Indigenous groups to fight law that seeks to eliminate languages other than French in public sphere

·5 min read

Despite growing protests, the National Assembly adopted Bill 96 in a 78-29 vote May 24. The controversial language law reforms the Charter of French Language in all spheres of society, imposing heavier French requirements in the workplace, education and government services.

It is now the Act respecting French, the official and common language of Quebec.

“The National Assembly is taking a major step backwards, putting reconciliation with First Nations on hold with a questionable future,” declared Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL). “To deny the rights of others to assert one’s own, to brutally assert one’s supremacy over other nations that share the same territory, is unworthy of a government that respects itself.”

After its proposed amendments were rejected, the AFNQL called for a “total and resolute” exemption from Bill 96. Most disturbing for Indigenous leaders are new barriers to the education system, including requirements for CEGEP students to take at least five courses in French.

“The cultural genocide that this legislation is putting forward will not work because we will not stand for it,” stated Denis Gros-Louis, director general of the First Nations Education Council of Quebec. “When [Indigenous students] are forced to be assessed in their third language, it makes them drop out because they won’t be able to continue, even though they are A-plus students.”

The law limits admissions to English-language CEGEPs and requires those without English eligibility to pass a mandatory French exit exam to graduate. Curriculum changes will take effect in Fall 2024. Leaders fear the legislation will impact graduation rates and force an exodus of students to schools outside of Quebec.

“As much as I appreciate Quebec’s position to protect their language, it cannot be done in a manner that has a negative impact on Indigenous groups,” said Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty. “It perpetuates the barriers for Cree students, who are already leaving their community and having culture shock.”

Gull-Masty told the Nation she wrote the Quebec government to express CNG concerns and discussed the bill’s potential impacts with the Cree school and health boards. While services in Eeyou Istchee won’t be affected, she is concerned about potential barriers for Crees seeking education, health or legal services outside the territory.

“I’m really disappointed to see this government did not consult with Indigenous groups to see what the impact would be,” said Gull-Masty. “It will extend the gap for Indigenous people who do not speak French fluently. It’s very clear this will have a harmful effect on Indigenous groups.”

Protesting students worry the new law could lower their grade scores and hinder university applications, while also limiting possibilities to access professional orders and other employment opportunities.

“Indigenous students often already have to take remedial courses to catch up when entering CEGEP to graduate within the regular two years,” explained Kahnawake student Gracie Diabo, vice-president of John Abbott College’s student union. “Indigenous youth are already on a difficult path of reconnecting with our language. Having to prioritize French can further the endangerment of our language.”

Diabo told the Nation that additional French requirements inhibit the freedom of CEGEP students to change programs or explore their interests before university. With enrolment now permanently capped at 2019 levels, there will be less access to English-language CEGEPs for all students – and even more so for francophones.

“Even French friends I have go to English CEGEP to broaden their worldview and learn other languages to be able to participate in more career aspects than Quebec,” said Diabo. “This would inhibit that potential to go to an English university.”

Besides organizing protests at her CEGEP, Diabo was part of a significant Indigenous contingent at a large demonstration May 14 in downtown Montreal. Protesters agreed with the need to protect French in Quebec, but denounced the increased restrictions to education, healthcare and justice services for those whose first language isn’t French.

Tightened eligibility to English schooling could exclude an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 English-speakers not deemed to be “historic anglos.” Refugees and new immigrants may receive public services in English or another language for six months following their arrival, after which all communications must be exclusively in French unless “health, public safety or the principles of natural justice” require otherwise.

In addition, new measures discourage making bilingualism a hiring qualification in all workplaces, including for judges. Certain court documents will no longer be offered in English. Francization requirements now apply to companies with 25 or more employees, instead of the previous 50. The law may complicate access to necessary services, for instance, by adding translation fees in order to contest child welfare cases.

A precedent-setting change now allows officers of the Quebec government to enter workplaces – without a warrant – to seize documents, cellphone records and private emails.

While Bill 96 has been criticized as unconstitutional on several fronts, the government’s application of the notwithstanding clause makes it virtually immune to legal challenges based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Depending on how this legislation is implemented, however, the federal government hasn’t ruled out a legal challenge – despite the use of the notwithstanding clause. “This battle will not be over until the highest courts internationally have spoken,” commented civil rights lawyer Julius Grey.

Economic analysts believe it will become more difficult to develop on-reserve business partnerships because of increased requirements for contracts and other affairs to be conducted in French.

“It’s going to pose future hurdles for us to be able to engage with the outside business communities at fundamental levels. We view that as one issue in terms of affecting economy on reserve,” said Michael Delisle, Jr., who manages economic development for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake.

Among numerous protests held by the community, dozens of youth from Kahnawake stopped traffic on the Honoré Mercier Bridge May 21 to hand out pamphlets explaining their position. Delisle warned of a “hot and uncomfortable summer” ahead if the province continues to ignore their realities.

Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation

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