A no man’s land stood between two rooms of the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Montreal last Friday: on one side, Quebec held a public dialogue session surrounding the province’s French language laws in the context of Indigenous rights, and on the other, the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) held an open session in direct opposition.
“Today, the message that we have is that we’re not in support of this moving forward,” said Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer in the Quebec room.
Sky-Deer only briefly entered that room to deliver Kahnawake’s message that they would be actively opposing Quebec’s intent to propose a bill that protects Indigenous languages, because of the fact that the government has failed to collect feedback from Indigenous communities in what MCK called an “ingenuine consultation process.” She highlighted Kahnawake’s refusal to participate in consultations for legislation that she said Quebec ultimately has no right in imposing.
Sky-Deer argued that it’s not the government’s role to pass legislation in regards to Indigenous languages and that the only viable resolution to conflicts surrounding Quebec’s language laws is a total exemption from all French-language requirements for First Nations and Inuit.
“You all know it,” Sky-Deer said, as she sat on the panel alongside Ian Lafrenière, the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) minister responsible for relations with the First Nations and the Inuit. “This started in 1977 with the French Charter, and saying that French was the primary and predominant language in the province that needed to be protected. But you forgot about the 11 Nations and the Inuit who were here first, and our languages and cultures matter. That’s all I have.”
Upon concluding her remarks, Sky-Deer immediately left the room and returned to session with the AFNQL.
“I didn’t want it to be misconstrued that we’re participating in that forum,” Sky-Deer later told The Eastern Door.
Lafrenière did not directly respond to Sky-Deer’s statement at the time.
“We want to listen to you,” Lafrenière had said before Sky-Deer’s statements. “We want to see what we can do as a government to work together. This is not my job to protect your language and your culture, this is your job and your mandate, but as partners and as a government we want to work together on this.”
Lafrenière also took the opportunity to address comments made by fellow CAQ politician Pierre Dufour, who last month in Val d’Or claimed a 2015 Radio-Canada investigation into assault by police on Indigenous women was “full of lies.” He claimed he contacted Indigenous partners in Val d’Or directly after the comments were made.
“I’m completely against what he said. This is not my vision,” said Lafrenière, as he asked Indigenous communities to still view the government and his party as “partners,” despite his colleague’s comments.
Sky-Deer remained unimpressed with Lafrenière’s comments, telling The Eastern Door that the government’s insistence that they want to “listen” is inconsistent with their actions.
“The chiefs of the AFNQL have been, I think, pretty consistent in our message that we don’t see the need for the province to move in this direction,” Sky-Deer said. “If they really want to show us that they mean business and they want to help, don’t make French a requirement when we’re already speaking English and not our own languages.”
Quebec’s language laws limit the number of students English-speaking CEGEPs can accept and impose mandatory French-learning requirements. For students in Kahnawake, many of whom are trying to simultaneously learn Kanien’kéha, this imposition can limit educational opportunities, and, as Sky-Deer noted, could result in “learning a foreign language at the expense of your Indigenous language.”
AFNQL chief Ghislain Picard reiterated the organization’s lack of belief in the CAQ’s legislative proposal and said the AFNQL won’t stand down on the matter.
“I think Quebec has to understand that with opposition comes even more determination on our part. To me, that’s what I see happening not only in our level of leadership, but with men, women, young, old, everyone is in this frame of mind,” Picard said.
He also noted that though the session was called primarily to oppose the activities happening across the hallway, the AFNQL also wanted to meet to continue to discuss their own opinions on language legislation, without the input of CAQ members.
“We know when we are right. And on this issue, we are right,” he said. He noted the room was a safe space for chiefs and participants to discuss without CAQ members. “We’re on the right course of what needs to happen. And it’s a responsibility that we have to set the right conditions for this type of conversation to happen.”
Sky-Deer also reiterated that Kahnawake will not back down in resisting Quebec’s legislation. She mentioned that Quebec’s recent promise of $11 million to the new multi-purpose building project does not mean she trusts the province.
“That’s politics,” she said. “We can agree on one thing, but that absolutely doesn’t mean I have to agree with you on another.”
Sky-Deer said that ultimately, the government must listen to the opinions of First Nations and Inuit, rather than talking over them with their own legislation.
“The voices of the chiefs are what represent the real rights holders of our nations and of our communities,” she said. “That’s the voice and the direction that should be leading where this goes.”