Forcing Indigenous students whose third language is French to take five French courses in English CEGEPs amounts to "cultural genocide," said the head of the First Nations Education Council of Quebec.
Denis Gros-Louis and other Indigenous leaders say that having to succeed in so many French courses could significantly bring those students' averages down, impeding their chances of graduating and securing the university education of their choice.
Requests over the past six months to meet with French Language Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette about the issue have been denied, Gros-Louis said.
"I see it as cultural genocide because it says to our students: 'If you want to graduate, if you want to go to university … well, force yourself to become a good French-speaking Québécois and forget your roots,'" Gros-Louis said.
He said the council had counted 209 students graduating next year, who would be penalized by the bill.
Those students, Gros-Louis added, "they're not Québécois, they are Kanien'kehá:ka, Anishinaabe, they are Mi'kmaq. They don't need to be as fluent in French as they would in downtown Quebec City, for instance."
He noted that 2022 has been designated the first year of the United Nations Decade of Indigenous Languages.
Wednesday, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government stepped back from forcing students at English-language CEGEPs to take three of their core courses in French, a proposal that had been made and then walked-back by the Quebec Liberal Party.
Instead, Jolin-Barrette said he would be amending Bill 96, which aims to overhaul the Charter of the French Language, to give students the option of taking three core courses in French or taking a total of five second-language French courses instead of the current two.
The amendment came after concerns were raised about success rates for anglophone students.
But the minister did not say what that meant for English-speaking Indigenous communities in southern Quebec, where there have been significant efforts to teach youth their languages.
Gros-Louis said the amendment does nothing for students whose education prioritized their Indigenous language, with English as a second-language and French as a third.
"You want to talk about where does French and English come from? They come from across the salt waters." - Kahnawake Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer
Kahnawake Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer said her community — which is Kanien'kehá-speaking and English-speaking — would be discussing the issue at a meeting Thursday evening.
"What's most important, I think, to Indigenous communities is us speaking our language first and foremost," Sky-Deer said.
"Those are the true languages of this land. You want to talk about where does French and English come from? They come from across the salt waters."
'Be ready for a challenge'
Sky-Deer was speaking at the same news conference as Chief Ghislain Picard of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, who announced that First Nations in Quebec would be creating a "self-determination office," pointing to the difficulty they have had with working with the CAQ government over the past three years of its mandate.
"I don't think this government is really keen on supporting this notion of First Nation governments being and acting as governments," Picard said. "It's been very frustrating in the last three years, I would say, and Bill 96 is just one example."
Picard said the government has consistently acted paternalistic toward First Nations communities and failed to consider their concerns when making important decisions — such as in drafting Bill 15, the province's proposed overhaul of the child protection system.
In a statement, Jolin-Barrette's office said the government will do everything it can to give students the tools to integrate into Quebec culture and that the bill does not infringe on any charter rights.
Sky-Deer said she believes otherwise.
"We could take this to the UN. We could take this far beyond, so be ready for a challenge," she said.