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Kanesatake grand chief responds to Bill 96

Laurence Brisson Dubreuil The Eastern Door

The recent tabling of Bill 96, which sets out to further protect the French language in Quebec, has stirred criticism from many in the province; including one outspoken Kanien’kehá:ka leader who calls the proposed legislation a new form of colonization.

On Monday, June 7, a video published online shows Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) grand chief Serge Otsi Simon stating that, according to him, the bill represents “nothing short of a second colonization of First Nations people and our territories.”

“The federal government says that provinces have a right to unilaterally change the constitution, where it only regards them, but in this case, nationhood not only regards them, it regards us too,” stated Simon in an interview with The Eastern Door. “If the province wants to assert any kind of nationhood, it has to start with a conversation with the First Nations of Quebec.”

The bill tabled on May 13, spans over 100 pages and includes over 200 articles. Among the proposed status changes, it suggests amendments to the 44-year-old Charter of the French Language, commonly referred to as Bill 101.

It additionally proposes changes to the Canadian Constitution, the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, and the Civil Code of Quebec.

The legislature notably puts forward to concretize Quebecers forming a nation, as well as French becoming the only official language in the province.

“Quebec wants to protect its language and culture on the backs of First Nations people, while in many cases, our own languages and cultures are on the verge of extinction,” expressed Simon. “Meanwhile, who understands the threat to a language and culture better than us?”

During a press conference on June 8, Quebec premier François Legault suggested that he does not perceive the bill he tabled would have any repercussions.

“I don’t know the details of the application of Bill 96, but what I understand is that Indigenous people are excluded, so there shouldn’t be any impact for them,” said the premier.

Although the above statement resulted in some disagreement, a local member of the Longhouse and language revitalizer, Wenhni’tiio Will Gareau, upheld that despite the bill, he believes promoting Kanien’kéha must first and foremost take place within communities.

“Something as seemingly small as, for instance, choosing whether or not to greet each other in our language, has a much greater impact on its revitalization than any foreign intervention,” said Gareau. “Just like our political and ceremonial lives cannot be separated, our language also cannot be separated from our identity as Onkwehón:we.”

According to Gareau, unless the bill were to overtly attack the Kanien’kéha language, he expressed that to involve themselves in the debate would only serve as distraction from efforts to promote their own language.

“Enough harm has been done through the hundreds of years of colonization we‘ve endured,” he said. “They can’t fix the mistakes they’ve made, especially while they’re still making them. If our language will survive, it will be us who chooses to save it and no one else.”

In line with this need to promote Kanien’kéha, Simon said added resources by the provincial government are needed to provide nations with assistance to protect their own languages.

“There needs to be amendments to Bill 96 that recognize the threat to First Nations languages and cultures – and that includes the province committing to supplying the proper resources so that they can rekindle their own languages and cultures,” said the MCK grand chief.

In Monday’s video capsule, Simon also urged communities to send an objection to the United Nations, stating that the bill’s constitutional changes would consist of a violation.

“We better do that soon because time is ticking, this could happen any moment as Quebec will use the notwithstanding clause on us,” he said, adding that if this indeed happens, it will only prove that the standing government is but the latest to “continue the oppression that started since first contact.”

While premier Legault disagreed that the tabled legislature would impact Onkwehón:we communities, Quebec Solidaire language critic Ruba Ghazal is of the opinion that caution must still be applied.

“Chief Simon asks legitimate and completely justified questions, and that is why we, at Quebec Solidaire, and everyone else, are asking the CAQ government to have a nation-to-nation dialogue,” said Ghazal in response to a question asked during a press conference held on June 8. “It is important that he takes into account these considerations of chief Simon and of the Indigenous people in general.”

On Wednesday, June 9, Quebec Solidaire leader Manon Massé took the opposition party’s recognition a step further by presenting a motion which imposes on the provincial government “a share of responsibility” for the protection and promotion of First Nations languages.

Unilaterally adopted in parliament, the motion calls that “the Charter of the French language explicitly recognizes the right of the First Nations and Inuit to maintain and develop their languages, and their cultures.”

The motion requests that the bill acknowledge the threat to extinction that Indigenous languages face. It also underlines the urgency for the provincial government to undertake talks with nations to negotiate the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted unanimously by the Assembly on October 8, 2019.

Lastly, the motion tabled by Massé calls for Quebec to implement the recommendations of the Viens Commission’s report “which calls for actions relating to the use of Indigenous languages in public services in Quebec.”

As criticism continues to arise surrounding Bill 96, Gareau remains committed to the work he and other dedicated language revitalizers have been pursuing.

“One of the most positive aspects of studying and speaking our language is the fact that it bolsters our identity and also the relationships we have with each other, our elders, our ancestors, the natural world and the ones not born yet,” he said. “Our language is intertwined with love, respect, history, knowledge, humour, strength and resilience.”

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Laurence Brisson Dubreuil is a multimedia journalist based in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, Canada. She holds a BA in journalism, with a minor in law and society from Montreal's Concordia University.

Laurence began reporting with The Eastern Door in the fall of 2020, after completing a fellowship with the Institute for Investigative Journalism, a national investigative organization.

Among many things, Laurence is passionate about investigative reporting, human rights, and environmental issues.

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