OPINION: Dear Premier Legault, 'English is not a colonial language we wish to adopt'
Dear Premier Legault,
At the beginning of April 2022, I wrote to you to specify that, like the representatives of the First Nations in Quebec, Kativik Ilisarniliriniq would like to see an exemption for all Inuit students enrolled in college programs in Quebec as it relates to Bill 96. In this regard, I would also like to point out that Kativik Ilisarniliriniq supports the positions taken by the First Nations Education Council, the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador and several First Nations Chiefs in Quebec.
The debate surrounding Bill 96, as it is currently being publicized, misrepresents the demands of Indigenous communities. English is not a colonial language we wish to adopt. Indigenous languages are the languages we wish to speak, transmit, revitalize, nurture, and strengthen.
Under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (1975), the language of instruction in Nunavik is Inuktitut; French and English are taught as second languages. Inuktitut is a language spoken by 98% of the population in the 14 villages of Nunavik, and it is the language spoken at home in 85.7% of family households (Nunivaat, Nunavik in figures 2020 and Statistics Canada, 2016). These communities are small. They are isolated: linguistically they have little exposure to daily life in a second language, and geographically they are only accessible by air or sea.
The obstacles and barriers to the success of Nunavik students are multiple and systemic. To pursue college or university studies, Nunavik residents must leave the territory. In their current state, Nunavik’s telecommunications infrastructure does not allow for the pursuit of post-secondary studies at a distance. This problematic situation is well documented. Furthermore, it is also clear that access measures such as those recently announced by the Canadian government cannot be applied in Nunavik ($20/month high-speed Internet packages for low-income families and seniors).
Currently, the average graduation rate for high school students in Nunavik is 23%. Only 3.5% of the Inuit population has a college diploma. At the university level, 1.2% of the population has a certificate and 0.8% a bachelor’s degree (Nunivaat, Nunavik in Figures 2020 and the Ministry of Education of Quebec).
At present, the Quebec college system is unified. In fact, regardless of whether a student is enrolled in English or French, there is a common core of compulsory courses, including two second language courses: English as a Second Language for those attending a French CEGEP, and French as a Second Language for those enrolled in one of eight English colleges in Quebec.
For Inuit students from Nunavik, the college pathway IS ALREADY a second language pathway, regardless of whether it is in an English or French CEGEP. In reality, Bill 96 will only create two separate college systems, with different requirements for each. Adding additional requirements for college graduation for Nunavik Inuit who have chosen to pursue their college education in English is not acceptable.
On September 30, Canada celebrated the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. A few weeks ago, Canada launched the UN’s Decade of Indigenous Languages in Ottawa. On June 21, 2021, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act came into effect in Canada. This Act, which advances the implementation of the Declaration, is an important step in renewing the Government of Canada’s (and the provinces’) relationship with Indigenous peoples.
In this context, it appears to us that Bill 96 should be an opportunity to strengthen Indigenous languages, and not to relegate them to a second-class position, or to treat them as a threat to the survival of the French language in Quebec. We intend to resist any change that would set back the possibility for the Inuit of Nunavik to participate fully in Quebec society while practicing the Inuit culture and language as it has been transmitted to them for thousands of years in the Arctic territory in Quebec. We are at a crossroads. Any gesture that demonstrates a sincere willingness on the part of your government to engage in a real dialogue with the Inuit and First Nations in Quebec would be significant.
Sarah Aloupa is the president of Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, the school board for Kativik, a region in Northern Quebec.