'We will not stand for it': Indigenous leaders call for exemption to Quebec's Bill 96

Indigenous leaders were in Quebec City Tuesday to call for a "total and resolute" exemption from Bill 96, the province’s language law.

The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL), as well as leaders in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, are vehemently against their inclusion in the bill because of the requirements for CEGEP students to take at least five courses in French.

Education groups have said that is another barrier to the education system, when for many Indigenous students, French is their third language.

"This law stems from Quebec aspirations of nationalism and ignores the linguistic, cultural, and educational issues of the nations that precede them. It is indisputably a categorical act by a colonialist government," said a statement by the AFNLQ.

Leaders say they are concerned Bill 96 would try to assimilate young Indigenous students into Quebec culture, specifically by prioritizing the French language -- or that they would leave altogether.

If the bill is passed as planned before the end of this parliamentary session, it will "force an exodus of our students to other schools outside of Quebec," said Ghislain Picard, Chief of the AFNQL. "It's a staggering irony that the first occupants of the territory in Quebec are being forced to study outside their territory, and that is something we find unacceptable."

'OUR PEOPLE WILL NOT ACCEPT ITS APPLICATION'

On Monday, the Haudenosaunee Longhouse, the traditional Mohawk government in Kahnawake, released a statement saying, "our people will not accept its application over them anywhere within their ancestral lands" and that "if the government of Quebec places any value in developing a relationship… based on peaceful co-existence and mutual respect, this law will certainly deteriorate any hope of reconciliation."

There is already an exemption for the First Nations of James Bay and Northern Quebec, but not for other Indigenous communities.

The Indigenous leaders met Tuesday with the Quebec government, joined by representatives from the Liberal and Quebec Solidaire parties, who support the exemption.

"We are no longer at the time of negotiations and settlements. We affirm clearly and with a common voice today our absolute refusal to submit to Law 96 and all other laws infringing on our rights," said Picard.

The Parti Quebecois said it's open to dialogue, but the issue has had inflammatory language around it.

"To say that studying in English is okay, but having a few classes in French is such a colonial statement or is cultural genocide, I'm sorry but that's not a way to start a dialogue between two nations that both have legitimate claims regarding language," said PQ leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon.

Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, disagrees.

"Hundreds of years of colonialism have forced the English language upon us, and this legislation is now an attempt to force another foreign language onto us, in the name of Quebec nationalism. We will not stand for it," Sky-Deer said.

"We see these kinds of bills that perpetuate this kind of attitude of having a paternalistic or supremacy over ours, that ours don't matter — that we don't matter. And that goes contrary to what we've been hearing in the last couple years about reconciliation."

Bill 96 has already gone through the clause-by-clause revision, so any last-minute additions are still possible, but must be voted on.

The bill is expected to be voted on before the end of session, which is set to come to an end in less than four weeks.

LISTEN ON CJAD 800 RADIO: Tom Mulcair: What happened to reconciliation?

Greg Kelley, the Liberals' Indigenous affairs critic, said Jolin-Barrette always has tools at his disposal for a last-minute change to the proposed legislation.

According to Quebec's Institute for Adult Education, when it comes to post-secondary education, only 11 per cent of Indigenous people have a university degree, compared to 26 per cent of non-Indigenous students.

The leaders say introducing more French courses will deter students from going to CEGEP.

"We wish to be part of Quebec society, we want to contribute to the growth of Quebec society. We want a future in Quebec. This is where we have been for thousands of years and we'd like to see our children flourish," said John Martin, Gesgapegiag Chief.

LANGUAGE MINISTER STANDS FIRM

They have been asking for a meeting with Simon Jolin-Barrette, Quebec's minister responsible for the French language, but have not gotten one.

He maintained the rules won't be bent. Since 1977, Bill 101 applies to everyone in Quebec. And Bill 101 will continue by Bill 96," he said.

Meanwhile, Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafreniere says the protection of French doesn't come at a cost of other languages.

"Can we stop putting in a position, the protection of French and the protection of different languages? We can do both," he said.

Indigenous leaders say after the Viens Commission and the recent discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools across Canada, there are massive efforts to protect their history and culture.

A protest is planned for the upcoming weekend to help get that message across. 

Newsletters

Breaking News alerts, info on contests, and special offers from partners