Language Laws and the Threat to Onkwehon:we – Indigenous languages: Quebec Election issues

On September 4th Quebecers will be heading to the polls to elect a government and premier.  I have been listening occasionally to the news pock marked with the mud slinging that usually goes on in any and all elections.  However, this year, I am amazed by the purposeful lack of awareness and education of most of the political leaders on issues regarding Onkwehón:we/Indigenous peoples.  I am Amazed because there has been so much accomplished over the past few years regarding Indigenous peoples human rights and yet, there is never, if any mention of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the main political parties.  No political party has a significant platform on Onkwehón:we peoples that will help create a better relationship between Canadian/Quebecois society and Indigenous peoples.  No mention of reconciliation or how they see their involvement in this process…nothing.

The only party who tries to address Aboriginal issues is Quebec Solidaire and I applaud their efforts.  And no I do not consider the “Plan Nord” a platform, it is about economic security for the state, exploitation of Indigenous lands and resources and not a way to improve our relationship or to begin a process of reconciliation between our peoples.

Like most provinces and territories, Quebec has gone the way of the Ostrich when it comes to an honest and just process of reconciliation or acknowledging the legitimate rights of Onkwehon:we peoples in this region.  Especially when it comes to languages:  it’s like the War of 1812 all over again – use the Indigenous peoples to protect the colonizers, their languages, their values.   Since most premiers and heads of political parties are educated people, I always marvel at the fact that they know very little about the rights of Indigenous peoples, or at least they seem to be blissfully ignorant of them.  Part of Canadian law requires that all Crown actors – even the provinces and territories, must uphold the Honour of the Crown in their consultations with Indigenous peoples.  Included in the process is accommodation, but furthermore the UN Declaration requires the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of any Indigenous peoples, especially if it seriously impacts their rights.

It is an interesting fact that much of Quebec’s cultural identity originates from Indigenous peoples’ culture:  the various festivals like maple syrup, strawberry, corn – “Festival du blé d’Inde”, all taken from Iroquois culture.  I am proud of this fact as these are precious food sources that our ancestors cultivated and shared with the first Europeans who arrived on our lands a few hundred years ago.  Unfortunately, not everyone readily accepts this fact as it has been my experience that there remains an unhealthy resistance to this fact by some too blinded by racism and hatred to welcome Indigenous peoples contribution to this sociey.

Education is a powerful tool in eliminating racist ideologies but all the lobbying efforts by Onkwehón:we peoples with government and the Ministers of Education has been unsuccessful, although I know there are exceptions.  But generally, history curriculum keeps teaching the same old way it has since schools in Canada began:  the “Indians” were savages because they burned missionaries and the Iroquois were “war mongers”! to name a few racist depictions.

Educating young minds to the true history of Canada would resolve so many issues, especially long standing historical grievances that no political party or government has been willing to so far to deal with.   It seems that all Governments are satisfied to keep spinning their propaganda about Indigenous peoples so called “dysfunction” relegating us to mere “wards of the state” who need government’s help to function in today’s society.  It is reminiscent of the attitude of hundreds of years ago whereby the oppression of Indigenous peoples was nourished by Government propaganda to its citizens portraying “Indians” as children, uncivilized, incapable of making decisions for themselves – but yet, most necessary in the fight to maintain Crown Sovereignty.  It is this promotion of fear and hatred which has kept Canadian history stagnant and ignorant in order to justify the thefts of Indigenous children, lands and our resources.

