Bill-96 a barrier to Indigenous students: education groups

Indigenous leaders say the government's proposal to require more French proficiency in colleges (CEGEPs) could devalue languages spoken well before the European tongue became prevalent in the territory now called Quebec.

The First Nations Education Council (FNEC) runs elementary and high schools in 22 Indigenous communities made up of eight nations. At those schools, Indigenous students learn their native language first and then either French or English as a second language.

FNEC director-general Denis Gros-Louis said the provincial government is sending a signal to Indigenous youth that they are not good citizens by adding French course requirements at the post-secondary level.

"Would you be encouraged to go to CEGEP if the provincial government told you, 'you've gone to your schools in your communities. You know your language, you know your culture, you're proud of who you are, [but] once you come to the provincial network, we're going to penalize you because you're not a good assimilated Quebecois,'" he said. "That's what I don't like about Bill 96."

He said the bill would affect around 200 students who speak their Indigenous language and English.

"Forcing them to write their French exam in Sec. 5 in order for them to go to a trade program or CEGEP is a lot to ask," said Gros-Louis. "They're forced by the ministry of education to write their French as if it was their mother tongue, which is unfair."

"About 200 will not have an impact on the decline in French in Quebec, but it will have a very significant impact in our communities."

Robin Delaronde, education director at the Kahnawake Education Centre, said students should be able to choose their language of instruction based on their needs and goals.

"If they intend to work in a mainly French environment, that should be their choice. If they don't want to and are comfortable in English, and are knowledgeable in the content, then that is their choice as well," she said.

She said Indigenous communities were not consulted about the proposed amendments.

"No one has come forth and said, here's this bill, we know that it's a language bill -- how will it impact your communities? And definitely, we are forgotten," she said.

"The only time that First Nation is considered in Quebec, by the provincial government, is when it comes to resources on the land."

According to Gros-Louis, the FNEC will need to fill around 600 positions for teachers, speech therapists and other posts in the near future.

He said Bill 96 will make it harder to hire staff, particularly from Indigenous communities, if they need to complete the French exam requirements.

"You cannot get all the services you deserve as a young person who speaks English or who speaks their language because your professionals didn't qualify [for] the order, because they didn't write it in French or couldn't write it in French," said Gros-Louis. "Another systemic barrier to youth, and they don't deserve that."

The FNEC, along with the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec/Labrador (AFNQL), would like the bill to provide the same provisions included in the James Bay-Northern Quebec agreement to all Indigenous students.

That bill allows students to take the exam in their language of choice.

The AFNQL and FNEC will meet with Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge at the end of the month to discuss the issue. 

With files from CTV's Max Harrold. 

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