MUHC nurse fails French test; gets second high school diploma

A nurse from the Royal Victoria hospital was left with no choice but to take an unpaid month off work, to complete a second high school degree.

Jeff Powell, a soon to be father of four, moved from California to Quebec many years ago.

He completed his nursing degree at Dawson College and began working in the oncology department at the Royal Victoria hospital.

Powell hadn’t passed the French tests at Dawson before graduation – a requirement to be a nurse – and was given a four year window to pass the test at the Quebec Language watchdog offices, the OQLF.

He met with civil servants, passed the interview portions, but kept failing the written parts.

“You would have to write a couple hundred words, and as soon as you make six or seven mistakes, you automatically fail,” he said.

Powell admitted that even after attempting the exam repeatedly, he never knew what his errors were.

“They don’t tell you how you can improve or what you should be doing differently.”

He believes the OQLF exam is difficult to the point that few Francophones could pass it.

Faced with the upcoming four-year deadline, human resources at the MUHC were going to have to force Powell off the job until he passed.

Powell said about four of five other colleagues, on his floor alone, are faced with the same problem.

“That’s when I decided to go back and get my high school degree here in Quebec,” he said. “I even had to take English classes again.”

He took an intensive program that allowed him to get a Quebec diploma in one month – which allowed him to be exempt from the OQLF exam.

“I work and chart in English, speaking with Francophone patients is never a problem,” he admitted. “Many of my Francophone patients are really surprised that I have to take an exam.”

The experience, he said, caused a significant financial stress for his family.

“Raising three, soon to be four kids, isn’t cheap – and there I was, sitting at home, working to get another high school degree.”

“It’s just ironic because they want people to move here, but at the same time – they make it next to impossible.”

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  1. Predrag posted on 01/27/2014 07:58 AM
    If anyone has some experience with OQLF, I'm the one. I applied for the OIQ in 2004, OIQ sent me for French test right away to the OQLF, three parts (verbal expression, listening comprehension, written comprehension) passed right away in 2004, but written expression took me seven years to pass and I was taking this exam almost every three months for seven years (minimum required time to pass between two takings is three months). Every single time between 2004 and 2011 when I took the exam I had between 45 and 55%, no matter how good or poor I thought I did (passing grade is 60%). When I finally asked for a meeting with the person that was correcting these exams they reluctantly accepted and he was very confusing in the explanation of the way he graded the exam and he showed me my most recent exam only for a few seconds. I asked him how is it possible that I pass other three parts of the French exam on my first try and the written expression takes me more than 6-7 years? How is it possible that I always get the same percentage, no matter if it was at the beginning of my French learning in 2004 or after several years of working in French-speaking environment and taking French courses, when my written skills improved dramatically? All of my questions went unanswered and he sent me to the library for some grammar books. I finally passed this fourth part in 2011, but saw that another person corrected my exam.
  2. Umaga posted on 01/27/2014 08:04 AM
    That this man was allowed to work in a hospital without a working knowledge of the official language language is a health and safety concern that needs to be investigated
    He can hardly be surprised that the government is asking him for proof of competency in the language of his new country before allowing him to work in a profession in which communication skills are so vital .
    1. Arsenia posted on 01/27/2014 11:29 AM
      @Umaga In response to your post, I would say that those that need to be investigated are the ignorant, unbending, French-speaking hospital workers, especially those on the front lines, who refuse to speak English to English speaking patients most of whom are in enough distress already without having to deal with someone who does not understand a word they are saying or even worse, does understand them but refuses to speak to them in English. You have heard the stories, I'm sure, of the recent occurences in Montreal area hospitals. You are right though, when you do work in a profession where communication skills are vital, especially when you deal with life and death situations, as in a hospital environment, the language burden should rest on those that are there to hopefully save a life, or at the very least, comfort a patient and his or her family that are in distress. I believe the French language problem we have here in Quebec is mostly rooted in politics, not culture. A well-cultured person will always attempt to communicate with someone who does not speak or understand their language, there are many ways you can do that, I know because I have found myself in situations where I had to use other forms of communication to understand what someone is trying to say to me in a language I do not understand (I work with the public). You know what? I always succeed. Back to the subject of your post, hospital workers should be fluent in the two official languages of Canada, English and French. If you can't speak or write Englsh, you should be forced back to school to learn it, like that male nurse that has relocated to Quebec from California who was forced to go back to High School to get his proficiency in French. This French language debate is making Quebec look ugly in the eyes of the world.
    2. RN Montreal posted on 01/27/2014 12:19 PM
      @Umaga I'm a practicing nurse here in Montreal who never had to deal with the OQLF but it is a sad reality that many nurses who do not originate from Québec are in the same boat as Jeff. I'm sure that if you subjected me to this exam I would also fail (even though my mother tongue is french but never attended french school). Just because your written french is not superb doesn't mean you're incompetent for the job and not eligible to work!
  3. ric posted on 01/27/2014 08:09 AM
    I didn't know that being a nurse in quebec, you were expected to write novels in french. HOW STUPID, seeing the shortage of nurses and doctors here.
  4. Todd posted on 01/27/2014 10:07 AM
    Why would he move to Quebec???
  5. Jeff Powell posted on 01/27/2014 11:49 AM

