Woman testifies at public inquiry, says Indigenous youth struggling with loss of culture

'We tell young people it's your fault if the language is dying,' said a Cree youth leader.

Cree youth leader says young people feel intense pressure over the loss of their languages and culture

Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash testified in front of the Viens Commission on Monday. She said youth are feeling intense pressure over the loss of Aboriginal culture and language. (Commission d’enquête CERP)

A public inquiry into the mistreatment of Indigenous people in Quebec started on Monday, and one woman's emotional testimony spoke to how Indigenous youth are struggling with the loss of culture.

Cree youth leader and activist Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash said Indigenous youth are struggling with the intense pressure they feel over losing their languages and culture, while carrying the past residential school traumas of their parents and grandparents.

The 23-year-old delivered her testimony Monday in front of the Viens Commission. The commission was set up in 2016 to look into how Indigenous people are treated by six public services in Quebec, including police, correctional, legal, health and social services, as well as youth protection.

The Viens Commission is named after retired Quebec Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens, who is overseeing the inquiry.

It was set up after Radio-Canada reported allegations that police in Val-d'Or had mistreated Indigenous women.

"We tell young people it's your fault if the language is dying," said Labrecque-Saganash. "It's often put on our shoulders. [People say] 'the culture is dying, it's your responsibility, put down the iPad.'"

Labrecque-Saganash said Indigenous youth often feel caught between the European systems they now live in and their Indigenous culture and language. She said they feel pressure to succeed at school and at work, while connecting deeply with their language and culture-- something, she said, they aren't really given the time to do.

The Viens Commission was set up in 2016 to see how Indigenous people are treated by public services in Quebec. (Corinne Smith/CBC)

"For youth, culture feels like a burden," said Labrecque-Saganash. "It should not. When something feels like a burden you are not really interested."

Labrecque-Saganash told the story of her studies in law down south. She said she asked for permission to go home for Goose Break, an annual holiday for Quebec Cree where families head out on the land each spring to spend time with family and hunt the returning geese.

Her request was denied.

"It's not just a cultural accommodation. It's a right," said Labrecque-Saganash. "I have the right to maintain my way of life. I have the right to go back and learn from my Elders as much as I can."

Labrecque-Saganash also said Quebec Cree are lucky because they have control over their school curriculum through the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. The Cree School Board has built into the school year an annual Goose Break holiday where students can prioritize cultural transference of knowledge.

"But it's not enough," she said.

Police services

The commission is also looking into police services, something Labrecque-Saganash said she has had upsetting personal interactions with in the past.

She often works as an advocate for Indigenous women who have been victimized.

And Labrecque-Saganash has personally dealt with abuse many times. Once she ended up in the hospital.

"The police asked me if I liked it when I was obviously in shock," said Labrecque-Saganash, adding they also asked if she was drunk. "I was shaking and I could barely speak and I was asked if I liked it."

Labrecque-Saganash said she was terrified to testify at the hearings, but came to encourage other youth to speak their truth.

"Because we need to hear from the youth. We are the ones who will live with consequences of land destruction and the loss of our languages," said Labrecque-Saganash. "Are we doing enough? What are we doing wrong?"