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Provincial funding arrives after severe criticism of French-language bill

BY Ben Powless Jul 20, 2022

The Quebec government announced new five-year funding for Indigenous language and culture initiatives just weeks after passing Bill 96, widely criticized for making it harder to protect Indigenous languages.

Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière said $141.1 million will be invested in First Nations and Inuit projects to protect and promote Indigenous languages, support Indigenous media, create childhood language projects and establish cultural centres. There is also money for issues facing Indigenous women.

Lafrenière said the plan came after a year of consultation with the 55 Indigenous communities in Quebec. He acknowledged that Bill 96 was very controversial during these visits, and that many communities were concerned about their ability to protect their languages under the law. 

Bill 96 restricts the use of English when accessing certain government services and limits the number of students eligible to attend English-language CEGEPs. Lafrenière said he is confident the province could protect the French language and preserve Indigenous languages at the same time.

A Cree Nation Government statement acknowledges the funding and expects the CAQ to honour promised legislation to protect Indigenous languages if the Legault government is re-elected. 

“These measures and proposed legislation are encouraging indications of the Government’s intention to support the protection of Indigenous languages and culture. It is unfortunate that these measures were not included as part of the Bill 96 initiative, as their inclusion would have marked a real commitment towards reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples,” the CNG stated.

“As Indigenous People and as citizens of Québec, we are entitled to the same strong future as all Québécois. Indigenous groups understand the concerns and goals underlying Bill 96 to protect the French language because we share the same concerns and goals to protect our own Indigenous languages,” Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty said in the statement. 

“Our languages form a critical part, not just of our own heritage and identity, but of Québec as a whole. We must redouble the critical language protection work that has been underway in many communities.”

Cree Language Commissioner Jamie Moses said the Cree are establishing a leadership group to discuss preserving culture and language. Despite multiple initiatives, including adopting the language law, Moses said there was still a need for efforts such as land-based cultural activities aimed at younger generations.

He noted the Crees had joined a discussion table with the government. “Hopefully we’re able to influence some funding going towards the protection of language,” Moses said. “The opportunity is there and it’s up to us how far we’re able to take it.”

Moses is still concerned about the impact of Bill 96, including on hospital patients who need to travel for specialized services and don’t speak French. He also noted that if forestry, mining or hydro companies on Category-3 lands choose not to hire individuals who don’t speak French, the Cree have little influence over those decisions. 

“There’s not that many great opportunities and careers if you choose that life, but we have to create opportunities for younger generations to have a career in culture and languages,” Moses said. “The school board has many positions for language teachers, but there’s also a need for land-based expertise.”

Moses said communities also need to prioritize Cree and ensure the language is featured as prominently as English and French on public notices, public buildings and signage. 

“I want to encourage the Cree population to demonstrate the high importance of the Cree language. We’re working together to get there,” he said. “We create positions for the protection of the language, but there’s no way one person can reverse the situation. We need everyone to contribute at every level.”

by Ben Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.