    I believe that you missed the point. I do have a working knowledge of French. I have never had any complaints about my French from francophone patients, and i am a very good nurse. My patients value the care I give, both anglo and francophone. The issue is that the OQLF test is very difficult. The criteria is far too strict for persons who are learning French as a second language. In fact, I would be interested to see how many francophones would be able to pass the written part of the test.
    I take my job very seriously, and I find it absolutely insulting that you would consider me a risk. My employer and my colleagues can attest to my professionalism and competency. Like I said, I have never had a problem communicating with francophone patients. It was only the OQLF who had a problem with my French.

    Jeff Powell
    1. bob posted on 01/27/2014 04:39 PM
      @Jeff Powell Jeff is absolutely right. As a supervisor, I receive reports from Francophone employees daily. They are full of orthographic errors. And all of them have at least a CEGEP education. These OQLF tests create a double standard. If all candidates for the professions were required to pass the same tests, it would not take long before the criteria were set at a more realistic level.
    2. Catherine posted on 01/27/2014 05:03 PM
      @Jeff Powell Jeff, I'm having the same problem. I'm also in a regulated profession and I was considering just leaving the province (still am) but this article has given me a glimmer of hope that I may be able to keep my life here in Quebec. Are you able to say which college / school you got the diploma from and the name of the course? Thanks!
  6. sam posted on 01/27/2014 12:23 PM
    Only minorities are required to take a subjectively marked language writing test !? In what universe does this have even the appearance of fairness? Remember the voters' literacy tests that used to be used in some southern states in the US ?
    1. George73 posted on 02/24/2014 04:10 PM
      @sam Oh under the PQ we'll get there. Anglos not permitted on the buses even though our taxes pay for them. Forced to wear some label on our coats that denotes us as individuals that can be discriminated against and attacked with impunity. Perhaps the PQ will even issue a bounty. $1000 per incident in which an Anglo is either financially or physically intimidated by a representative of the genetically pure pure laine.
  7. David posted on 01/27/2014 01:09 PM
    I'm not going to comment on the ridiculous situation he was placed in in the first place, but I would like to say considering the hassle he had to endure the hospital should pay him for his month off. It would be only fair.
    1. Claudio posted on 01/27/2014 03:05 PM
      @David No! he should have taken care to correct his situation a long time ago. Instead of thinking the law didn't apply to him.
  8. Jim posted on 01/27/2014 01:19 PM
    I too had to do the OLQF exam as I'm a nurse (formerly of the Royal Vic). I don't mind at all having to write an exam to prove my competency in the French language - in fact, I agree with it.

    My issue with the exam is the questions they ask: "Write a letter of recommendation for your friend to get a loan", or "Explain why you were late", or even better "Describe your typical day at the office".

    I think nurses who write the exam should write about nursing issues. Engineers who write the exam should write about engineering. Dentists who write the exam should write about dental problems.
  9. Claudio posted on 01/27/2014 03:01 PM
    this guy moves to Montreal from the US, gets his nursing degree from a quebec cegep for peanuts, and doesn't think to learn basic French after all this time, not too bright!!
    1. joeN posted on 01/27/2014 03:42 PM
      @Claudio Suggest you reread the article since you obviously missed the point. The question is not a failure in basic french, it's the failure of the testing system that systematically discriminates against non francophones. By the way, I bet you would fail the test regardless of the level, basic or intermediate.
    2. Catherine posted on 01/27/2014 05:09 PM
      @Claudio The original poster wrote a comment above: he *does* know French. The OQLF exam is known for being hard. Every mistake made results in a 5% loss of marks. Since the passing grade for each of the four sections is 60%, only 9 errors results in failure. The written expression part of the exam is the part that most people fail because the marking scheme isn't released. Even a lawyer who has lived in Quebec for 12 years and took her bar exam in French failed the exam!! My personal belief is that the OQLF make this exam unnecessarily hard to drive out people who have French as a second language.
  10. John Hancock posted on 01/27/2014 04:12 PM
    Well, I think your comment that "few francophones" could pass is significant ... I think THEY should be made to take the test as well!!!
  11. Mario posted on 01/27/2014 06:03 PM
    In 1980 I went to a hospital to apply for work in the xray department. ,I was trained in the US, passed all my exams, and had done training at University of Md. Hospital that included shock trauma when it was becoming the standard for all trauma units across the country. My license was recognized all over the free world. In that it was accredited. When I asked for an application in Montreal ,the city I was born in, the registrar was very helpful. She stated my credentials were all in order, and my work experience was exceptional, but I would have to pass a French exam. I said no problem I had taken 4 years of French in high school and I would gladly take a course so as to take the exam. She said let me be frank, your work credentials are great, but you are English the test will be made a 100 times more difficult for me. I was angry, I was born in Montreal , I wanted to move back to Montreal but the French would make it extremely hard for me to get work. At least the woman was honest with. But even back then the French wanted to get rid of the English it seems things are the same even today !!!!
  12. Suzanne posted on 01/27/2014 06:03 PM
    I don't think any of us are in a position to judge if we don't know this guy's whole history. Point is - system is flawed and could use a revamp!
  13. jawnie wocker posted on 01/27/2014 06:14 PM
    Come on out to BC and forget all that nonsense, I did
  14. Sumato posted on 01/27/2014 11:39 PM
    I've known Jeff since I began working at the RVH, and he really is a great nurse that is fluent and capable in french; unfortunately, however, this story does not come as a surprise.

