MONTREAL — The Jewish General Hospital (JGH) says its ability to recruit and retain staff, especially doctors, nurses and researchers, will be in jeopardy if Quebec’s secularism charter becomes law.
In its 42-page brief to the National Assembly hearings on Bill 60, the proposed charter of Quebec values, the JGH says that “the effect on the JGH (and on other health-care establishments) would be extremely serious, since the JGH recruits many of its best health-care professionals globally and nationally.”
Potential candidates might be unwilling to move to Quebec, and existing employees may consider leaving it, the JGH fears.
One of its staff members has already made up his mind. The brief quotes physician Ronald Schondorf, a longtime member of the neurology department and an observant Jew who wears a kippah at all times, as saying: “If the charter is adopted in its present form and is enforced, I will leave the province, never to return.
“By doing so, I realize I am depriving many Quebecers of my expertise. There are, however, lines that cannot be crossed, and I will not tolerate an era where individual groups are blithely deprived of liberties.”
The JGH reiterated its earlier announced position that it would neither abide by the charter’s ban on staff wearing overt religious symbols nor apply for any exemption for health-care institutions provided for in the proposed law, be it short-term or indefinite.
Such a prohibition is “profoundly discriminatory and deeply insulting” to its staff, says the JGH, which has a highly diverse workforce of more than 5,200.
Rather, the JGH says that it would join with other institutions in launching a legal challenge of the bill.
Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville’s commented before the bill was tabled in November suggesting that, because of its distinct cultural history and characteristics, the JGH might be permitted a longer transition time to implement the charter or be able to apply for, effectively, an unlimited number of exemptions.
Both ideas were rejected by the JGH.
“Neither of these options is acceptable to the JGH. The JGH would not seek a more gradual or convenient way of easing into legislation with whose principles the hospital fundamentally disagrees,” the brief states.
“The position of the board of directors is that since the bill is inherently prejudicial and contrary to the JGH’s values, there is no point in taking advantage of any article that would grant temporary, short-term relief.”
Moreover, it points out, the exemption offered only applies to employees’ apparel, not the institution’s obligation to be neutral.
The JGH also objects to the bill’s encroachment on the autonomy of its board of directors, which is elected by the public, by professionals and by employees. The board, it believes, should retain the power to handle any request for accommodation by staff or patients.
The JGH’s ombudsman has received no complaints about the religious or cultural apparel of the JGH staff, it says.
“As long as services are delivered with professional competence, courtesy and respect, no legislation should be permitted to override the freedoms of religions or expression that are guaranteed by the Canadian Charters of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms,” it states.
The brief also raises concern that the charter would prevent the JGH from serving only kosher food to patients and in its main cafeteria, as it has throughout its history.
Articles 1, 40 and 41 obligate public bodies to be “neutral and secular is all respects,” and the Quebec rights charter would be amended to give precedence to the state secularism envisioned in Bill 60, the JGH continues.
The charter’s entrenchment of gender equality would also mean that religious patients would “lose the privilege of having a same-sex doctor, nurse or other health-care professional assigned to their care, where possible,” as is the JGH’s current practice.
The JGH, furthermore, is worried that the charter’s affirmation of “the primacy of the French language” would threaten its bilingual status.
The brief emphasizes that the JGH was founded in 1934 in response to a “systemic anti-Semitism” that prevented many Jewish doctors and nurses from finding employment at Montreal hospitals, yet since the day it opened, the JGH has offered its services on a non-sectarian basis and hired people of all backgrounds.
Endorsements of the JGH by Quebec politicians and other well-known personalities are cited in the brief, including former Parti Québécois premier Bernard Landry, who in 2001 called the JGH “the flagship in bringing Jewish and non-Jewish Quebecers closer together.” Other PQ premiers quoted endorsing the JGH are Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau, who was treated there. The latter wrote in 2011: “It’s so charming to see people of all backgrounds and all colours.”
The JGH has chosen not to appear before the hearings, which begin this week, said spokesperson Astrid Morin. “The hospital has submitted a concise brief on Bill 60which it feels stands on its own and reflects its position perfectly,” she said.