Assimilation in 21st-century Quebec

How Bill 96 ignores Indigenous rights to self-determination

Madison Edward-Wright, Managing Editor

On the first Monday of October, all those eligible to vote in the province of Quebec will head to the polls to elect members of the National Assembly of Quebec. The party that wins the most seats in the National Assembly will form the government, and their leader will become our new Premier. In 2018, that party was the centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), and the controversial François Legault became our Premier.

If someone were to ask Legault what he thought was the crown jewel of his last four years in office, I bet he would say Bill 96. Legault has made it clear that he is proud of the so-called protection that Bill 96 will provide for the French language in Quebec. While the legislation will forcibly increase the use of French across the province, the Bill primarily sends a message to all non-francophones that they are not welcome. Legault’s government is using the Bill to legally implement its racist ideology—cultivating the systemic racism that the Premier claims does not exist in Quebec.

Bill 96 will not affect everyone equally. Francophones are virtually unaffected—except for limited access to English CEGEPs—and some anglophone residents, specifically those whose parents attended English high schools in Quebec, are expected to be able to receive services in English by claiming the status of a “historic anglophone.

The future of living in Quebec for Indigenous peoples, however, remains disturbingly unclear. Currently, there are no exceptions or provisions written into Bill 96 for Indigenous peoples, for many of whom French is their third language.

As it stands, the Bill will erect a slew of barriers to quality education, fair legal dealings, and proper patient-centred healthcare for Indigenous peoples. For example, Indigenous students will have to compete for a spot in an English CEGEP, as the total number of students enrolled will be capped at 17.5 per cent of the province’s total student population. Once accepted, they will have to complete three 45-hour core curriculum courses delivered in French.

When it comes to the justice system, the Bill requires all provincial court documents to be in French and no longer requires judges to be bilingual. This violates the legal principle that an accused person has the right to be understood by a judge and to understand legal proceedings. Crucially, Indigenous communities’ access to healthcare will further deteriorate in an already racist system. Joyce Echaquan’s death in September 2020 and a recent report revealing racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression rampant at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) serve as reminders of the fatal consequences of the government’s refusal to recognize our discriminatory health care system. In November 2020, the Conseil des Atikamekw de Manawan and the Conseil de la Nation Atikamekw proposed Joyce’s Principle in response to Echaquan’s death. The Principle, based in part on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), calls on the Quebec government and health care system to recognize traditional Indigenous medical practices and beliefs in an institutional setting so that culturally safe medical care can be provided. On Nov. 25, 2020, the CAQ government rejected the motion to adopt Joyce’s Principle.

Under Bill 96, the inequities of access will worsen. Doctors and other health care providers will be required to provide medical care to Indigenous peoples in French—compelling patients to learn and translate medical terms in, what is often, their third or fourth spoken language. This means they will receive substandard care and will be more at risk of exposure to undesirable medical burdens, such as unintentional injuries, unnecessary complications, and inappropriate prescriptions. This is something Richard Budgell, an assistant professor and current history PhD student at McGill who focuses on Inuit health care, is acutely aware of.

“Not surprisingly, people see good care as happening in their first or at least their second language,” Budgell said in an interview with The McGill Tribune . “The second language for most Inuit people in Quebec is English, not French. So people are going into a health care system [...] seeking care in a minority language [....] We do not often remind ourselves that we are speaking a language of colonialism. We are not speaking Inuktitut.”

While not a physician himself, Budgell comes from a line of health care workers—both his father and grandfather worked in health care in their Inuit community in Labrador. Budgell was hired by McGill in 2020 and began teaching a one-credit graduate course called “Inuit health in the Canadian context” in Winter 2022. Before working at the university, Budgell worked as the executive director of the First Nations and Inuit health branch of the federal government, which provides funding for some medical services and programs to First Nation and Inuit communities across Canada. Budgell stresses that the provincial government’s infringements on Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination have resulted in the racist system we know today.

