Quebec junior colleges seek Indigenous student exemptions amid French language law

School is out for Quebec’s junior colleges, but Indigenous students still have something to say about the province’s French language law, better known as Bill 96.

“I feel like it’s being forced upon me, and it’s putting my education at risk. I don’t think I can do it, so I’m making the choice to leave,” said Cameron Biron, a Cree student at John Abbott College, in a video testimonial.

Five English junior colleges in Montreal have launched a campaign, including video testimonies and an open letter to Premier François Legault, asking him to exempt Indigenous students from new French-language requirements that come into effect in the fall.

Come September, Indigenous students in the province’s junior colleges will have to take three core courses in French or a total of five second-language French courses instead of the current two, as well as complete a French exit exam.

“There are so many people I know that don’t want to study in Quebec because of Bill 96,” said Inuk student Jason Patterson.

This latest initiative is a last resort for the schools that have been warning about the damaging impacts of the law on Indigenous students since it was introduced in 2021.

In the letter, the directors general of the colleges say the measures taken by the Ministry of Higher Education remain “insufficient.”

They add the Charter of the French Language imposes multiple systemic and discriminatory obstacles and compromises the transmission of the students’ ancestral languages.

Kim Martin from Kahnawake, the dean of Indigenous Education at John Abbott College, said the current exemptions require students to jump through hoops and meet eligibility criteria that many often don’t qualify for.

“Give Indigenous students a complete exemption from the three additional courses as well as the exam. And recognize the fact that our students have suffered such inequality for so long in the education system that we cannot be expected to adhere to this law,” Martin said in a recent interview.

“There needs to be better communication. There needs to be better partnerships. And there needs to be a better understanding for this government on what the actual realities are, not just in French Indigenous communities, but English Indigenous communities also,” she said.

Additionally, Martin noted the exemptions are not enshrined in law.

“The ultimate response is for the government to sit down with Indigenous communities, Indigenous nations, and address the outstanding issues related to Law 14 or Bill 96. That is our prime objective here,” said John McMahon, the director general of Vanier College.

The colleges said they fear these requirements will discourage students from continuing their post-secondary education in Quebec, or worse, continuing altogether.

Tiawentí:non Canadian, coordinator of the First Peoples’ Centre at Dawson College, said the transition to junior college is already hard enough without introducing additional challenges for Indigenous students.

“I think the students are feeling really anxious, concerned, and unsure about their future here or in CEGEP in general,” Canadian said.

After the campaign went public, the province responded by saying it would not be expanding any exemptions.

Ghislain Picard, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL), said the law is a total disrespect to Indigenous people.

“We have our students from our different nations. They are the ones that should be speaking to this and also contributing to the political process at their own local levels as well as at the regional level,” Picard said.

Last year, the AFNQL and First Nations Education Council applied for a judicial review to challenge Bill 96.

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