Quebec's plan to bolster French language sets up Kahnawake students to fail, educators warn

Educators in the Kanien’kehá:ka territory of Kahnawake on Montreal's South Shore are sounding the alarm about Bill 96 and the devastating effects they say the proposed legislation would have on students from their community.

Premier balks at scrapping amendment that would force English CEGEP students to take more courses in French

Arlene Teiohserahte Horne says she's worried Bill 96 will have devastasting effects on the academic prospects of younger people in Kahnawake. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

Having spent years working as a guidance counsellor in her community's schools, Arlene Teiohserahte Horne speaks glowingly about the younger generation in Kahnawake and their potential.

"I have so much faith in our youth," Horne said.

She includes in that vote of confidence her grandson and granddaughter, who are both in high school, gearing up to leave the Kanien'kehá:ka territory on Montreal's South Shore to go to CEGEP.

"We're trying so hard in Kahnawake to push our children to get a better education. We want our own doctors; we want our own nurses; we want our own scientists. We have such creative people," she said.

Horne is worried those goals will be derailed by the Coalition Avenir Québec government's plan to bolster the province's French-language law, and she warns it could set up hundreds of young people in Kahnawake for failure.

For Horne and many others, a major point of contention is a recent amendment to the proposed Bill 96 which would force students attending English-language CEGEPs to take three courses — history or geography classes, for example — in French.

This change was originally proposed by the Liberal Official Opposition and unanimously adopted earlier this month by the legislative committee studying the bill.

Days later, after an outcry from CEGEP students themselves and from college administrators who were not consulted about the amendment, the Liberals walked back support for their own proposal, asking the CAQ government to do away with it.

WATCH | Mental health consultant in Kahnawake explains how Bill 96 would hurt Indigenous students:

Mental health consultant concerned for Indigenous students in face of Bill 96

3 months ago
Duration 0:47
Fran Kaherihshon Beauvais, a mental health worker in Kahnawake, is concerned for Indigenous students in face of Bill 96 which will legislate mandatory French courses in CEGEPs. "It's going to put them back," said Beauvais.

'Where is the respect?' Horne asks

So far, both Premier François Legault and Simon Jolin-Barrette, the minister responsible for the French language, appear unwilling to scrap the amendment.

In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Jolin-Barrette said Bill 96 was crafted in a manner to make sure "none of the bill's provisions infringe upon the inalienable rights of First Nations and Inuit to maintain and develop their traditional languages and cultures."

"We also made sure to facilitate access to learning the common language by giving college students the tools to thrive and participate fully in Quebec society," the statement read.

However, Horne, an elder, sees the bill as yet another unfair hurdle for children in her community, many of whom do not speak French.

"You may as well tie their hands behind their back," she said, before switching from English to French.

"Believe me, I'm not against the French language. I speak Mohawk. Je parle français un peu, et je comprends un peu. [I speak and understand French a little.] I worked in the city, so I have great respect [for the French language]. But where is the respect that should be coming back to us?"

Horne says she's written a letter to the Kahnawake Mohawk Council, and she is urging others in her community to speak up so the Quebec government takes notice.

Fran Kaherishon Beauvais, a mental health consultant with Kahnawake Community Services, is among those calling on the CAQ goverment to reconsider the amendment that would compel all English-language CEGEP students to do more courses in French.

"We have our students that are marginalized already,'' said Beauvais.

''We've already been through so much trauma, multigenerational trauma — especially when we're looking at our own languages and not knowing who we are and not being able to be fluent in our own languages — but yet we have to become fluent in a foreign language that is not ours."

Tiawenti:non Canadian, co-ordinator of Dawson College's First People's Centre, says Bill 96, with its proposed requirement for English CEGEP students to take more classes in French, would have a negative effect on the morale of non-francophone Indigenous students. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

Adding to 'emotional toll'

Having to take mandatory French courses already represents a major obstacle for some non-francophone Indigenous students, according to Tiawenti:non Canadian, co-ordinator of Dawson College's First Peoples' Centre.

She says there are about 100 Indigenous students at Quebec's biggest English-language CEGEP. 

With French as their second or even third language, many students often have to take one or several not-for-credit French courses in CEGEP just to get to the level where they can take classes for credit, she said.

Canadian said the recent amendment to Bill 96 would add to an already heavy burden and hurt students' morale.

"Many of them are already taking five French courses," she said. She said if Bill 96 is passed as is, some students would have to take as many as eight courses in French to get through CEGEP.

"It's really hard to fail a course when you've tried your all. So through no fault of their own, they're going to be put at a disadvantage for courses that wouldn't necessarily be in French otherwise."

Simon Jolin-Barrette, Quebec's minister responsible for the French language, has so far showed no signs of willingness to scrap an amendment first proposed by the Liberals that would force English CEGEP students to take more classes in French. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

Ultimately, Canadian said, the proposed law will hurt students and the communities many of them wish to serve.

"If Indigenous students are less likely to graduate from CEGEP, then they're going to have a harder time going into these health professions, and they're not able to return to their community to practice what they've learned," she said.

"So this bill is going to have lasting negative impacts on economic futures of Indigenous communities — not just our students now, but well into the future."

With files from Jennifer Yoon