Cree women say 'loss of trust' in Quebec public services tied to language barriers

For Cree women in Quebec, not being able to express themselves in English, much less in Cree, has made it difficult to get the public services they need.

Interpreters, more English-speaking public employees needed to help access services, women tell inquiry

Linda L. Shecapio, president of the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee, told the Quebec Indigenous Inquiry more public service employees need to speak English. (Emelie Rivard-Boudreau/Radio-Canada)

For Cree women in Quebec, not being able to express themselves in English, much less in Cree, has made it difficult to get the public services they need.

Linda L. Shecapio, president of Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee, an association in northern Quebec, said because some Cree live in remote villages, they have to travel to places such as Chibougamau, Val d'Or and Montreal for health services.

That's where they can end up in what she calls "traumatic or unpleasant" situations.

"One of the most notable concerns that has come to our attention is the general loss of trust women have expressed toward public services," Shecapio told the Inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people on Friday.

The provincial probe into how Indigenous people are treated in Quebec is taking place in Val-d'Or.

Shecapio said she didn't want to "name and shame" any agencies.

However she said some women who have travelled south to have their children delivered felt healthcare staff pressured them to induce childbirth in order to speed up the process.

Manon Richmond of Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee says the language barrier can cause chaos. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

Language is a major barrier

Shecapio told the inquiry that encountering unilingual francophone employees when requesting public services and not finding forms or information translated into English, the second-language of the majority of Cree, was an "additional barrier."

"It reveals the lack of value given to our cultural heritage," said Shecapio, who added that Cree are mentioned just once in Quebec's Civil Code.

Manon Richmond, regional co-ordinator at Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee, told CBC News the language barrier can create chaos when youth protection services are involved.

"Here are people taking care of the most sacred thing in the world, the future generation, and they're trying to communicate. We cannot really say what needs to be said," said Richmond.

Richmond said that language barrier often contributes to miscommunication.

"Their body language, their facial expression, everything changes," she said.

Irene Bearskin House said she didn't know she could address the inquiry in Cree. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

Elder Irene Bearskin House said she wanted to speak to the inquiry in Cree, but didn't know that she could.

"I didn't because of having respect for people that don't understand," Bearskin House told CBC. 

"That's why that first Wachiya [Cree greeting], I was getting a little emotional, because I wanted to tell you my truth, speaking my language."

Inquiry staff say they told the association it was possible to testify in Cree, but all three women who spoke at the Oct. 20 hearing were surprised it was a possibility.

Women want to help draft inquiry report

For the first time, the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee, has proposed being involved in drafting the final report from the inquiry.

Shecapio told Jacques Viens, the retired Superior Court justice who is presiding over the probe, that Cree women want to take part in the process from "A to Z."

A spokesperson for the inquiry, Benoit Bigué-Turcotte, wrote in an email that the inquiry is open to all suggestions.

Shecapio made several recommendations:

  • Education and training of non-Indigenous public services employees about history and culture of First Nations and Inuit.
  • Easy-to-understand and accessible information about the rights of Indigenous people in public service institutions.
  • Eliminating language barriers by hiring interpreters and staff fluent in English and Cree.
  • Focus groups and committees from Indigenous communities to analyze and help draft inquiry report before it's submitted to the ministries involved.
  • Including First Nations and Inuit in the Quebec Civil Code.