The Waqatasq Elder Home has been a dream of the Quebec-based Mi’gmaq First Nation of Listuguj for 30 years.
Now that the end of construction is in sight after COVID-related delays, the facility faces another unexpected obstacle: they need to recruit 25 English-speaking professionals, like nurses, after the passage of Quebec language law Bill 96.
“We’ve pushed hard to build capacity as a community and this law may impose something on us that really challenges the capacity we’re building and the services we want to offer to our people,” said Listuguj Chief Darcy Gray.
Many First Nations in the province — along with Inuit in Nunaviq — were forced to learn English, not French.
Listuguj is one such community, and, like many First Nations, are in the process of revitalizing their own language.
“If I’m working here in the community, for the most part my clients are going to be English or Mi’gmaq-speaking. That’s not the language I need. The languages I need and the effort I should be putting in is to learn Mi’gmaq,” said Gray.
Bill 96 was passed in Quebec’s National Assembly in May 2022, to the dismay of many Quebec-based Indigenous communities.
It further cements French as Quebec’s only official language by adding more regulations to the French Language Charter.
Provincially-regulated professions like nurses and lawyers require obtaining a professional order. Quebec requires French proficiency to get certified in most cases.
Gray said he knows first-hand how difficult it can be to get an exemption to the French requirement for a professional order. Before becoming chief, he went to a university in New Brunswick to become a therapist.
“We have recognized therapists that can’t come work in Listuguj because they didn’t meet the standard of Quebec, yet they meet the standard of Canada,” said Gray.
In order to work in Listuguj without French, English-speaking workers need to live on-reserve — and even then, their licence to practice is restricted to First Nations reserves and Inuit communities.
They can’t even live in the neighbouring town of Pointe-à-la-Croix, across the street from Listuguj.
“Why is it that we would be, say, protected in our little community bubble, right, that doesn’t apply. So, I could be recognized here as fully meeting the standard, but I walk across the street and I no longer meet that standard,” said Gray.
With the passage of Bill-96, professionals are now not only required to prove their French proficiency once, but “shall, as long as the permit is held, maintain knowledge of the official language that is appropriate to the practice of the profession” if they wish to practice outside of First Nations reserves.
While exceptions can be made, it’s to the discretion of the minister of the French Language.
Donna Metallic, Listuguj’s health director, said these additional caveats could further discourage professionals from practicing in Quebec.
“Before Covid, there was a shortage, now Covid happened, so now there’s a real shortage of professional people,” said Metallic.
The Quebec language law also further limits requiring English for employment — that is, employers are not meant to require an employee to speak a language other than French unless absolutely necessary — and also limits the use of English within the workplace.
Metallic fears that this will exacerbate the lack of English documentation Listuguj receives from the health ministry.
“Most of the documentation that we get that our clinical team receives now is all in French. We do have staff here that can translate, but we have to be very careful in the translation,” she said.
“And it shouldn’t be like that. The ministry should understand that we’re an English-speaking community. There’s ten [English-speaking First Nations] in the province, I don’t know if they know that we still exist, we’re here, we’re not going to go anywhere.”
She said that Quebec’s health ministry needs to sit down with English-speaking First Nations to hear their concerns.
“Quebec, they have France that they can go back to. We don’t. We just have ourselves. We’re revitalizing our language and it’s the first language of our people. So they should be taking that all into consideration,” said Metallic.