“As a fundamental starting point, the system was not designed by us,” Budgell said. “In the case of Inuit who live in Nunavik, the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services is largely managed by Inuit, but it is nevertheless part of the provincial system. So obviously, it has to obey provincial laws, and Bill 96 is now law.”

Though different Indigenous communities operate their own hospitals, such as the Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre that serves the Kanienʼkehá:ka community of Kahnawake, rural and Northern communities struggle with critical shortages of medical personnel. The lack of professionals forces people to migrate to urban centres, where more robust services are offered in exchange for mistreatment and marginalization.

“The MUHC is a big [...] centre for the treatment of Inuit coming from Nunavik,” Budgell explained. “All of the hospitals of the MUHC are referral centres for people coming from Nunavik [....] There are, unfortunately, very very few health care practitioners, nurses, and doctors who speak Inuktitut [....] I have to say that when I started hearing about [the racism at the MUHC], it was like, unfortunately, this is not surprising.”

Budgell believes that recognizing the differences between First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people is crucial to being able to provide culturally safe health care. With Bill 96, however, the province is isolating Indigenous peoples in the health care system and further ingraining the systemic racism that already exists.

“I think it's vitally important that when we're talking about cultural safety, in relation to Indigenous people, that we be more specific,” Budgell said. He believes that using an umbrella term like Indigenous “sometimes allows us to be a little bit lazy. Because then, you know, people can say, ‘Oh, we've covered the Indigenous training.’ Well, for any person from any Indigenous background, they immediately think, okay, ‘What does that mean? Who are you talking about?’”

The relative lack of Indigenous health professionals and, therefore, culturally safe health care can be traced to barriers in the medical education field created by Quebec’s language laws. As a member of the Kanienʼkehá:ka Nation and a second-year medical student at Université de Montréal, Frédérique Gauthier-Bisaillon has witnessed the inequities that language laws enforce firsthand.

Since starting medical school, Gauthier-Bisaillon has travelled throughout Quebec, visiting different First Nations communities and working in their medical centres. While discussing Bill 96, which she called “outright racist,” Gauthier-Bisaillon told me a story about an Indigenous woman she met who was barred from her career in nursing after years of schooling.

“She did all her exams, everything to be a nurse [and passed],” Gauthier-Bisaillon explained. “She wanted to go back to her community to work, and because she didn’t pass her French test, she could not practice in her community. French was her third language. I think that you can see in this case that there is such a big injustice that Bill 96 will just reinforce.”

Gauthier-Bisaillon was one of many who attended a candidate debate on Sept. 20 hosted by the Assembly of First Nations Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL). The discussion aimed to raise awareness of Indigenous issues ahead of the provincial election on Oct. 3. Candidates from several major parties in Quebec, including CAQ candidate and current Minister Responsible for Indigenous Affairs Ian Lafrenière, Québec solidaire candidate Manon Massé, Parti Québécois candidate Alexis Gagné-Lebrun, and Quebec Liberal Party candidate Gregory Kelley attended—the Conservative Party of Quebec did not send a candidate to participate. The debate focused mostly on governance and self-determination, territories, resources, and economy, health and education, and the protection of language and culture. Some of the more oddly contentious topics addressed were the existence of systemic racism in Quebec, Bill 96, and the general need for consultation with First Nations and Inuit communities on any laws that impact them.

Many of the answers given throughout the night were exactly what one would expect from politicians: Lots of talk about creating change but no concrete plans on how to actually do it.

Marie-Ève Bordeleau—the first Cree woman to ever become a lawyer in Quebec—in her role as moderator of the event, asked candidates whether their parties would acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in Quebec. Gagné-Lebrun, Massé, and Kelley all readily did, but Lafrenière ignored that part of the question. Instead, he chose to focus on the CAQ government’s creation of a three-hour training program titled “Formation sur la sensibilisation aux réalités autochtones” or “Indigenous Awareness Training”. The program is supposed to teach health care workers about the importance of understanding Indigenous culture when treating an Indigenous patient—fittingly, it does not have an official English translation name and cannot be accessed by the general public.

