Indigenous calls for exemptions to Quebec Bill 96 grow louder

Indigenous leaders in Quebec continue to push for an exemption to Bill 96 after controversial legislation overhauling the Charter of the French Language passed on Tuesday.

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

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

“We are really concerned about our students being able to enroll in the programs they want to attend,” said Sarah Pash, Chair of the Cree School Board.

We really want our students to be able to enroll in the programs they want.– Sarah Pash, Chair of the Cree School Board

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

The Crees demand an exemption

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

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

“We rely a lot on people from outside, non-Eeyou who come to our territory and take up positions, professional positions, technical positions in all of our sectors,” Pash said.

She asked the government of François Legault to exempt students from the Cree Nation from Bill 96.

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

Inuit students are ‘set up’ to fail

Harriet Keleutak is the Executive Director of Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, the school board for Nunavik, the Inuit region of Quebec.

Like Pash, she expressed concern that without an exemption, more Indigenous students in northern Quebec will either be “failed” or choose to leave the province to pursue post-secondary education.

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

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

Kativik School Board Director General Harriet Keleutak says Inuit students who choose English as a second language are “failed.” (Radio Canada)

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

Keleutak says Inuit students who choose English as a second language instead of French will arrive at CEGEP with no knowledge of French.

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

Indigenous language protections

Kativik Ilisarniliriniq and the Cree School Board already have exemptions at the elementary and secondary levels, allowing them to prioritize the teaching of Inuktitut and the Cree language under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

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

Exemptions allow the two boards to decide when to introduce instruction in French and/or English.

Keleutak says his board prioritizes Inuktitut through Grade 3 and allows a student to choose either French or English as a second language.

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

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

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

Minister visits Cree and Inuit communities

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

The protection of French and indigenous languages ​​do not conflict, he said.

“We all agree that Indigenous languages ​​and cultures should be respected and promoted. Bill 96 is not the right vehicle to address these issues,” Durocher said in an email response to a request for information.

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

Durocher did not say if or when an exemption could be granted, but said the government continues to seek “concrete solutions” alongside Indigenous communities, adding that Bill 96 will not come into force for two years.

Although she was not part of the discussion during the visit to the Lafrenière territory, Cree school board president Pash said she remains hopeful that a solution will be found for Cree students.

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

“We were both very concerned about protecting the language and maintaining the language from our own perspective.”