DECEMBER 15, 2006


The Interview

Dr Jacques Chaoulli stands defiant

Montreal GP Dr Jacques Chaoulli went to war with Canada's public health system almost as soon as he arrived from France. On the eve of new legislation born of his landmark Supreme Court win in Quebec, NRM spoke with Dr Chaoulli to find out what makes this self-proclaimed freedom fighter tick.

Photo credit: Liam Maloney

You fled a violent home when you were a teenager. How did you go from runaway to MD? Actually I wanted to be a pilot at first, but I wasn't good enough in math. Then I wanted to go into architecture, but everyone told me I wouldn't find a job. My eldest brother was in medical school and very enthusiastic about it, so I copied him. But I had to work at the same time in order to earn money for school. It was a hard time.

When you got to Montreal, you kicked off your medical career doing house calls. I hear you had an unusual ride...? Yes, the police gave me a permit to use my own car — a Toyota Camry — as an ambulance, with the red light and the siren and everything. But the government fined me for charging patients directly, so I had no choice but to dismantle the team I had assembled.

You went on a four week hunger strike to protest restrictions on private healthcare. What's the first thing you ate when it was over? Orange juice and tomatoes I think.

You've publicly compared yourself to Mahatma Gandhi. Aside from a willingness to starve, what do the two of you have in common? When Gandhi was practising law in South Africa, he noticed the infringement on human rights against blacks. He felt that wasn't fair and he wanted to defend them. Everyone thought he was crazy but he continued his fight alone. I wanted to fight for the human rights of my patients and, like Gandhi, everybody thought I was crazy and that I could never prevail over the government.

How'd you convince your father-in-law to lend you half a million dollars for your crusade? My wife asked him for me. I'm not fluent in Japanese.

How many lawyers refused to take on your case before you decided to represent yourself? Actually, I turned them down! They wanted huge amounts of money from me and all along they were against my interpretation of the constitution. I just wanted to defend the rights of my patients and I didn't want anyone to get in my way, particularly a lawyer. So I did it myself. In the end, my argument prevailed against the most eminent constitutional expert in this country.

You're also a self-taught painter. Who's your favourite artist? Ouf, there are so many! If I had to pick one, I guess I'd say Renoir. He was a very warm person and a very optimistic man.

What kind of relationship do you and your co-plaintiff George Zeliotis have now? We don't see each other anymore. He wasn't my patient — I saw an article in the Montreal Gazette about him so I called him up. I wanted to help the entire Canadian community, not one particular individual.

What do you think of Bill 33, Quebec's response to the Supreme Court verdict? The government is facing a lot of political constraint, which I understand. They want to advance gradually. I had hoped that it would be more towards the private sector but it's a step in the right direction.

Any plans to run for political office? Not at all.

The only Canadian doctor who gets more press coverage than you is Dr Brian Day. Are you friends or foes? Oh, we're friends. I've been pushing him to run and I'm very happy about his election to the CMA.

If you could say one thing to Tommy Douglas what would it be? I'd tell him that we have a lot in common. He never intended to establish a state monopoly.

Are you still practising medicine? Yes, I'm working at a walk-in clinic in Montreal.

What's next? I've just decided I'm going to open some private clinics — here and all over the country. I feel that my duty is to go into business and apply the judgment for the benefit of Canadian patients. Hopefully, politicians will be able to learn from what I will do and introduce changes into their plans.

And finally, poutine or foie gras? Foie gras, no question. Even if it's bad for cholesterol, life's too short.



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