POLITICS
04/24/2014 11:28 EDT | Updated 06/24/2014 05:59 EDT

Language commissioner calls for bilingual crews for Ambulance New Brunswick

FREDERICTON - New Brunswick's official languages commissioner issued a report Thursday urging the Health Department to order Ambulance New Brunswick to have bilingual ambulance crews everywhere in the province.

Katherine d'Entremont's recommendation follows her investigation into an incident in September 2013 when she says the two ambulance attendants dispatched to help a Dieppe resident were unable to speak French.

D'Entremont says attempting to assist a person without speaking his or her language may have life-threatening consequences.

"It's not only serious because it's non-compliance with the act, it can also be a very serious issue of life and death in this type of situation," she said in an interview.

D'Entremont said the contract between Ambulance New Brunswick and the provincial government contains a provision on compliance with the Official Languages Act.

"A paramedic, no matter where they are in the province, they have to be able to ask questions, understand the answers that the patients are giving them, and speak fluently," she said.

D'Entremont says her office has written six reports on Ambulance New Brunswick over the last seven years and the Department of Health must ensure that corrective measures are taken.

In d'Entremont's report, Ambulance New Brunswick says bilingual paramedics are normally available, but in this case, the bilingual paramedic did not report for work that day due to personal reasons.

Ambulance New Brunswick said that paramedic was replaced by a unilingual paramedic in order to keep the ambulance in service.

The company says that in December 2013 and January 2014, it launched two training initiatives for employees to increase their level of proficiency in both English and French. It says 50 employees have enrolled in the programs.

D'Entremont says Ambulance New Brunswick must ensure that all its employees make the offer of service in both languages and those who don't comply should be at risk of disciplinary action.

No one from Ambulance New Brunswick was available for an interview Thursday, but in a statement it said it takes seriously its responsibility to treat patients in their language of choice.

"We have been working on a strategic and operational plan to ensure we are able to meet our obligations under the Official Languages Act, without compromising patient care," spokeswoman Tracy Bell said, adding that Ambulance New Brunswick is meeting with the Health Department in May to discuss that plan.

Health Minister Hugh Flemming was also not available for an interview Thursday but issued a statement saying he has instructed Ambulance New Brunswick to come up with a plan to ensure all patients are offered and given services in their language of choice and he looks forward to the company's response.