First Nations leaders call Bill 96 cultural genocide

They say the bill tries to assimilate them by hinging the success of young people on their mastery of French.

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The leaders of First Nations communities are demanding to be exempt from Bill 96, saying it amounts to cultural genocide.

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“That is my interpretation of what’s going to happen if we let (Bill 96) go,” said Denis Gros-Louis, the director general of the First Nations Education Council of Quebec. “We can’t do that to centuries of knowledge-keeping that we passed from one generation to another.”

Gros-Louis is concerned with requirements within the proposed law that high school students have a greater knowledge of French before graduating, and the requirement that English-speaking CEGEP students take at least five courses in French. He said within the Indigenous communities, there are already many barriers to success in the education system. Indigenous students often speak English first, their traditional language second and French as a third language that they learn in school. While French is taught, so are traditional languages ​​and culture.

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An agreement with the First Nations of James Bay and Northern Quebec has provided those communities with exemptions, but that’s not the case for Indigenous people living elsewhere. Indigenous leaders have met with Quebec officials and asked for the same exemptions to the new requirements in Bill 96, but so far those requests have been denied.

“I find it extremely paternalistic that Minister (Simon Jolin-Barrette) would say that our youth should participate in Quebec society as good French (citizens),” Gros-Louis said. “We heard language like that from politicians in Ottawa in the 1960s and before that.”

Robin Delaronde, the director of education for the Kahnawake Education Center, said the new requirements will put up barriers to success for Indigenous youth, many of whom live and work in the community after graduating from CEGEP and university, which strengthens the overall community.

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“This could add stress and could lead to dropouts. It could lead to failures, which will lower R-scores and limit their possibilities in university to pursue their chosen professions,” she said.

Delaronde said First Nations communities must be exempt from the requirement to take more French courses.

“What this bill is doing is that it’s trying to assimilate First Nations people, assimilate us into Quebec culture, society and language,” she said. “Parents want their children to have their traditional language first and foremost, because for us, we’re definitely in danger of losing our language. This puts extra challenges on our community and our children to now strengthen and bring back what was lost through colonization.”

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She agreed with Gros-Louis’s assessment that the law would amount to cultural genocide.

“That’s what it is; it’s cultural genocide,” she said. “It’s as if they want to totally eliminate us.”

In a news conference held Thursday evening, Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador Chief Ghislain Picard said despite requests for First Nations communities to meet the government and work out exceptions, there seems to be little willingness to accept the right of Indigenous people for self-determination. Picard had asked for changes to be made to the proposed law.

“It’s a total disrespect of what we represent as nations and governments,” he said. “I don’t think this government is really keen on supporting this notion of First Nation governments being and acting as governments. Bill 96 is an example of that.”

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Education Minister Jean-François Roberge has agreed to meet leaders of Indigenous communities at the end of May to discuss the implications of the law.

Speaking at the same news conference, Kahnawake Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer said Indigenous communities are preparing to fight against the proposed law because it represents a danger to their culture.

“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.”

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