In Canadian Quebec, indigenous people continue to fight French law

\ Photo of Quebec Premier Francois Legault during a press conference after a meeting with the premiers of Canada’s provinces in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, December 2, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio // File Photo

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MONTREAL (Reuters) – A sweeping law passed by Quebec on Tuesday to promote the use of the French language has escalated already heightened tensions with indigenous groups who view the move as an imposition and vow to combat it.

Bill 96, which has been passed by a majority of Quebec lawmakers, sets stricter rules for enforcing the use of French in the province, adding mandatory French language courses and limiting government agencies’ use of other languages.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault, facing an October election, has hailed Bill 96 as the most important reform to protect the French language in mostly English-speaking North America, for nearly half a century. But some indigenous leaders and advocates in the province argue that the law places additional burdens on marginalized communities focused on protecting their culture.

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Canada has struggled in recent years to deal with the indigenous population. Last year’s discoveries of what are believed to be the remains of thousands of children on or near the sites of former government-backed residential schools have shed light on the abuses indigenous communities have suffered for generations and their struggle for justice.

The new law will require additional French lessons in English language colleges and immigrants to communicate with certain government agencies in the French language starting six months after their arrival, among other changes. It faces opposition from English speakers, and natives seeking an exemption.

“We will take all necessary means to make sure our voice is heard,” said Mike DeLiel, president of the Mohawk Council in Kahnawake, a First Nations reserve in southern Quebec. He added that no specific decision has been taken yet.

Language remains a sensitive issue in predominantly French-speaking Quebec, where discontent with the dominance of the English language helped fuel the rise of the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) party in the 1970s.

While Quebec could use judicial language to bypass legal battles over Bill 96, some lawyers have already raised the specter of court appeals.

Asked about concerns about the law, Canadian Justice Minister David Lamty told reporters on Wednesday he would keep “all options on the table” with any emergency reaction to how the law would be implemented.

“We are not opposed to the French language,” DeLiel said. “But if you want to know more about the language being compromised, speak to us and we can share with you how it happened.”

Indigenous students who are learning their Kanien’kéha language, both English and French, are already taking French lessons after school to prepare for two-year Quebec college prep, said Robin Delaronde, director of the Kahnawake Education Center.

“It’s a recolonisation,” said Kenneth Deer, an Aboriginal rights advocate who attended Federal Day School as a child, where he was forced to learn English.

Martin Papillon, a professor of political science at the University of Montreal, said Legault could have avoided some of the tensions by meeting earlier with opponents and exempting First Nations.

However, he noted that English services in Quebec are outperforming similar services in French in the rest of the country.

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Reporting by Alison Lambert in Montreal. Additional reporting by Ismail Shakeel in Ottawa. Edited by Aurora Ellis

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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