Quebec says it won’t change Bill 96 to exempt Indigenous youth from having to take extra French courses in CEGEP, despite mounting calls from First Nations leaders who say their efforts to rebuild their languages and cultures are in jeopardy.

Kahnawake Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer — who held a news conference at the National Assembly Tuesday alongside Chief Ghislain Picard of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador and Gesgapegiag First Nation Chief John Martin — said her community would hold protest actions until it felt heard. 

“Any gesture of goodwill right now on behalf of the government will go a long way,” Sky-Deer told reporters. 

Sky-Deer, Picard and Martin are among the many First Nations leaders who have denounced the clause in Quebec’s proposed overhaul of the Charter of the French language that would force students attending English CEGEPs to take more second-language French courses. 

Kahnawake Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer spoke at the National Assembly Tuesday, saying her community will continue to push for a Bill 96 exemption. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

The bill could be adopted by the Coalition Avenir Québec majority as early as this week, as the legislation has undergone a number of amendments and is ready for other political parties to have their say on it. 

The leaders have repeatedly requested to meet with government officials to ask for an exemption for youths in English-speaking Indigenous communities, who have been learning their language first, with English as a second language and French as a third. 

They say the government has shown little sympathy to their cause.

“To put another burden, of a third language for us to have to learn and be proficient in, when we’re trying to revitalize our Indigenous language — after all these Indian Day Schools, Indian Residential Schools, and all the things that happened to our people — it’s a challenge,” said Sky-Deer, whose community is Kanien’kehá-speaking and English-speaking.

As the news conference unfolded at the National Assembly, students in Kahnawake held a march against the bill. 

Picard said the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador made a presentation to a legislative committee about the bill and proposed several amendments “to no avail.” 

“Even when we play by their rules, we are becoming the victims because none of it is being acknowledged,” Picard said.

Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for the Charter of the French Language, says language laws in Quebec must apply to everyone. (Frederic Bissonnette/Radio-Canada)

Simon Jolin-Barrette, who tabled the bill and is the minister responsible for the French language, said Tuesday there was no plan to make any exemptions. 

“Since 1977, Bill 101 applies to everybody in Quebec and Bill 101 will continue with Bill 96 to apply to everybody,” Jolin-Barrette said, referring to the Charter of the French Language, which was passed as law 45 years ago. Bill 96 aims to update the charter. 

Gesgapegiag First Nation Chief John Martin said the original law had increased dropout rates in his Mi’kmaq community.

“It makes it very difficult for our students to succeed in high school and now even harder if they pass high school and get to CEGEP,” Martin said. 

Bill 96 can’t protect Indigenous languages: minister

Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière said he met with First Nations leaders Monday but that his government’s line remains the same.

“We need to protect and promote French in Quebec,” Lafrenière said. “Let’s find the right tool to protect and promote different languages. Bill 96 is not the right one.”

But the First Nations leaders at the National Assembly Tuesday say it is not the Quebec government’s role to protect Indigenous languages — but to respect their communities’ right to govern themselves. 

Kahnawake Elder Ka’nahsohon Kevin Deer carried a Two Row Wampum Belt at a news conference at the National Assembly Tuesday. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

“What the government should be doing is recognizing and respecting Indigenous languages and cultures that have been here longer than Quebec,” Sky-Deer said.

An elder and knowledge keeper from Kahnawake, Ka’nahsohon Kevin Deer, was part of the group holding the news conference. He held a Two Row Wampum Belt, saying it was important to remind Quebecers of its meaning. 

“Your ancestors and our ancestors agreed that we would follow three principles of peace, friendship and respect,” Deer said. 

“We are still here today. Our ceremonies, our languages, our creation stories — everything that makes us unique in the world, just like Quebec. They talk about their distinctness. Well, we are too.”

Sky-Deer, the Kahnawake Grand Chief, said she would like to see a complete exemption from Bill 96 for Indigenous people because several other provisions in the proposed legislation could harm members of her community, such as those pertaining to small businesses and court proceedings.

Echoes of the past

Meanwhile at the protest, Grade 11 student Cash Rice-Rossetti held a banner as hundreds marched from the Kahnawake Survival School, a high school established in 1978 in reaction to Bill 101. 

“Our language is already suppressed enough as it is. We don’t have a lot of first-language speakers,” said Cash, who says French is taught as a third language at his school. 

Cash Rice-Rossetti, a Grade 11 student at Kahnawake Survival School, said he was considering leaving Quebec to study after high school because of Bill 96. (CBC)

He said he was considering studying outside of province after high school. 

“If this law gets passed, there might be no options for me in Quebec.”

Kahnawake Survival School’s mission, as stated on its website, is “to produce proud and self-sufficient Kanien’kehá:ka youth through a powerful curriculum based on Kanien’kehá:ka language, beliefs, and traditions.”

Robin Delaronde, the director of education at the Kahnawà:ke Education Centre, was one of 300 high school students who walked out of their school in 1978 to protest Bill 101.

“It’s so concerning, after all those years, to think that we have to once again fight the impositions that are put against us,” Delaronde said, marching alongside the students Tuesday.

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