Simona Rosenfield The Eastern Door
Kahnawa’kehró:non stepped on common ground in Montreal with English-speaking Quebecers last weekend to protest against Bill 96, a controversial French language bill that leaders anticipate will have severe impacts on the community.
“Indigenous people need allies because the Quebec government is their (English Quebecers’) government. It’s not our government,” Kenneth Deer told The Eastern Door. “What’s important is that we work together, and we support each other wherever we can find common ground, without sacrificing our principles.”
Community members at last week’s meeting decided to support the demonstration at Dawson College in an effort to fortify alliances, increase visibility, and escalate the pressure before the legislation is voted on at the National Assembly on May 24.
Thousands of Quebecers and Kahnawa’kehró:non marched together through downtown Montreal to the office of premier François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), the party that tabled the legislation.
The actions taken by the community will continue to be student-led, according to leaders of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK).
“I always find that there’s a lot of power in the youth,” said MCK chief Jessica Lazare, who attended the protest.
“They have a lot of influence because the way that I see it is that this really is going to affect them. It’s going to affect our future. It’s going to affect their children, their children’s children.”
Students of all ages attended the protest.
“We brought up Kahnawake Survival School, Kateri School, Step By Step, Karonhianónhnha school,” said Derek Kirby, a bus driver for the MCK.
Students are faced with a harsh dilemma trying to complete their semester amidst the urgent calls to action.
“I’m also working on my final exams right now, but as much as I can, I want to be there to stand by the community,” said Rotshennonni Two-Axe, a health science student at Dawson College who recited the Ohèn:ton Karihwatéhkwen at the march.
“I’m trying to do what I can to help those future next seven generations.”
“The speaker, the young man who spoke in the language, that’s our future. That’s who’s going to carry on the Mohawk language and culture, and we can’t make it harder for him to do that by imposing a third language on our young people,” said Deer, who spoke at the protest.
Two-Axe hopes to further his studies in Quebec so that he can bring his knowledge home.
“I’d love to be able to be a doctor within the community and help bridge the gap between western medicine and some of our traditional practices.”
Amidst his studies, Two-Axe has been working on trilingualism. Still, he anticipates challenges in pursuing his goals with these additional language barriers.
“Knowing another language, it’s not going to harm the French language. I’m learning English, Mohawk, and French at the same time.”
Breakdown of the bill
- English CEGEP admissions would be increasingly competitive;
- Three additional French-language courses required in CEGEP;
- English CEGEP students required to pass an English exit exam and a French exit exam;
- Public service providers, including doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators required to communicate in French (exemption for immigrants who have lived in Quebec less than six months or people who attended school in English in the province);
- Francization: French is generalized in the workplace for businesses of more than 25 people;
- Government officials granted powers of search and seizure of work documents and electronic devices without a warrant;
- Business contracts must be drawn up in French;
- Quebec Court judges no longer required to speak English;
- Court pleadings have to be in French or translated into French;
- All judgments in court have to be in French or translated into French;
- All public service providers must speak French, but English is not required.
“It’s going to affect all sectors – jurisdiction, health,” said Carina Deere, director of the First Nations Regional Adult Education Center (FNRAEC) in Kahnawake.
“Once we leave Kahnawake, any service that we try to get will be only in French.”
While the concerns of Indigenous Peoples are unique, they are not isolated.
Forecasting the application of this legislation on migrant workers from her home country in the Philippines, Cheney Cortes took to the streets to show her objection, citing the stringent language requirements this bill will pose on newcomers.
“We are for the advancement, the protection of the French language, but when we talk about six months obligation to speak French, I think that’s not possible,” said Cortes, citing a six-month grace period that newcomers would be granted while they learn French.
Cortes has seen firsthand the challenges that are already imposed on newcomers trying to work in Quebec through her work with Migrante Quebec and PINAY, two grassroots organizations that service newly-arrived Filipino workers, the majority of whom do not speak French.
“They lose their status. That’s the hard part when they lose their status because they don’t understand that they have to do this and do that,” said Cortes. “They cannot read the papers in French. The contract is in French, and it’s really hard for them.”
Cortes had cases where within a month of arriving, newcomers were sent back to the Philippines because they couldn’t pick up the language quickly enough.
The impact this bill will have on the fundamental human rights of those living in Quebec is a shared concern across the board, according to Deer. This common ground is a point of intersection that may strengthen the resistance against Bill 96 and help escalate the pressure before the vote.
Deer joined busloads of Kahnawa’kehró:non – families, community leaders, children and elders – under a sweltering sun to march more than 2 KM uphill to Quebec premier Legault’s office.
“It’s hot, and I’m walking with a cane. But I’m going to tough it out right to the end. It’s always a struggle,” said Deer.
“The whole issue of colonialism and genocide can be repeated and is being repeated by Bill 96, and so I thought it was very important for them (Quebecers) to understand that.”
A community meeting was held on Tuesday to discuss a plan of action for escalating pressure before the vote. Here, students were encouraged to bring their ideas and concerns so that the community could agree on a plan that involves their input while still accounting for the safety and security of Kahnawa’kehró:non.
“There’s nothing off the table, especially after the 24th,” said chief Ryan Montour about what happens next if the bill passes.
“The Canadian government had a policy at one time to assimilate: kill the Indian, save the man,” Deer told the crowd at the demonstration. “Quebec now has a policy to kill the Indian to save the French language.”