatical errors or inaccuracies in spelling. 

According to city officials, most of these complaints were filed between March and July, when COVID-19 vaccines were first becoming widespread — after implementing more expansive language access measures at vaccine clinics, complaints regarding French services at vaccine clinics declined significantly.

While it should be noted that more than 1 million doses were administered throughout the city’s vaccine clinics without complaint, the jump in complaints regarding language services is cause for concern. 

The city adopted an official policy of bilingualism in 2001, meaning that businesses and local government agencies must do their best to provide adequate services in both the country’s official languages. While Ottawa has a notably smaller proportion of French speakers than cities in the neighboring province of Québec, a sizable minority of nearly 15% speaks the language natively and likely prefers to access services in their native language (though less than 2% of the city identifies as monolingual French speakers).

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Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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