Like many Indigenous activists and leaders and when the opportunity has arisen, I have tried to make attempts to persuade various government Ministers to change the curriculum in Canadian schools, in particular how history is taught, and the importance to sufficiently support Indigenous languages in our schools and communities.  I was met with a resistant and paternalistic response by government who state that they will “take care of it” through their academics.  Given the fact there are many Indigenous academics perfectly capable of working on historically accurate curriculum, I attribute government resistance to their mis-guided ideology by their insistence in maintaining the status quo which perpetuates the Doctrines of Superiority, like the Doctrine of Discovery and the Papal Bulls, to deny Indigenous peoples access to their lands and territories which is the heart of the conflict between our peoples.  These 500 + year old racist Doctrines declared by the Vatican, that representatives of European monarchs could claim new lands on behalf of their monarchs if they were not inhabited, that is, inhabited by Christians.  Since Indigenous peoples were not Christian and hence were not considered human beings, it justified the implementation of Terra Nullius – no human occupation, in the Americas.  Indigenous peoples were issued a decree in a language they did not understand and told to convert or die – the rest as they say, “is history”.

In forging a new relationship, Quebec political leaders like Pauline Marois and Jean Charest should take note of history and try not to repeat its mistakes.  The Indian Act implemented a policy of genocide through its forcible removal of Indigenous children from their homes and communities.  There at these Residential Schools and at community Day Schools, Onkwehón:we children were forced to learn English and French.  They were severely punished if caught speaking their languages of which punishment included whacking children’s knuckles with a yardstick or strap, piercing needles through children’s tongues, shaving children’s heads and other heinous acts which no child or adult should have to endure.

In this Quebec election, I ask for a positive change in attitude instead of the status quo which I keep hearing from the mouths of political party leaders who insist that everyone is the same in this province and that cultural differences are acceptable.  But everyone is not the same.  Onkwehón:we are their own nation’s citizens, we are not Quebecois as we have never surrendered our citizenship to our nations nor surrendered our lands, at least most Indigenous peoples haven’t.  But this is not meant as an insult to Quebec or Canada, but a reminder that Indigenous peoples have self-determining rights, we have our own languages, our own lands and territories, we have our own customary laws.  The only difference is that we live under colonial laws and policies that maintain their oppression through laws, policies and ignorance;   threatening our very identity as Indigenous peoples.  These colonial vestiges oblige us to be educated in colonial languages in order for us to “fit in” and are reminiscent of the motto for the Indian Residential School; to “beat the Indian out of the Indian”!

UNESCO has stated “…that in Indigenous languages are most threatened in Canada.”  UNESCO has compared the loss of Indigenous languages having a negative impact on biodiversity conservation.  Indigenous languages are embedded with traditional knowledge that promotes and protects biodiversity.  But try telling that to the governments in Canada with its $1 billion “Linguistic Duality” program or provinces like Quebec with Bill 101 without any thought to how their language laws negatively impact Onkwehon:we languages.

All premiers and the Prime Minister of Canada must educated to the fact that language is more than just a form of expression for Indigenous peoples:  for Indigenous peoples it is our link to our ancestors and their teachings, it is embedded with our traditional knowledge – a form of knowledge by the way, that has been used and exploited by government, pharmaceutical companies and  cosmetic companies without the benefits to Indigenous peoples.

If we are ever to make significant changes to our relationship, then respect for our rights to our Indigenous languages, customs and traditions which include our traditional forms of governance must be given the nourishment and opportunity that ALL colonial languages, cultures and governance has been provided.  To those Quebecois voting on September 4th, call upon your local politicians and their party leaders to respect, promote and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Remind Mme Marois of the press conference she organized with the AFNQL and Quebec Native Women a few years ago where the Parti Quebecois called upon the Quebec Government of Jean Charest to endorsed the UN Declaration.  Ask her how she sees Quebec’s language law in the context of the UN Declaration.

As we closely approach the 5th Anniversary of the UN Declaration on September 13th remind all polictical party leaders of how this is the most comprehensive UN human rights instrument for Indigenous peoples and must be implemented in domestic law to become a norm.  Much like the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It will help strenthen our efforts to regenerate Indigenous languages in our schools and daily lives. It will promote and protect the collective rights of Indigenous peoples from oppressive colonial laws that threaten Indigenous peoples rights, identity and customary laws.  Isn’t it time for change?  Isn’t it time for peace?

Skén:nen – in peace


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