Quebec’s controversial language Bill 96 passed on May 24, modifying the province’s 1977 charter on the French language.
It increases French proficiency requirements for immigrants and CEGEP students (Quebec students’ mandatory year of pre-university college) and limits the use of any language other than French in courts and workplaces unless absolutely necessary.
Both Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette and Quebec Premier François Legault said the bill is necessary to prevent the French language from vanishing. But Indigenous people across the province say their languages are the ones in danger.
“French is not being threatened by us, it’s the French that are threatening us,” said Harriet Keleutak, director general of Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, Nunavik’s school board.
Mohawks, Cree and Inuit in Quebec were forced to learn English — not French — in residential schools.
While many members of those communities have learned French as a third language, those communities mainly function in their Indigenous language and English.
Protests erupted in Montreal and Kahanawà:ke leading up to its adoption.
Tonya Perron, a member of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke, said she’s concerned about how Bill 96 will affect legal proceedings.
“The vagueness, the ambiguity, the discretion that’s under that section is very concerning to me, in my position right now as a political leader in the community, but also as a lawyer,” she said.
She was referring to Section 12 of the bill, which states that judges will only be required to speak French, “unless the Minister of Justice and the Minister of the French Language consider that the exercise of that office requires such knowledge and that all reasonable means have been taken to avoid imposing such a requirement.”
Perron has requested a judge recuse themself for their lack of English proficiency and has never been denied that request, but fears this new amendment will add to the delays or even be denied, and reduce the availability of English-speaking judges down the line.
“From time to time, we’ve had a situation where it would be a judge on the bench that was only French speaking and would request the services of an interpreter to proceed with the proceedings… I’ve had situations where I’ve had that happen and I’ve had to stop the translator and say ‘Whoa, that’s not what my client said,’” she said.
Section 9 requires legal persons — for instance – organizations, companies and governments, not individuals — to submit all court documents in French, adding additional costs and delays for translations.
Perron said this could get in the way of filing time-sensitive injunctions or child protection orders.
“If you have to do that and it has to be done quickly, and you have to provide those proceedings, pleadings, whatever it is in French, there’s going to be delays. So what happens with the child when those delays are running?” she said.
The bill requires students attending English CEGEPs to take three of their core courses and French as well as passing the same French proficiency exam as students in Francophone CEGEPs to graduate.
Perron is also concerned that parents will send their kids outside of the community for French education to the detriment of them learning Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language.
“Our language and culture will be eroded because we’re forced to choose between it and being proficient in French to survive within this province,” said Perron.
Kahnawake students protested last weekend with concerns the bill would discourage young Mohawks from pursuing post-secondary education.
Harriet Keleutak from the Nunavik school board has similar concerns.
“Not only will they have to leave their homes, but they will have to leave their province if they want to continue their education in English,” said Keleutak.
While Inuit are allowed to teach Inuktitut as a first language under the James Bay Agreement, Bill 96 will require college students to pass more French courses and will limit spots and English colleges.
Inuit students already have to move out of their small communities to attend post-secondary school and now would be required to learn academic French.
“They’re repeating what was done 50, 60 years ago when we were forced to not to speak our language in classrooms, and we got punished for it, for speaking in Inuktitut,” said Keleutak.
Simon Jolin-Barrette, who is both Quebec’s minister of Justice and minister Responsible for the French Language, says criticism has been disproportionate of the predicted effects of the bill, and Premier François Legault has said ‘disinformation’ has surrounded the bill in the media.
But many Indigenous people maintain Bill 96 promotes the dominant language of the province at the expense of Indigenous languages.
“Imposing this additional language on us, it’s just a continuation of [colonialism], it’s adding another layer to it, so how can you not say it’s not an extension of that, and it’s contrary to reconciliation,” said Perron.
Kahanawà:ke’s Grand Chief, Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, said the community will refuse to engage with Quebec “at any level” until the government provides a solution to their concerns surrounding the bill.
While ministers have stated they are willing to work with Indigenous communities to find solutions, they did not include a carve-out for Indigenous people and languages within the bill.
“What they call consultation is asking us questions for ten minutes and call it consultation without really understanding,” said Keleutak.
French-speaking Indigenous leaders have also spoken out about the bill.
“For a society that is a minority in North America, it seems to me they could’ve put in more effort to understand others, the concerns of another minority within that minority, so I find that disappointing,” said Chief Paul-Émile Ottawa of Manawan in French.
The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador said it would continue to denounce the bill in a news release.
“By passing Bill 96 into law today, following instructions set out by the Legault government, the National Assembly of Quebec is taking a major step backward, putting reconciliation with First Nations on hold with a questionable future,” said Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador Chief Ghislain Picard.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière said he has met with indigenous leaders and will continue the conversation.
“As you know, Bill 96 has been approved today, yes, but it’s a matter of two years to put that in place. So we still got time in front of us. We want to find a solution, a workable solution, a practical solution, so my offer is to work with First Nations to find solutions for them,” he said.