In the attempt to preserve the supposedly declining French language in Quebec, Premier François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec party, proposed Bill 96 in May 2021, at Quebec’s National Assembly. The bill is intended to supplement Bill 101, Quebec’s French-language charter adopted in 1977 by Premier René Lévesque. After a year of deliberation, the law was passed by a vote of 78 to 29 on May 24th, 2022. The Liberal Party voted against it, claiming that it went too far in its restrictions and requirements. The Parti Quebecois voted against it as well, claiming, however, that it did not go far enough.
The bill limits the use of English in public services, colleges and universities, and businesses. It also allows inspectors, sent by Quebec’s Board of the French Language, to search and seize property without a warrant in enterprises to ensure that citizens are communicating in French. Non-compliance with the bill can result in a fine between $700 CAD and $90,000 CAD.
The bill has raised concerns amongst the public and within the Quebec government. While immigrants and anglophones are concerned about the bill, Indigenous communities in Quebec are especially worried.
The Mohawk Council of Chiefs has responded to the bill, stating that “the word ‘reconciliation’ is out of the window at this point,” as the government did not properly consult Indigenous communities about the reform. With Indigenous languages long facing discrimination since the foundation of the Canadian state, this bill further jeopardizes them. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization estimates that 75% of Canada’s Indigenous languages are already endangered. Only 15.6% of Indigenous people in Canada are able to communicate in an Indigenous language, as of 2016. With the enforcement of Bill 96, Indigenous languages will most likely be demonized further.
Not only does Bill 96 endanger Indigenous languages, but it also repeats history. After colonization, many Indigenous communities in Quebec chose English as the primary European language. English is now a first, second, or third language for over 65% of Quebec’s Indigenous peoples. Seeing that colonization obliged Indigenous peoples in Quebec to learn a European language, resulting in health, educational, and economic disadvantages in their own homelands, Bill 96 will reproduce these injustices.
Impact on Indigenous Youth
Indigenous youth in Quebec are especially vulnerable to the new language restrictions. Seeing as most Indigenous students are English speaking, enforcing the French language would risk their ability to enroll in colleges and universities, succeed in classes, and graduate. This bill also jeopardizes the preservation of Indigenous cultures, as youths are the next generation to carry on their traditions.
With the new bill, enrollment levels at English-language CEGEPs – public colleges which students attend after high school and before post-secondary school – will be curbed, meaning more and more English-speaking students will be unable to get in. On top of that, students will also be obliged to pass a French language exam and do part of their core coursework in French in order to graduate. For many Indigenous students, French would be a third or fourth language, making learning French significantly difficult. Even for those who don’t speak as many languages, learning French would be difficult – being able to effectively communicate and learn complex ideas in an entirely new language doesn’t happen overnight. With only 15.9% of the Indigenous community receiving a college/CEGEP diploma, and 3.9% graduating from university, this new bill could further drive down these numbers.
Imposing a new language would also prohibit them from using their own languages. Seeing as the enforcement of English in the past has resulted in the decline of Native languages, adding French could further reduce their usage. As language is deeply tied to culture, enforcement of Bill 96 towards Indigenous peoples could increase the rate at which Indigenous cultures are already fading. As the head of the First Nations Education Council of Quebec, Denis Gros-Louis, pointed out, the bill serves to normalize “cultural genocide”.
On that premise, this bill is just the latest example of colonial overreach by a government that is blatant in its desire to control Indigenous peoples. To push back against this colonial intrusion, Indigenous communities have requested an exemption, in hopes that students can avoid being hindered by the bill.
Protesting the Bill
In response to Bill 96, a group of Kahnawake students organized a street protest, which shut down traffic on a major bridge into Montreal. Current and former students, as well as community supporters, walked with signs opposing Bill 96 and waved the flag of the Mohawk Warriors Society. One of the organizers, Teiotsatonteh Diabo, stated: “We do not have a lot left. We have a little land left, our language. We only have about 300 speakers compared to 85 percent of French speakers in Quebec.”
Other demonstrations were held, with thousands of Montreal residents marching to Premier Francois Legault’s office. With more protests planned, the community hopes for Bill 96 to be repealed.
There is an overall consensus that French needs to be better preserved and respected, but protesters state that this bill is not the way to go about it. If anything, it pushes Quebec citizens to resent the language.
The Federal Government’s Involvement
A Montreal-based activist – who wishes to remain unnamed – who joined the protest hopes the federal government will intervene to protect Indigenous communities’ culture, language, and their youths. The activist expressed, “I fear our voices won’t be enough… they don’t care about what we want. I hope the federal government does something.”
The federal government, however, has stated that any appeals of both pieces of legislation must be led by Quebecers, and it will intervene if the matter reaches the Supreme Court of Canada. David Lametti, Canada’s justice minister, did give his opinion on the matter, criticizing Quebec’s new language law, as well as the province’s use of the notwithstanding clause, which shields Bill 96 from court challenges based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Seeing that neither French nor English are native to the land that we call Canada, the passage of this bill shows just how comfortable the Canadian state and individual provinces are with erasing Indigenous history. Quebec, which like all other provinces in Canada is built on systemic racism of Indigenous peoples, has to push the narrative of French as a native language otherwise it runs the risk of exposing its own anti-Indigenous foundations. The federal government’s lack of involvement further pushes this narrative, and the voices of Indigenous people continue to be silenced in their own homelands.
Edited by Majeed Malhas