A regional health authority north of Montreal is investigating allegations that the human resources department at one of its hospitals made being white a job requirement when recruiting new staff.
Rosemonde Landry, head of the CISSS des Laurentides, said she was shocked to read the allegations that were first revealed in La Presse.
The digital newspaper reported it obtained emails sent by Saint-Eustache hospital recruiters that said a "difficult patient" was insisting on being helped by a white woman only. The request for white women was made 10 times last fall, La Presse said.
"We have zero tolerance for racism," Landry told CBC News, adding there are other ways of managing patients who insist on being served by whites only. "We launched an investigation immediately."
However, the president of a local temp agency that works primarily with government health services says this happens all the time.
"I've lost some files because I wasn't able to agree that I would only send white people," said Jill Eusanio of Comfort Keepers, which provides hundreds of nurses and home-care workers to the province.
WATCH | Quebec government won't call hospital's job notice for white women racism:
Eusanio has worked in the field for nearly 20 years and also sits on a provincewide board of temp agencies (EPPSQ). She said recruiters from government health facilities request white staff from her about once a month.
She said some clients have mental illnesses, such as Alzheimer's or dementia, and that can make them particularly vicious to health-care workers who make house calls.
"You have racism in Quebec. It does exist," said Eusanio. "There is a clientele that's older, they are racist, and we have to provide care for them."
Staff end up alone with a racist client, she said. Employees will often request to be transferred because they do not want to suffer the abuse, she said.
"If we send in somebody who is Black, or of a different background, [the client] will be mean, abusive, verbally, physically, to this worker, to one of my employees, and I don't want to put my employees in that position," said Eusanio.
Regardless, Eusanio said she refuses to bend to any request for white staff.
"We will not discriminate here," said Eusanio.
Not a first for Quebec
Fo Niemi, director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, said there are laws and charters specifically aimed at preventing discriminatory hiring practices.
This issue dates back decades, and it was long ago decided that a patient cannot expect to be served by a person of a certain race, said Niemi. There are protocols and rules in place when managing these situations, he explained.
In light of the allegations against Saint-Eustache, he said, the next step is to investigate other facilities in the province and see "how long have people known about this."
"We really think it should not only be seen as a civil rights issue, but it's also a professional ethics issue," he said. "And eventually it is a question of accountability that goes all the way up to the health minister."
This is not the first time in recent memory that Quebec's health-care system has come under fire for racism.
Two nurses at a health clinic in Joliette were fired Tuesday after an Atikamekw woman revealed they had taunted her with racist insults.
Back in September, also in Joliette, Joyce Echaquan caught staff hurling racist insults at her on video just before she died in a hospital. Allegations of racism at that hospital date back years before the 37-year-old mother of seven broadcast the abuse on Facebook.
But it's not just in Joliette.
The Quebec coroner is investigating the death of Mireille Ndjomouo, who posted a video on social media two days before she died claiming staff at a hospital on Montreal's South Shore had ignored her allergies.
Ndjomouo, a 44-year-old single mother of three from Cameroon, is seen in the video begging for help to get transferred to another hospital.
Race-based hiring not allowed
The allegations against Saint-Eustache quickly reached Quebec's National Assembly.
Geneviève Guilbault, the province's deputy premier, said patients with cognitive issues demanding services from people of a certain profile creates a difficult situation and she has "a lot of empathy" for workers who experience that.
But hiring people based on race, sex or other characteristics is not allowed in Quebec, she said.
She said any racism in Quebec's health system is unacceptable, and the province is providing cultural awareness training to all health-care workers.
Liberal MNA Jennifer Maccarone stood up in the National Assembly on Wednesday to call the situation "horrible." She described it as yet another example of discrimination and systemic racism in the health-care network and asked how the government will address the issue.
Benoit Charette, the minister responsible for the fight against racism, said an investigation is underway.
"Before calling this a racist act, we must wait for the results of that investigation," he said. "Rest assured, I will be looking into this."