Leaders said the rule requiring more French as a Second Language courses at CEGEPs in English would unfairly penalize their youth and that their communities should be exempt from the bill.

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QUEBEC — A group of indigenous community leaders are calling on the Legault government to exempt them entirely from Bill 96 reforming the Charter of the French Language, or they risk an exodus of young people.

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But the Minister Responsible for the French Language and the bill, Simon Jolin-Barrette, quickly closed the door on any special accommodations.

“As was the case in 1977, they are all subject to the Charter of the French Language,” Jolin-Barrette told reporters. “I want to reassure people, nothing changes for First Nations.”

Jolin-Barrette was reacting to a speech made by the leaders of several indigenous nations at a news conference in the lobby of the National Assembly on Tuesday. The group was there at the invitation of the opposition Liberal and Québec Solidaire parties, who said they, too, tried to get the government to water down elements of the bill, but failed.

Ghislain Picard, head of the Quebec-Labrador Assembly of First Nations, said Bill 96 could force indigenous youth to leave Quebec for higher education in other provinces.

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Picard said the indigenous community tried to propose amendments to the bill when it was in committee, but Jolin-Barrette rejected them all. Now, he said he, they can’t even get a meeting with the government.

“Even when we follow the rules, we become victims,” ​​Picard told reporters. “We have a bill that is being rushed without any regard for indigenous rights.”

At issue is the addition of three more French as a Second Language courses at CEGEPs in English, attended by many indigenous youth from across Quebec. Students would also have the option of taking three language courses in French, but neither formula is a good fit for a community that already has lower-than-average college diploma rates.

Only 11 percent of indigenous people have a title, compared to 26 percent of non-indigenous people.

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“They are setting us up to fail,” said John Martin, chief of the Mi’kmaq community of Gesgapegiag, standing next to Picard. “It’s definitely having an impact on the success rate of our students. We want to be part of Quebec society, we want a future in Quebec.

“It is a destructive bill. It is a continuation of the kind of colonialist, paternalistic and exterminating activities that governments have successfully carried out since the establishment of these territories. It has to stop. They need to sit with us.”

Bill 96 goes against all recent talk of reconciliation between First Nations and governments, added Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, Grand Chief of the Kahnawake Mohawk Council.

He was asked to explain comments made by Denis Gros-Louis, director general of the Quebec First Nations Education Council, last week that the bill amounts to cultural genocide.

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“Sometimes using strong words like that makes people really wonder, ‘Why do they say things like this?’” Sky-Deer said.

He added that recent events like the residential school tragedy have given impetus to communities to protect their culture.

“We’re in this phase of having to rebuild our languages, rebuild our culture because of this attempted assimilation and genocide of our people,” Sky-Deer said.

As for possible protests against House Bill 96, Sky-Deer indicated that actions would follow.

Students later filed out of the Kahnawake Survival School and were joined by parents and other community members. About 800 people walked from the school three miles down Route 132 to the grassy area at the foot of the Mercier Bridge.

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Québec Solidaire co-spokeswoman Manon Massé and liberal indigenous affairs critic Greg Kelley said Jolin-Barrette needs to take the time to better explain it to the community.

The Parti Québécois did not accept the invitation to attend the press conference. Earlier, PQ leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon said the group’s use of the term cultural genocide was inappropriate.

“I’m sorry, but this is not a way to start a dialogue,” St-Pierre Plamondon told reporters. “We are committed to making sure there are resources to ensure the success of First Nations students. But the French language is important in Quebec, it is the common language and it is not helping students to say that they will only learn English.”

It is not clear how the government could drastically change House Bill 96 at this late stage in the adoption process. The legislature is expected to vote this week on a final batch of amendments to the bill before final approval later this month.

Jason Magder of the Montreal Gazette contributed to this report.

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