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Little-known Canadian Blood Services rule requires people to be able to read, speak English before donating

Last Updated Aug 1, 2021 at 11:34 am EDT


A family was recently denied the opportunity to donate blood because some members didn't read or speak English or French

Canadian Blood Services requires people to be able to read and speak English or French before donating

A legal expert says donors must be able to make an informed decision before undergoing a medical procedure

Diana Merogi’s four-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia, and after watching him regularly receive the required blood transfusions for his treatment, she wanted to raise awareness and advocate for blood donations. So she rounded up 16 of her closest friends and family to participate in a blood drive.

But it turns out, three out of the 16 weren’t eligible to donate because of a little-known policy.

“I was told that if the donors don’t speak or read English they cannot donate,” Merogi told CityNews. “So I asked if I’m going to be there, can I not just translate for my mother and she said no. It doesn’t make sense.”

In a statement to CityNews, Canadian Blood Services (CBS) confirmed the policy, saying “the questionnaire requires donors to provide accurate answers and includes questions that are sensitive and/or technical in nature.” For example, questions related to health, social and travel history.

According to CBS, due to the vast number of languages spoken within Canada, they aren’t able to provide interpreters, unless a booking is made for a group of 20 or more donors.

“The other day I was reading there was a shortage of blood right now, especially of negative O, which happens to be the blood type of the three people denied the opportunity to donate blood,” says Merogi.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Blood Services put out a call for an additional 23,000 blood donors across Canada in hopes of replenishing the blood inventory following a sustained rise in demand as COVID-19 restrictions ease. They specifically mentioned a need for O-negative blood, the universal blood type.

“Attendance at collection centres is starting to slip,” says Rick Prinzen, Canadian Blood Services chief supply chain officer and vice-president of donor relations. “Canadians are enjoying greater freedom after months of following COVID-19 safety measures, while hospitals are tackling a backlog of medical procedures”.

While Merogi understands the implications that exist in having an outside party translate for a donor, she believes the CBS needs to provide more resources to the many non-English speaking Canadians, especially newcomers, who want to donate as those resources currently exist within our medical system.

“Today when I was at the hospital I spoke with the oncologist and she said here at the hospital they do everything in their power to help. There are always patients that don’t speak English, but they find a way,” says Merogi. “You can’t deny someone a service merely on the fact that they don’t speak English.”

This is not the first policy from the Canadian Blood Service to come under fire. In 2016, Christopher Karas challenged a policy that discriminates towards gay men. He filed a human rights complaint against CBS and Health Canada after he was denied the ability to donate, arguing that he was discriminated against based on his sexual orientation.

Just last month a federal judge rejected Health Canada’s claim that it has no role in the policy that exists in barring gay men from donating blood – a policy that the Liberal government promised to end in both previous federal elections. CBS says it plans to submit a recommendation to Health Canada to end this policy by the end of 2021.

But it still begs the question, is donating blood a human right?

Lawyer Tanya Walker says CBS’ policy is legal and that language is not a “prohibited ground.”

“Language is not a prohibited ground,” Walker says. “We have sex, we have enthnicy but not language.”

She says under the law, people undergoing medical procedures must be able to make an informed decision– and that having friends or family translating could lead to paraphrasing important details.

Walker adds that referring the matter to the Canadian Human Rights Commission might be an option.

“And that’s like the ‘police,’ and they investigate the matter and might refer it to the tribunal, which is like the ‘court,'” she says.