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Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and students protest at Ontario’s legislature in Toronto on March 7 over a provincial government plan to deregulate their profession.Holly McKenzie-Sutter/The Canadian Press

Ontario is reversing course on a plan to deregulate traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture, saying it will instead require that the regulatory college for the profession offer licensing exams in Cantonese and Mandarin.

The government said Monday it would scrap the section of a recently introduced labour bill that aimed to wind down the profession’s regulatory body.

“The goal of this was to eliminate the barriers,” Government House Leader Paul Calandra said in the legislature. “We’ll guarantee Chinese Canadians access to the very same traditional Chinese medicine that they brought to this province once and for all.”

The deregulation plan had drawn criticism and safety concerns from practitioners who said they weren’t consulted. Critics remained skeptical of the government’s motives even after Monday’s reversal.

Premier Doug Ford last week defended the proposed change by saying people who only speak Cantonese or Mandarin were prevented from writing licensing exams under the existing system.

Calandra said Monday that the next version of the bill, which recently passed first reading, would order the regulatory college to offer tests in Mandarin and Cantonese to remove the language barrier.

He repeatedly referenced the language issue in explaining the government’s original plan and its subsequent decision to offer tests in more languages.

The government heard from people in the Chinese Canadian community, Calandra said – singling out his own Markham-Stouffville riding and a number of other Progressive Conservative ridings in the Toronto area – and the “number one complaint” was that people who spoke Chinese languages as a first language were not able to enter the profession.

“It is something, an oversight, that we are fixing now so that more people can enter it (and still) have the protections that are required to keep it safe,” he said.

But critics, practitioners and the college raised questions about the government’s explanation that language barriers were the main rationale behind the move.

The College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario, which was established in 2013, said it accommodates applications from those who are not fully fluent in English or French

“Since 2013, not one applicant has been denied registration because of a lack of language proficiency,” college CEO Ann Zeng wrote in a post on the college’s website Friday.

More than 100 of the college’s approximately 2,700 members have declared they are not fluent in English or French, Zeng wrote, and those members are registered with a written language plan to ensure they work with a translator and work to improve their fluency.

Earlier Monday, practitioners and students of the profession gathered in the rain outside the provincial legislature to protest the deregulation plan before the government announced it was changing course.

Mary Wu, president of the Toronto School of Traditional Chinese Medicine, said she didn’t agree with the language barrier explanation. She said many students with limited English abilities overcame their challenges to pass exams and pointed to accommodations that already exist for applicants.

“That was only an excuse to do this,” she said. Wu called the plan disrespectful to the profession and said the people who gathered on Monday in opposition to deregulation represent the “majority” of practitioners who weren’t consulted on the matter.

“They owe us an explanation, she said of the government’s plan.

New Democrat health critic France Gelinas said she was happy the government “corrected its mistake” on deregulating the college but said the initial plan hurt profession in lasting ways.

“Nothing good came of this. They had a reason to do this and they’re not sharing it with us. That leads me to believe it’s because it’s something they’re not too proud of,” Gelinas said.

Liberal House Leader John Fraser, whose party established the college, said there was no good safety reason for deregulating the profession and the government should fully explain why it wanted to make the move.

“Who was eliminating the college going to benefit,” he said. “Who whispered in the premier’s ear and told him this was a good idea?”

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