MONTREAL (Reuters) – A sweeping law passed by Quebec on Tuesday to promote French use is already raising tensions with indigenous groups, who see the move as an imposition and have vowed to fight it.
Bill 96, passed by a majority of Quebec lawmakers, sets stricter rules for enforcing the use of French in the province, adding compulsory French lessons and restricting the use of other languages by government agencies.
Quebec Prime Minister François Lego, who faces elections in October, praised Bill 96 as the most important reform to protect the French language in predominantly English-speaking North America for nearly half a century. However, some indigenous leaders and supporters in the province argue that the law imposes additional burdens on marginalized communities that focus on protecting their own culture.
Canada has struggled in recent years with its attitude towards indigenous peoples. Discoveries last year of what are believed to be the remains of thousands of children in or near former government-backed residential schools have shed light on the abuses suffered by indigenous communities for generations and their struggle for justice.
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The new law would require additional French courses in English colleges and immigrants to contact certain government agencies in French starting six months after their arrival, among other changes. Faces opposition from English speakers and natives seeking exemption.
“We will take what is needed to make sure our voices are heard,” said Mike Delisle, who heads the Mohawk Council in Kahnawake, a First Nations shelter in southern Quebec. He added that no specific decision has been made yet.
Language remains a sensitive issue in the predominantly French-speaking Quebec, where misery over English sovereignty fueled the rise of the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) in the 1970s.
While Quebec may use court language to circumvent legal battles over the 96 bill, some lawyers have already raised the range of judicial challenges.
Asked about concerns about the law, Canadian Justice Minister David Lametti told reporters Wednesday that he would keep “all choices on the table”, with any reaction depending on how the bill is implemented.
“We are not opposed to French. But if you want to learn about the endangered language, come and talk to us and we can share with you how this happened,” Delisle said.
Indigenous students learning Kanien’kéha, English and French, are already taking French after-school classes to prepare for Quebec’s two-year colleges, said Robin Delaronde, director of the Kahnawake Training Center.
“It’s a colonization,” said Kenneth Deer, a Native American rights activist who went to a federal day school as a child where he had to learn English.
University of Montreal political science professor Martin Papillon said Lego could have prevented some tensions by meeting with rivals earlier and excluding the First Nations.
However, he pointed out that the English services in Quebec are superior to the comparable services in French in the rest of the country.
(Report by Allison Lampert in Montreal. Additional Report by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; Edited by Aurora Ellis)
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