    I myself have met with this error, and as a recent Medical Student of McGill, my girlfriend and I are more than likely going to have to leave the province for our Residency AND Fellowships, simply because my High School Diploma (although from Quebec) does not qualify me to practice in Quebec, unless I pass the QQLF (Which I have never been able to, in the same sense as what we see here). Keeping that in mind, my girlfriend (also a medical student), is an immigrant (now Permanent Resident) to Canada/Quebec, and cannot practice until she completes the exam which, although she is extremely functional in french, is essentially impossible.

    The language laws that Quebec is passing are hurting the province, not helping it in the least. It is forcing capable workers and professionals out of the province, because of an exam that requires about as much preparation as the MCAT or USMLE, should you not be 100% native/proficient in french.
  15. Veronique posted on 01/28/2014 07:49 AM
    Im very surprised to hear that this exam his "difficult". I have been working at the MUHS for 2 years as a RN and when I hear some of my collegue who have successfully pas this exam, I can hardly believe it was a difficult exam since they are FAR from functional in French. If anything I would say they are dangerous as they are incapable to understand the need of their patients who are Francophones. How many time they I heard Francophone patient haginv to struggle with their little knowledge of English to be understood by Nurses and Doctors. Yet you never read any of those story in the news. No one ever complain.
    Now perhaps this is not the case for Mr Powell but their are PLENTY of RN at the MUHS who did pass this "difficult" test and that can yet not offer French patiant care in their language.
    You think that would be accapteble in Ontario ? Or Vancouver ?
    I would also have to pass a English exam in order to practice in Vancouver or Calgary. Ans I would gladly do if ever I had to move out there because IT MAKES SENSE to speak the language of the vast majority when you work as a HelthCare professional.
    Now these people are VERY lucky they are even aloud to work until they pass this exam. This would NEVER be the case in other places. My friend is working toward obtaining her licencing in Australia right now. Let me tell you its far more difficult to get approves their as it it here.
    Furthermost, these language tests for entering health care profession exist in ALL industrialised coutries.
    NOT ONE country will allow you to work as a nurse if you cant pass a language. Have you seen the English test to work in the US ?
    A friend of mine had to pass it recently, despite the fact that she was born and raised in Ontario and went through her entire schooling in English. The USA board requested that she pass an English exam because she was lisenced from McGill and that McGill is in Québec.and even for her it was VERY difficult.
    For both the US and Australia, its totaly impossible to work in your milieu until yo fulfill the languages requirements. I havent look at it closer but I dare anyone to find ONE other industrialised country where they let people the chance to work in their milieu therefore letting them a better chance to learn the language until they can pass the language test...
    By the way the same goes in Switzerland. If you practice in the French part you pass a French test. If you work in the German part you pass a German test. Belgium as the same standarts Dutch/French. If I move to BC I will be required to pass an English test EVEN if I got my RN degree from McGill..... Enough said.
    1. trevor posted on 01/28/2014 10:23 AM
      @Veronique To let you know Veronique, this exam is quite difficult. I have taken this exam probably 7 times or so, I have pass all of it except the written part. I have worked with some of the nurses who pass the French exam and yet they cannot communicate properly with their patient in French. How is that possible? When I was still working in Quebec in my last year of being allowed to work I found out that most of the nurses who pass the French exam have some collections of topics for the written part, they were kind enough to give it to me, they said all I have to do is memorize it, meaning have somebody to help you write the essay and just memorize it. Tempting but I didn't do it. Why? I suppose because I have a back up plan, and I must say it was the right decision . When I took the OIIQ exam I also took the CRNE. I was required to write English exam as well. For your information though, here in Ontario we get a lot of French speaking patients and if some of my colleague were not able to serve them in French we find a translator for them. My point here is that the OQLF exam is ridiculous, if you understand your patients and you're able to communicate and most of all you're a capable nurse, I don't think that the written is still required since we don't chart in French anyway.
      Word of advice though you might wanna work on your written English. Ciao
    2. Jeff Powell posted on 01/28/2014 10:29 AM
      @Veronique @Veronique

      I can speak French. My written was not good enough for the OQLF. Yes you might have to pass an English exam to work in other provinces. However, I doubt it would be as difficult as the OQLF exam. The problem isn't protecting French, the problem I have is that the OQLF's effectiveness. Don't you know they are making Quebec a laughing stock around the world?!

