20th February 2024

“By virtue of their inherent right to self-government, First Nations elect their own government and have the legitimacy to adopt their own laws.”

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QUEBEC — Indigenous Peoples are calling on the Coalition Avenir Québec government to scrap plans to table legislation to protect First Nation languages and culture.

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The First Nations Education Council, representing eight First Nations of Quebec, has issued a statement saying it is “inconceivable that the government legislate unilaterally on languages without their consent.”

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“Let us recall that by virtue of their inherent right to self-government, First Nations elect their own government and have the legitimacy to adopt their own laws,” the council said. “Anything related to their languages and cultures remains under the purview of First Nations themselves.”

The issue of Indigenous languages came up during the 2022 adoption process for Bill 96, overhauling the Charter of the French Language.

First Nations sought to be exempted from the law, a request that was refused. But the government expressed interest in adopting another law, similar in nature to Bill 101, to protect and promote Indigenous languages that are threatened.

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The promise was included in the CAQ’s 2022 election platform, which stated the party wanted to draft the legislation “in partnership” with First Nations, including an Indigenous culture element.

Since then, Indigenous leaders have raised questions and concerns. Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, recently wrote to Premier François Legault urging him to back away from the election promise.

In their statement, members of the First Nations Education Council have made the same request. They note that Ian Lafrenière, the minister responsible for relations with the First Nations and the Inuit, has said the government must support First Nations and Inuit initiatives and “respect their precedence in this matter.”

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That means the government must take its drafting instructions from First Nations, the council said.

The council also called on Quebec to recognize the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “to eradicate the institutional and systemic barriers that it has put in place over the years.”

“It is up to First Nations to teach and legislate on our own languages,” said Sipi Flamand, Chief of the Atikamekw Council of Manawan.

“If Minister Lafrenière had earlier had a legislative vision to support First Nation languages, he would have sought out the chiefs to jointly develop concrete measures to eliminate the barriers in provincial law,” added Lance Haymond, Chief of the Kebaowek First Nation.

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Lafrenière was quick to react, insisting he is listening when it comes to this issue.

“We had a first meeting stage with the leaders of the First Nations and Inuit March 28,” Lafrenière said in a statement to the Montreal Gazette. “We are always listening and we always have the will to work with the First Nations and Inuit. To that end, we got the support of many but we also understand the reluctancy of some, given the past relations with First Nations.

“But we continue to work towards common objectives.”

The statement added that the minister has often heard requests for such a law as he tours Quebec.

“The approach of meeting partners even before tabling a bill is innovative,” he noted, adding that is why he “is still very much listening.”

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Initially Lafrenière had plans to table such legislation in the fall of 2023.

But Janine Metallic, an assistant professor of Indigenous education in the department of integrated studies in education at McGill University, said it’s too early to say whether such legislation would help, because nobody knows what scope it would have.

“Would it apply only to the communities on reserve or in northern communities or in other spaces?” Metallic asked. “There’s a large number of Indigenous Peoples in the city. If any kind of legislation can be applied, it would have to be portable.

“We’re Indigenous regardless and we carry our language and culture with us.”

But one thing is clear, said Metallic, who is from Listuguj in the Gaspé and has retained her fluency in Mi’kmaq.

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“It can’t be done without the input of Indigenous people,” she said. “What Indigenous communities are looking for is recognition that we have a right to speak our languages.”

Metallic added that the language issue is not separate from the issues of systemic racism and territory.

There are nine Indigenous languages in use in Quebec: Montagnais, Naskapi, Inuktitut, Cree, Algonquin, Atikamekw, Mohawk, Abenaki and Mi’kmaq.

The 2016 census revealed that many of these languages were spoken by fewer than 10,000 people across Canada, and some by only hundreds. Some languages, however, have shown signs of rebounding as youth gain interest in their roots.

Statistics Canada says that in Nunavik, for example, 99.2 per cent of people say they can carry on a conversation in Inuktitut.

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