Indigenous calls for exemptions to Quebec’s Bill 96 get louder

Indigenous leaders in Quebec continue to call for an exemption to Bill 96 after the contentious legislation overhauling the Charter of the French language was passed Tuesday. 

Bill 96 will limit the use of English across many public services, as well as the court system, and impose more restrictive language requirements on small businesses and towns. 

It will also put a cap on the number of students who can attend English-language CEGEPS, as public colleges are called in Quebec, and put in place French-language requirements needed to graduate. 

“We’re really concerned about our students being able to enter the programs that they want to take,” said Sarah Pash, chairperson of the Cree School Board. 

We are really concerned about our students being able to enter the programs they want.– Sarah Pash, Cree School Board chairperson

Bill 96 will require a student attending an English-language CEGEP to take five French language courses in order to graduate.

Cree calling for an exemption

Sarah Pash is the chairperson of the Cree School Board. (Submitted by Sarah Pash)

Pash said all levels of Cree Nation leaders are in active discussions about Bill 96 and share her concerns about the impact the new law will have on the Cree Nation’s ability to hire its own people and fill growing human resources needs in the territory. 

“We rely a lot on people from the outside, from non-Eeyou people coming into our territory and filling positions, professional positions, technical positions in all of our sectors,” said Pash.

She called on François Legault’s government to give Cree Nation students an exemption from Bill 96. 

“We feel that’s a very possible solution,” said Pash. 

Inuit students ‘set up’ to fail

Harriet Keleutak is the director general at Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, the school board in Nunavik, the Inuit region of Quebec. 

Like Pash, she expressed a concern that without an exemption more Indigenous students from northern Quebec will either be “set up to fail” or will choose to leave the province to continue their post-secondary studies. 

“It’s already hard enough for them to leave their home to go to a city and adapt,” Keleutak said

The board published an open letter last Friday, demanding an exemption from Bill 96 for its students. 

Kativik school board general director Harriet Keleutak says Inuit students who choose English as a second-language are being ‘set up to fail.’ (CBC)

Currently, the average graduation rate for high school students in Nunavik is 23 per cent. Only 3.5 per cent of the Inuit population has a college diploma. At the university level, 1.2 per cent of the population has a certificate and 0.8 per cent a bachelor’s degree, according to board and Quebec Ministry of Education figures.

Keleutak says Inuit students who choose English as their second language instead of French will arrive in CEGEP with zero knowledge of French. 

“If they cannot study in the province of Quebec, they will have to go to other provinces that provide higher education in English,” said Keleutak. 

Indigenous language protections

Both Kativik Ilisarniliriniq and the Cree School Board already have exemptions at the elementary and high school levels, allowing them to prioritize Inuktitut and Cree-language instruction under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

They also have an exemption under the current French Language Charter, said both Pash and Keleutak. 

The exemptions allow both boards control over when to introduce French and/or English instruction.

Keleutak says her board prioritizes Inuktitut up to Grade 3 and allows a student to pick either French or English as a second language.

It will not be possible to be able to study in French at that level.– Harriet Keleutak, Kativik Ilisarniliriniq

Bill 96 will make it hard for Inuit students who choose English to meet the new French language requirements at the college level, she said. 

“It’s asking them to learn French when they reach college level education. It will not be possible to be able to study in French at that level …They are very, very behind already in French,” said Keleutak. 

Minister tours Cree and Inuit communities

Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs minister, Ian Lafrenière, visited several Cree and Inuit communities last week in advance of the adoption of Bill 96. The tour touched on many issues, including Bill 96, according to spokesperson Mathieu Durocher.

The protection of French and Indigenous languages are not in opposition to each other, he said.

“We all agree that Indigenous languages and cultures must be respected and that their promotion must be encouraged. Bill 96 is not the right vehicle to deal with these issues,” said Durocher in an email response to a request for information. 

Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs Minister, Ian Lafrenière, visited several Cree and Inuit communities last week, including the Cree community of Wemindji. (Twitter)

Durocher wouldn’t say if or when an exemption might be made, but did say the government continues to look for “concrete solutions” alongside Indigenous communities, adding Bill 96 won’t come into force for another two years. 

While not part of the discussion during Lafrenière’s tour of the territory, Cree School Board Chairperson Pash said she remains hopeful some solution will be found for Cree students.

“[The Cree and Quebec] come to the table knowing that we have similar goals,” said Pash. 

“We were both very concerned about language protection and about language maintenance from our own standpoint.”

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