Courtesy Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer
Despite weeks of mounting protest and outrage in Kahnawake and other First Nations, Bill 96 has passed in the National Assembly without an exemption for Indigenous communities in Quebec.
While the broad French language bill was widely expected to pass without accommodations after Quebec ministers refused to acknowledge Indigenous objections, the 78-29 vote has left Kahnawake and other Onkwehón:we communities reeling.
For months, Indigenous leaders around the province have argued with increasing urgency that the bill will disadvantage and disenfranchise Indigenous communities, perpetuating a centuries-old legacy of colonization and marginalization.
“They’re very arrogant,” said Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer about the Quebec government. “They’re not listening. It is what it is, and I guess now we go back to the drawing board in terms of next actions.”
The MCK has spent close to a year or longer pursuing a relationship framework with the province, even naming a reset with the government as one of three key political priorities, but these efforts may have been for naught.
“If this is the way we’re going to be treated and ignored and cast aside, and our languages don’t matter, our rights don’t matter, what does that say about this government?” asked Sky-Deer.
“I don’t really know if there is a relationship now,” she said. “It’s kind of tarnished if you ask me.”
Sky-Deer announced on Thursday that the MCK would halt all tables dealing with political relations with Quebec until premier François Legault agrees to a meeting to find solutions to Kahnawake’s concerns.
Quebec has insisted in recent weeks, including at a meeting between government ministers and Sky-Deer and other Indigenous leaders, that Kahnawake’s objections stem from misinformation and a failure to understand the bill’s effects.
Bill 96 will become law after being formally approved by the lieutenant governor, representing the queen of the United Kingdom. When it does, it will usher in a wide range of updates to the Charter of the French Language, also known as Bill 101.
The ruling Coalition Avenir Quebec party argues these changes are necessary to safeguard the province’s official language from erosion.
The most well-known effects will be to education. Bill 96 puts a cap on CEGEP enrollment, meaning if the proportion of students applying increases over time, admission could become more difficult. Those who are admitted will be required to take three additional French courses to graduate.
Healthcare workers are among the government service providers required to uphold the use of the French language, although the bill suggests an exception may be exercised when health demands require it.
Quebec has argued access to healthcare will not change under the law, but some experts insist this is not explicit, including the dean of McGill University’s law school, Robert Leckey, as cited by CBC.
This sentiment is echoed by local health leaders.
“We are very disappointed that our many concerns went unanswered as the law passed unchanged following several attempts to communicate,” said Lisa Westaway, executive director of the Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre (KMHC).
“We continue to believe that this law will bring about huge consequences on health outcomes for our community in the years to come.”
Businesses with 50 or more employees had previously been required to communicate in French, but that number will be lowered to 25. Authorities will have investigative powers to ensure compliance and will not be subject to search and seizure restrictions. Business contracts will have to be written in French.
Judges will no longer be required to be able to speak English. While the right to English proceedings will remain intact, some fear that fewer English-speaking judges could lead to access issues.
Kahnawa’kehró:non fear that as French becomes even more critical to success in the province at large, community youth will be put at a disadvantage.
What’s more, many worry efforts to increase the prevalence of French could hinder efforts to revitalize Kanien’kéha, a fundamental priority for a community that had its language nearly extinguished by colonial violence.
“Politics is what’s happening here, and with no consideration for students’ lives and success,” said Robin Delaronde, director of the Kahnawake Education Center (KEC). “People are rightfully angered by this.”
However, she insisted that, with the support of parents, KEC will continue to promote Kanien’kéha.
“We are going to keep our language efforts alive and enhance them so our students can have what they need and what parents feel their children need in order to be successful in any life path they choose,” she said.
The community is currently considering next steps at all levels. A legal challenge may be on the horizon, and protests show no sign of stopping.
“In my view, they’ve unleashed a whirlwind, and they’re going to have to ride it,” said MCK chief Ross Montour.
He said he has himself advocated for strong measures but that it is important at this time not to tip the community’s hand to the Quebec government.
A sizable portion of the community’s resistance continues to be led by youth. A protest Saturday stopped traffic on the Mercier Bridge as more than 2,000 pamphlets were distributed, according to youth spokesperson Teiotsatonteh Diabo, who plans to attend Dawson College in the fall.
The effort echoed a Kahnawake Survival School (KSS) walkout on May 10 that was bolstered by community participation. About 1,000 people took part in that march.
“We are infuriated by Quebec. We’re searching for ways to take this bill down politically as well as our best solution to get Quebec to listen without starting another 90,” said Diabo, referring to the Siege of Kanesatake, also known as the Oka Crisis.
At a community meeting Tuesday, Kahnawake youth proposed various avenues of resistance for consideration. Diabo believes the community is hoping for a political or legal solution but said Kahnawa’kehró:non are willing to fight if necessary.
“If nothing is changed, then I do believe actions will continue to escalate until the community is fully satisfied with an exemption or the complete disposal of Bill 96,” she said.
A protest was planned for May 27 at Karonhianónhnha Tsi Ionterihwaienstáhkhwa. Originally intended as a school and family event, it has expanded in scope since the bill’s passage.
“I think it gave my colleagues and myself more motivation to educate our students, support their ideas, and make sure their voices are heard,” said Katsi’tsahawe Splicer, a counsellor at the elementary school, which is anchored by its Kanien’kéha immersion program.
“We want our children to be proud of the school they attend and know how important it is to continue to learn and speak Kanien’kéha,” she said.
“French is a language that is spoken throughout the world…. It is not a dying language. It is not a language that has to fight for funding, resources, or to be simply be recognized. But Kanien’kéha is.”
She characterized Bill 96 as an assimilation bill in opposition to the revitalization of Onkwehón:we languages.
“It resurfaces the intergenerational trauma that we all suffer from due to the loss of our language, culture, and genocide,” she said. “But there is not a doubt in my mind that we will stand together as a community and fight this together.”
A legal challenge is being considered by the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, according to regional chief Ghislain Picard.
“As I stated publicly, we haven’t said our last word,” said Picard. While he acknowledged the bill’s invocation of the notwithstanding clause is an obstacle to contesting it in court, he argued there are still other plausible means to do so and that the issue is being analyzed.
“Now that the bill has passed, that’s part of the reality, and we’ll look at the options before us,” said Picard. “That’s the furthest I can go at this point.”
Bill 96 will be a prominent agenda item at an upcoming meeting of AFNQL chiefs where legal remedies and other potential actions will be discussed.
“The level of frustration and disappointment is at an all-time high,” said Sky-Deer.
Indigenous affairs minister Ian Lafrenière and the minister responsible for the French language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, did not return requests for comment by deadline.
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.