      Also as you know, being a nurse at the MUHC, we are not required to chart in French, so why then make the written requirement so tough? Also sure, many people are able to pass the test, but at great difficulty and expense. I know many who have hired tutors (not cheap) to help them to pass. Another issue is that the OQLF, arguably isn't doing much to protect French. Most I know who have taken the test, are no better at French after passing than before. Is this the way to promote French on the province. Wouldn't it be better if the OQLF was engaged in promoting a love and respect for French language and culture, rather than holding people's livelihoods in the balance. Also as you know nurses in Qc are the lowest paid, and highest taxed. Why make things even more difficult for us here. Again, I want it to be known, I AM ALL FOR PROTECTING THE FRENCH LANGUAGE, AND I BELIEVE THAT ALL CIVIL SERVANTS IN QC SHOULD VE FUNCTIOANLLY BILINGUAL.

      Also Veronique, just because you have never heard anyone complain about this before, don't mistake that for a lack of discontent.
  16. Emilie posted on 01/28/2014 09:33 AM
    Even I a french nurse would probably fail the written french test if I had to do it...
  17. Pat Brown posted on 01/28/2014 07:11 PM
    Well I look at it this way. The OQLF test is a bit like a blueberry pancake. You can't just eat the batter and leave the blueberries. You have to eat the whole thing in order to get all the lipids and other nutrients. Of course, sometimes I just drink the syrup straight from the can but that's besides the point.
  18. ejy posted on 01/31/2014 09:14 AM
    I agree: those tests are unbelievably difficult, unless you have a nack for languages and not everyone does. It only takes a few grammar errors to make you fail and I too wonder how many francophone quebecers could pass it. I know, from when my son was in high school, that 'anglicisms' are counted as errors. So, if you use a real French word for something that isn't considered the correct Quebecois expression, it is wrong even if it is grammatically correct and would be accepted elsewhere in another French speaking country. I know that I could not pass the English version if I had to and my English otherwise is fluent, having arrived in Ontario when I was 10 years old, some 50 years ago. I did much better than the other students in English class but I have always retained some traces of the grammar I was born into. The idea should not be to insist on perfect French but on French at least equal to that of any any random quebecer. It doesn't make sense that new arrivals are held to a much higher standard than the average. I also think that if they insist on language tests for new-comers, they should insist on them for every new employee. That is the only way this could be fair.
  19. al posted on 02/02/2014 09:25 AM
    After reading all these comments I think the solution is that their should be english hospitals and french hospitals... So as my ancestors the english have contributed to Montreal General, St. Mary's, The Jewish general, Royal Victoria, etc.. We will operate only in english and the french can go to their institutions..the Hopital Masionneuve , Valleyfield, Charles Lemoyne , Hotel Dieu etc..This should solve the problem.. Everyone should be happy.. The english would finally get the respect that they deserve from this province..
    1. Kat posted on 02/03/2014 10:13 AM
      @al Sounds like it would be a nice idea only thing is the PQ gov would cut financing to these Hospitals first thing. Just like English schools, or legislate it so that no one could enter them.
  20. ML posted on 02/03/2014 12:56 PM
    I had a call today from a private clinic because I couldn't find a GP anywhere .
    I fell on the icy sidewalk and hurt my arm. They called me with the results...She said something in english and I said what is that.. She said I don't know.. I said explain it to me so I can have a clue, she told me if it hurts make an appointment with the Doctor..
    The last time I had a private MRI done at this clinic..They called me with the results. They said I have a cyst on my ovary, but it's okay..I said what do you mean it's okay because I have no ovaries...Then the Doctor suggested I have an internal ultrasound and everything is fine...Boy if it's all about passing a written french test ,. they should pass other test to see if they are competent in any language..
  21. Nurse06 posted on 02/12/2014 06:42 PM
    Hi, can you give us the details of the school where Jeff studied the French language. Thank You.
    1. Maria posted on 03/30/2014 10:31 PM
      @Nurse06 Could Jeff Powell please provide where he took the intensive high school ?
      I'm desperate to avoid re-taking this French exam. All that has been described above is unfortunately true.
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