Lafrenière’s responses did not gain popularity throughout the remainder of the debate. When Bordeleau asked whether the CAQ would be willing to grant Indigenous people exceptions from Bill 96, Lafrenière answered that the CAQ would not change Bill 96 but is open to creating new laws that would protect Indigenous languages and cultures. Many First Nations chiefs have proposed amendments to the Bill but have been ignored by the government.

“My colleague [Manon] Massé mentioned the importance of diplomacy earlier and she is completely right,” Lafrenière said.* “We know that there are problems with certain sections of Bill 96 […] so we said ‘let’s take the time to sit down with the Premier and with First Nations chiefs to find a solution that will respond to the concerns raised by the First Nations’ [….] Diplomacy is important and we do not want to strain those relationships so we will keep working towards a solution.”

Indigenous communities are not hopeful. In an interview with the Tribune after the debate, Chief of the AFNQL Ghislain Picard said he did not believe in Lafrenière’s stated intentions to find alternative ways of protecting Indigenous culture. He feels that the supposed plan to revise Bill 96 in accordance with Indigenous voices will resemble the trajectory of another problematic piece of legislation—Bill 15.

Bill 15 was unanimously adopted by the National Assembly of Quebec on April 12 in response to the killing of a seven-year-old girl by her father back in 2019. While the goal of the Bill was to facilitate the process of removing children from abusive homes and placing them in foster care, it imposed colonial ways of parenting on Indigenous families and disregarded the rights of Indigenous governments to oversee their communities.

“We went through the same exercise, we agreed to sit down, we agreed to do the work, to provide propositions and amendments to Bill 15,” Picard said. “And at the end of the day [the government] decided to proceed without any consideration for amendments to the act.”

Picard would much rather see Indigenous communities make legislative decisions for themselves rather than be forced to obey and adapt the ways they live to laws they had no meaningful part in creating.

“I know Mr. Lafrenière also suggested that if [our] concern is Indigenous languages and culture, [the government] will present a Bill for that. We don’t want that. We can do it ourselves. We can adopt our own laws. What we need for you to do is to respect the right that we have and that is where we don’t hear anything from government,” Picard said. “On Bill 15, the argument we had with [the Social Services Minister] was that he said ‘we are waiting for you to have more autonomy.’”

“We don’t want more autonomy; we want full autonomy. There is a world of difference between the two and that is really where [the Quebec government] is not wanting to go.”

Gauthier-Bisaillon echoed Picard’s sentiments, adding that it is exhausting and discouraging to always find herself in a position where she wonders what rights of hers she may not have for much longer.

“What we have heard tonight was a lot of ‘oh yeah, we are going to change [Bill 96],’ but why didn’t [the government] think of that first?” Gauthier-Bisaillon said. “The same thing happens over and over again. We are thought of last, after the fact.”

On Oct. 3, as all of us who can legally vote head to the polls, we need to remember that it is our responsibility to uphold principles of justice, equality, and freedom to self-determination—for all communities, not just our own. As Picard argued, the conversation about Indigenous rights should not be treated as tangential to the rest of Quebec politics. We must remember that the land we live on is unceded and that First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people are the ancestral owners of this land we call Quebec and Canada. We are only visitors on this land, yet we impose our beliefs and values, and we strip the traditional custodians of their rights to self-determination.

We allow our medical systems to abuse Indigenous people seeking help and design our judicial system in a way that actively works against them. Then, when we are shown exactly what our policies do, we take to social media and proclaim solidarity with Indigenous people. What we should do is make space for Indigenous voices in our governments and on our medical boards. Let them be the ones to determine how they will be governed and how their societies will be organized. We must overhaul our colonial mindset and totally abandon this 21st-century assimilation project.

*Debate conducted in French and translated by the author.

Illustrations by Mika Drygas, Design Editor