Quebec is on the land of Indigenous Nations whether you like it or not

Hill Times May 31, 2021

Quebec Premier Legault wants to increase the use of French in Quebec through Bill 96, come hell or high water. As federal parties fell over themselves to show support and garner future votes, a House of Commons motion to tacitly approve of Bill 96 was stalled by MP Jody Wilson-Raybould. The eagle feather has been held up yet again.

Bill 96 is an affront to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Assembly of First Nations of Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) represents 10 First Nations. The languages of Innu, Kanien’kehá:ka, Eeyou, Anishnaabe, Mi’kmaq and Naskapi are 4,000 to 8,000 years old and continue to be spoken in Quebec.

Nunavik, through Makivik Corporation, represents 14 Inuit communities including all residents, Inuit speaking or not. Inuit have cared for the northern one-third of the land now known as Quebec for 4,000 years. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement is a historic self-government agreement signed in 1975 to ensure the rights of Cree and Inuit were not washed away in the province’s massive hydroelectric build. Nunavik has 95 per cent Inuktitut language retention, protected by provincial and national law, and is likely a lesson for Quebec on how to positively support language retention. But it’s not clear if Bill 96 would threaten its success.

Makivik’s urgent issues are about lack of housing, clean drinking water, and broadband internet, and it is closely following the investigation into the death of Joyce Echaquan. The AFNQL’s urgent issues are the coerced sterilization of First Nations women, racism in policing and the justice system, and it is also following closely the response to the death of Joyce. And of course, vaccine distribution effectiveness.

Here are some Bill 96 ironies worth consideration:

Indigenous leaders in Quebec were not consulted, which is a breach of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—at heart, the Declaration is about the preservation of Indigenous language and culture.

Almost all of the land now called Quebec is traditional territory of one or more Inuit groups or First Nations, and almost all of it is covered by treaty. Indigenous leaders debate if there’s a small slice along the St. Lawrence that might be unencumbered.

Ten First Nations communities are English speaking, and the province’s inconsistent application of health and social services in English creates a significant barrier.

French is a requirement for healthcare professionals in Quebec, and therefore is another barrier to Indigenous nurses and doctors becoming licensed. One has to wonder if the lack of Indigenous healthcare professionals in Quebec is contributing to the glaring racism in healthcare against Indigenous peoples?

The Liberals’ constant refrain in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about “nation to nation” and “our most important relationship” with Indigenous peoples seems like a pile of rubbish in light of Trudeau’s blissful support for Bill 96.

Why did it take him so long to support legislating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and such a short time to embrace Bill 96? Why has his government sent more funding to one French school in Iqaluit than to a similarly-sized school that is supposed to teach Inuktut across the road? Why are Indigenous languages relegated to receiving bandaid solutions when they are protected by international law?

Indigenous peoples have a long history of work to retain language and culture, but it is not at the expense of others. Lise Ravary in Montreal wrote in The Montreal Gazette, “The language I speak, the culture I call my own, carry me through life. Why should we have to fight to keep that narrative alive?” The same words might be said by AFNQL Regional Chief Ghislain Picard, or by Pita Aatami, president of Makivik.

Indigenous peoples might have some advice for Quebec about doing language retention in a good way, had they not been treated with such disdain and racism.