Law 14, Quebec’s new language law, commonly known as Bill 96, will take full effect next fall.
The legislation requires students attending English junior colleges in the province to complete additional courses in French to graduate. Some educators say that this law only adds more obstacles to a student population that already faces many challenges in pursuing higher education.
Kim Martin, the Dean of Indigenous education at John Abbott College, located at the western tip of the island of Montreal, said that many incoming students are concerned about the possibility of not being admitted to their preferred university programs because of the new French language requirements at the college level.
“This is a group of students that are underrepresented in post-secondary school, a marginalized population. And instead of setting up a path for easy and open access to education, we’re actually seeing the opposite – where there’s more and more barriers being put in place,” Martin said in a recent interview.
Randall Migwans, a Cree student from Waswanapi, is in his third year at John Abbott College, and he has big dreams for his future.
“I plan on becoming a photographer full-time, hopefully. Or start my own business possibly,” Migwans said in an interview.
He hopes to attend Concordia University in Montreal to pursue a bachelor of fine arts.
The problem? Migwans is still missing the French language requirement to graduate from John Abbott.
“It took me a while just to get through the first beginners’ course. It took me like three semesters. And I am only in the second one. And because of that it will be delaying my graduation too,” he told APTN News.
He is not alone. According to Martin, there are currently many students in Migwans’ situation, and she said that she fears the new language law will only exacerbate the problem.
Right now, Indigenous students must complete two French second language courses to get their college diploma. However, before taking the two credited courses, students must first take a placement test and, based on proficiency, complete one to three preparatory classes.
Come September 2024, they will also be required to pass three additional program courses in French.
“The way that this bill is being put forward, I don’t think that there was a lot of thought put into Indigenous students and how this would impact us and also the fact that a lot of our students, they already need an enormous amount of support,” Martin added.
The dean said the only solution would be for Indigenous students to be completely exempt from the law.
APTN reached out to the Quebec government for comment.
“The Premier has said he is prepared to go as far as legislating on Indigenous languages and cultures, and Minister Ian Lafrenière has organized public dialogue sessions on the subject. We are awaiting the outcome of the discussions between the Chiefs on this subject.
“It should be remembered that solutions have already been put in place to reduce the barriers to access to higher education for First Nations and Inuit youth, such as exemption from the uniform French test for those attending an English-language CEGEP and the French-language requirements needed to issue an attestation of college studies,” said a spokesperson for the minister for higher education.
Seven Diamond moved from her Cree community of Oujé-Bougoumou, 750 km from Montreal, to attend John Abbott in 2022.
She said that leaving her community behind, coupled with the transition to college, was very difficult.
“I have been learning French since grade one, grade two. So that is 11, 12 years, and I still couldn’t… doing the placement test couldn’t get me into the credited French courses,” Diamond explained.
Diamond and Migwans noted that some of their friends are contemplating leaving Quebec because of the law.
“It’s so difficult to have all these different levels of language learning that you have to know. And I can imagine that for other students, that this is also really hard, and they are pushing their students away by doing this,” Diamond said.
Francesca Roy is a French teacher at Dawson college in downtown Montreal. For years, she has been working closely with Indigenous students in Dawson’s transition program.
She said Quebec’s language law is hurting reconciliation and emphasized that most Indigenous students who arrive at college are not equipped to complete the three additional program courses in French.
“They have very little exposure to French,” Roy said. “They get it at school, but a few hours a week at school isn’t enough for them to learn it. So, there’s not a lot of exposure, and French isn’t the easiest language to learn as a second language,” Roy said.
Additionally, Roy said that every effort must be made to assist Indigenous students to succeed.
Migwans, for his part, said that he will keep going until he gets his college diploma.
“I am just glad I don’t have to do a French exit exam. And I don’t have to do an extra French course to graduate.”