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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Critics say Quebec legislation to defend French could harm Indigenous languages

BY Ben Powless Jun 5, 2021

The Quebec government’s recently tabled Bill 96 represents the largest expansion of French-language rights isince the passing of Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, in 1977. It is also raising concerns from Indigenous language advocates.

The 100-page bill would modify provincial and federal laws, and even amend the Canadian constitution to recognize the “fundamental characteristics of Quebec.” It asserts that Quebecers form their own nation with French as their “only” official language and as the “common language of the French nation.” 

Bill 96 would make French the only language needed to work in the province, which could affect everything from the education system, immigration, the courts to government services. Judges, for instance, would not be required to be bilingual. 

The legislation would create an enhanced complaint system, establish a French Language Ministry and appoint a French Language Commissioner. 

Businesses with 25-49 employees would need to register with the Office québécois de la langue française and obtain French certification. English-language CEGEPs face quotas: their enrolment could not exceed 17.5% of Quebec’s total CEGEP population, while growth in English CEGEPs would be capped at 8.7% of the total growth in student numbers. 

Students with neither English or French as their first language would need to pass mandatory French-language exams even if studying at English CEGEPs. French courses would also be provided to anglophones to improve their French.

The legislation comes after recent studies claimed that French is on the decline, especially in Montreal. 

Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for the French Language. Jolin-Barrette did not respond to a request for comment. But newly appointed Cree Language Commissioner Jamie Moses said the legislation would deeply affect the Cree. 

“It impacts the Cree Nation because a high percentage of our second language is English as opposed to French, and at least two communities don’t even offer French at their schools anymore – in Eastmain for about 10 years, and in Wemindji for nearly 20 years,” Moses told the Nation

Moses says the Cree have traditionally opposed Quebec’s enforcement of French requirements in education and the workplace, as well as in government services like license applications and the courts. 

He pointed out that even Cree who have studied French are more comfortable in English as they have fewer opportunities to use French and thus become less fluent over time. 

Moses will consult with other First Nations language commissioners, as well as First Nations that may not have a language commissioner but are working to preserve their languages. He will be starting with the Crees’ closest neighbours – the Innu, Algonquin, Atikamekw and Inuit. 

One challenge in preserving the Cree language when younger people spend so much time online is that the province doesn’t recognize that First Nations languages also need protection, Moses observed. 

Moses is also concerned about the decreasing number of places at English-language CEGEPs, saying that very few Cree youth attend French-language CEGEPs. He said other criteria already make it harder for Cree youth to be accepted in English CEGEPs, pushing more of them to seek college programs outside the province. 

But with different job and language requirements in Quebec, Moses notes, students who did career programs in Ontario may find themselves ineligible for many positions when they return, such as law or mechanics.

“Many who further their education have a desire to return and work from their home community, to raise their families in their respective community and be able to acquire their dream jobs,” said Moses. 

“It’s important that we make an effort to preserve and practice all First Nation languages and encourage young people to learn them. But it’s a hard balance maintaining traditional activity and language while acquiring an education for a good future.” 

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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.