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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

The sound of jackboots

BY Will Nicholls Jun 7, 2022

I wonder exactly when it was that denying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms became so popular in Quebec. Make no mistake. It’s now evidently a politically astute move, as evidenced by the National Assembly’s adoption of Bill 96, our new language law, in a vote of 78-29.

The bill limits the use of English in the courts and public services. It imposes draconian language requirements on businesses and municipalities. It limits the number of students able to attend English-language CEGEPs and requires those lucky enough to get in to pass an increased number of French courses in order to graduate. Immigrants have six months to learn enough French to be able receive assistance in justice and health care, after which they will no longer be eligible to receive essential services in English. 

You’re a small-business owner? Well, the new law allows agents of the state – in this case the Office québécois de la langue française – to search your business for any reason without a warrant. You’d think we were in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

How is this possible in 2022? Because Premier François Legault invoked the notwithstanding clause to protect Bill 96 from constitutional challenges based on the Charter. In Quebec, as he did with Bill 21 to enforce clothing requirements on female teachers, the constitution does not apply when our Dear Leader invokes the notwithstanding clause. 

Legault is showing us that he will do anything to deprive us of human rights.

Indigenous leaders across Quebec requested their members be exempted from some provisions, saying they harmed their communities, language, rights, and was an act of cultural genocide. Many pointed out that the original language law increased dropout rates among First Nation students. 

To no avail. French Language Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said the law must apply to everyone without exception. Kahnawá:ke Elder Kevin Deer said the Two Row Wampum Belt represented the basis for all agreements and treaties with the European newcomers that follow principles of friendship, peace and respects. He rightly felt this had been forgotten or ignored by present-day peoples. 

While Cree communities will be exempt, that is only in the communities themselves. We can all wonder at what it will mean for Cree businesses, such as Cree Construction, Air Creebec or Tawich, which have offices or holdings outside of the communities. 

What about Grand Council offices in Quebec and Montreal? Cree School Board students may be forced to attend postsecondary schools outside Quebec. 

Legal proceedings only in French pose problems for many Indigenous people. Cree Justice Director Donald Nicholls said it can make a fair and just trial difficult for First Nations people as they do not fully understand what is going on and how it can influence them. This might be an indicator of why Indigenous people who represent 4% of the population form more than 30% of the prison population. With the new language law, the rates can be expected to increase.

Protecting your language shouldn’t be about destroying other languages and cultures. Some of our biggest advances in the world have been because of the diversity of languages and culture.

Other minority languages have thrived without imposing any restrictions on anyone else. Surely there are lessons there for the protection and enhancement of the French language and culture.

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.