Two of the largest Indigenous lobby groups in the province have joined forces to launch a legal challenge against Bill 96, now known as Law 14, citing the ancestral rights of First Nations in education.
The application for judicial review has been jointly filed by the First Nations Education Council (FNEC) and Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL).
“They are starting to refuse some of our students to attend college, and that’s a no-no. They pushed too far,” said Denis Gros-Louis, director of FNEC.
Gros-Louis explained that it took time to gather the legal expertise, but that’s not the only reason the challenge is being launched now. Some students have been expected to provide an eligibility form to attend English-language CEGEPs, according to Gros-Louis, causing confusion and infringing on First Nations rights, with the end result that some Indigenous students are excluded from an education in the province.
“We don’t need to acknowledge or commit our vows of faithfulness to the minister of education, no way,” said Gros-Louis, who objects to the message this sends to students.
“They’re telling them don’t speak your language, focus on French if you want to carry on. To me, that’s assimilation.”
Gros-Louis emphasized that the FNEC is not weighing in on Law 14 when it comes to Quebecois students.
“We have nothing against the fact that the Quebec government wants to strengthen and improve French for citizens of Quebec,” he said.
Rather, the legal challenge seeks a carveout that Onkwehón:we have long demanded.
“We just don’t want the imposition of a colonial legislation that has a clear assimilation strategy behind it,” he said.
What’s more, Gros-Louis believes proposed Indigenous languages legislation that the Quebec government has portrayed as a reasonable alternative to a carveout is just another affront to First Nations rights.
“I would like to see how this Quebec government would react if Ottawa would say we are going to have a law that would change Bill 101 in Quebec?” he said.
“You don’t need to legislate, just provide the resources, and we will take care of our languages,” said John Martin, chief of Gesgapegiag and a member of the FNEC Chiefs Committee.
According to Martin, the AFNQL and FNEC had no choice but to pursue legal action because the Quebec government shows no sign of yielding.
“During my tour of the 55 northern communities and villages, it was made clear to me by First Nations and Inuit that they want to protect their languages,” said Quebec’s Indigenous affairs minister Ian Lafrenière in a statement to The Eastern Door. “That is why, before introducing a bill, we would like to hear more about how we can support their efforts.”
Martin said he recently confronted Lafrenière about the need for an accommodation within the French language charter.
“He just told me straight out, he said, ‘Well, I disagree, chief.’ He said ‘this legislation that we want to propose on languages is what you need. This is what’s going to protect you.’ Well, we have issues there,” said Martin.
“Overall, what we’re seeing here is it really is unfortunate that we have to go through a system such as this, to have to go through the courts,” said Robin Delaronde, director of the Kahnawake Education Center (KEC).
“We fought long and hard, and really, for the province of Quebec, they haven’t heard our voice, they haven’t acknowledged it, so it really is disappointing,” she said.
According to Delaronde, the full scope of ramifications for Kahnawake youth is still unclear, but the complication of eligibility certificates and increased competition at CEGEPs is already impacting Kahnawa’kehró:non.
Time will tell whether students who do go to CEGEP experience greater difficulties as a result of the barriers imposed by the new language law.
“We will really have to follow their development for the first year or so to see how it progresses,” she said.
She pointed out that the federal government has acknowledged First Nations’ jurisdiction over education by providing education funding for First Nations to use as they see fit. Delaronde believes Quebec has an obligation to follow suit.
“It’s really disheartening and really disappointing, but it’s to be expected,” she said. “This is how we’ve seen the provincial government continue to act when working with First Nations.”
Kahnawake Survival School (KSS) grade 11 student Madison Montour said she did not need an eligibility form when she applied to Dawson College for cinema and communications, a program to which she has been accepted. However, Law 14 looms large in her mind, especially as it has been hard to get answers about its effects.
“When we were touring the colleges in fall time, they said they knew as much as we did,” said Montour.
“I’m happy that it’s being challenged, and I’m hopeful it’ll go through, as French is not one of my strengths, and Bill 96 would impact me completely,” she said.
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
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.