#childsafety | Chris Selley: Ottawa struggles with simplest fixes to easiest problems

Only Canadian government could manage to pit official bilingualism against access to children’s Tylenol

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As we head into COVID’s third winter and ponder the latest development threatening to overwhelm our health-care systems — an early-season surge in pediatric viral illnesses, especially respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — the notion that populist politicians are eroding trust in Canadian institutions with overheated and inflammatory rhetoric remains a constant source of dark amusement.

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There’s some of that going around, no question. “It feels like everything is broken in this country right now,” Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre averred on Wednesday, and one might reasonably quibble: Everything, Mr. Poilievre? Really? Planes aren’t dropping from the sky, are they? But the woe-is-us sentiment is based on rock-solid foundations in reality, and it seems to be spreading. Poilievre and other opposition politicians could sing the government’s praises from the rooftops without making a dent in Canadians’ well-earned cynicism.

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Consider, if you will, the children’s painkiller shortage. For six months, parents have been dealing with empty shelves where the children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen used to be. Those empty shelves seem particularly, poignantly obnoxious when they’re next to shelves full of bogus homeopathic remedies. (Try Stodal’s homeopathic children’s cough syrup. It’s “non-drowsy” and safe for “day and night use” … because it has no active ingredients.)

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As complex problems go, this isn’t exactly the Thai cave rescue. Children’s acetaminophen is the same thing as adults’ acetaminophen. Compounding pharmacists can make child doses and preparations themselves, if and where they’re allowed to, or advise parents on how to crush up tablets and add them to something palatable.

That’s expensive, though, and there are only so many pharmacists, and Canadian parents have a reasonable expectation of living in a first world country where keeping a child’s fever down needn’t involve a pestle and mortar. Which brings us to a second potential partial solution: Importing product from countries that have plenty of supply. That’s already happening when it comes to painkiller supplies for hospitals.

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But it required that most Canadian of shocking compromises: Health Canada had to waive the rules around bilingual labelling. Parents of non-hospitalized children, sadly, are out of luck thus far on that front. “Canada’s children’s Tylenol shortage is getting worse — and bilingual labels are part of the problem,” reads the headline to a perfectly reasonable and straight-ahead Toronto Star article published Wednesday, in which the head of the Ontario Pharmacists Association urged speedy action on this file to avoid “a precarious position throughout the winter.”

And lest you think this should be a political no-brainer, some otherwise reasonable Quebecers took to social media to demonstrate why it isn’t. “Bilingualism harms children’s health — hadn’t heard that one before,” La Presse columnist Yves Boisvert sneered. “Hot tip for (the Toronto Star): francophones have kids too,” quipped Laval University economist Stephen Gordon. “Not everything is Quebec’s fault,” independent Quebec journalist Christopher Curtis chimed in.

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Last month, when Conservative health critic Michael Barrett suggested dropping the bilingual-labelling requirement for imports, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet suggested that it was just a ruse to weaken French-language rights. “We have already seen (labelling) exceptions that were made during the pandemic,” deputy NDP leader Alexandre Boulerice complained. “I think this was a mistake. This mistake should not be repeated. We must respect the francophone minority, and it is also a matter of health and safety.”

This is all crazy, obviously. No one is suggesting francophone parents be left squinting at English-language instructions in the middle of the night while juggling a screaming, feverish toddler. No one is saying it’s “Quebec’ fault.” The language problem is fantastically simple to address. Stickers can be affixed to English-only packaging. If stickers are in short supply, half a sheet of 8.5-by-11 paper would do the trick. So would a QR code directing parents to French-language dosing information online. Or indeed, the Tylenol website address written down on the back of an envelope.

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Health Canada seems to understand the issue; it suggests a waiver might be forthcoming. And it further seems to understand the very simple solution to this barely-even-a-problem: “To ensure that patients and caregivers understand what medication they are consuming, if manufacturers get foreign supply, work will be done in partnership with providers to add information in both official languages.”

If Quebecers actually thought some other outcome was likely, then faith in Canadian governance might even be weaker than I thought. All the more reason Health Canada should pull its thumb out for once and solve a problem — or at least get out of the way of a solution — before it becomes an all-consuming crisis. It’s an open question whether Health Canada and other hopelessly sclerotic Canadian institutions are capable of that. But they won’t restore any public faith in themselves unless they try.

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