Too late to learn another colonial language, say Indigenous students opposing Quebec's Bill 96

Angela Ottereyes, who is Cree from Waskaganish and studying law, society and justice at Dawson College, says she struggled in French at school, but is fluent in Cree and English. (Submitted by Dawson College - image credit)
Angela Ottereyes, who is Cree from Waskaganish and studying law, society and justice at Dawson College, says she struggled in French at school, but is fluent in Cree and English. (Submitted by Dawson College - image credit)

Earlier this spring, a group of about 15 Indigenous students attended a meeting at Dawson College in downtown Montreal.

The purpose was for the students to voice their concerns about the impending impacts of Quebec's new language charter coming into force at English CEGEPs like Dawson.

As of next fall, students at the province's English junior colleges would have to take three core courses in French or take a total of five second-language French courses, instead of the current two.

The students — from different Indigenous communities across the province, including Cree, Inuit and Kanien'kehá:ka — had started to hear of their peers choosing to study outside Quebec or drop plans for higher education altogether, discouraged by the extra French courses at a time when the revitalization of ancestral languages has become not only a priority but an urgent matter of cultural preservation after centuries of colonization.

"While it's really nice the French people are trying to keep their language alive, it really affects my people," said Zye Rashontiiostha Mayo, 19.

"A lot of us don't know our own language. Almost all of us know English. If we have to pick between another language we want to learn, we're never going to pick French."

Mayo, who is from Kahnawà:ke, a Kanien'kehá:ka community near Montreal, was at the meeting. He recently completed Dawson's Journeys program, a transition year for Indigenous students to ease into college and city life.

So there the students were, standing in front of a room of about 50 Dawson administrators, deans, academic advisors and other staff, most of them non-Indigenous, about to explain how they wanted the college's support in facing the Quebec government against this new law.

Submitted by Zye Rashontiiostha Mayo
Submitted by Zye Rashontiiostha Mayo

Mayo decided to go first. He'd noticed in the past year that he was often more comfortable speaking out, and that he wanted to be a voice for those who weren't.

"I was like, 'There's students that come to Montreal to learn and they bring their family, not just themselves. They come with kids and they have to teach their kids English and Cree or whatever language they have. And then they would have to teach their kids French, too,'" Mayo recounted in a phone interview this week.

"That is an insane ask because you're asking the parents to learn a new language, teach a new language, and also try and succeed in whatever career path they're going into."

Last week, Quebec's five English CEGEPs penned an open letter to Premier Francois Legault saying the changes to the French language charter, known as Bill 96, "are creating multiple systemic and discriminatory barriers" to the roughly 300 Indigenous students studying at their schools.

That letter is a result of student advocacy, according to a number of people who were at the meeting. The colleges created videos with the testimonies of Indigenous students sharing the hardships of leaving their communities to attend CEGEP, while attempting to preserve their own cultural knowledge and languages.

"The students feel strongly that their futures are being put at risk with the implementation of additional courses, as well as the French exit exam," said Tiawenti:non Canadian, co-ordinator of the First Peoples' Centre at Dawson, who helped setup the meeting.

'They have started losing their own language'

Angela Ottereyes also attended and spoke up. At 40, she is close to finishing the CEGEP's law, society and justice program, but had been hoping to switch into the newly revamped social change and solidarity program.

Though Ottereyes, who is Cree from Waskaganish, went to high school in French, she says she struggles with college-level comprehension of the language. She is fluent in Cree and English.

After high school, she attended Cégep de l'Abitibi-Témiscamingue in French, but says she "failed miserably" and went on to work and start a family. Now with six children, she has been juggling her studies with parenting and part-time work in the city.

Her two eldest daughters, twins, will be finishing high school next year. They understand Cree, but since moving South, Ottereyes says, they have been focusing more on English and French.

"They have started losing their own language because they feel like it's more important to learn English and French," she said.

In the video prepared by the college, Ottereyes listens as Mayo spoke next to her, tears running down her face.

WATCH | Extra French courses hurt ancestral languages' survival, Indigenous students say:

At the meeting, a Dawson official said the school couldn't yet make any promises and that it was asking the Indigenous students to stand behind it.

"That struck a nerve with me," Mayo said. "I got up and I was like, 'No, you don't need our support. This is about us asking you for help to be our voices because we are sick and tired of having to fight alone every time. When there's a law that affects us, we are sick of having to do it ourselves when there are people in power that can do it for us.'"

After that, he noticed a shift. "They agreed with us," Mayo said.

Opposition politicians have since thrown their support behind the students and CEGEPs. On Wednesday, the day the open letter was published, Québec Solidaire called on the Coalition Avenir Québec government to exempt Indigenous students from the extra courses and French exit exam.

"I can assure you that it is not Indigenous students in CEGEPs who are a threat to the protection of the French language," said Ruba Ghazal, the party's education critic.

Enrolment of Indigenous students in post-secondary programs has risen in the province in recent years, according to the colleges. But Canadian fears that progress could be fragile if young people face additional barriers.

She cites a practical purpose for keeping that enrolment high. Indigenous communities have recognized how strong they are when self-sufficient. Young people may leave for their education, but the hope is that they return.

Dave St-Amant/CBC
Dave St-Amant/CBC

The Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre in Kahnawà:ke opened a medical imaging department last summer, for example.

"We have no Indigenous students in the x-ray technician program and we have no Indigenous people working at that x-ray clinic," Canadian said. "We have a need in the community."

Mayo has dyslexia. He's taken Kanien'kéha courses at school since he was 10. He even wrote an article about one of his teachers for CBC Montreal. He's still working on becoming fluent while mastering English and French.

"We only have about 15 letters in our alphabet. It's all about sounds and connecting them to the letters, so for me that's really hard. And so for French, I don't even — I try my best," he said.

Mayo says he's been thinking about the role models in his extended family lately. The great-great-grandfather who was a legendary Kanien'kehá:ka rights activist. The great aunt who was the first Kanien'kehá:ka female lawyer. Another auntie who's been an activist for 40 years for causes ranging from Indigenous rights to LGBTQ rights.

So for now, languages aside, what's important to him is to be a voice.