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Thursday, September 23, 2021

How Bill 96 could harm English-speaking Indigenous people

Opinion: It may further embolden those who, regardless of official policies, already won't provide health or police services to Indigenous people in English.

An Indigenous woman is raped.

She summons the courage to report her assault to Montreal police, but they won’t let her recount it in English. Adding to this humiliating experience, she doesn’t understand that the police have to process the crime scene at her apartment.

So when the police show up at her door unannounced, she has to pack up her things and spend the night at a friend’s house, unsure exactly what’s going on. The experience left her shattered.

This happened to someone I know and it’s one example of how access to English services is crucial for Indigenous people living in Quebec. So when I testified about Bill 96 Tuesday at the Quebec Community Groups Network hearings, I expressed my fears that the new language law will have dire consequences for Indigenous people in life-or-death situations.

Apparently, this drew the ire of La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé.

To Lagacé, who claims I’m fear-mongering, I would simply say this:

As a Cree woman, whose mother is a residential school survivor, and who was subsequently stolen from her family and community during the ’60s scoop, much of my life has been defined by a loss of culture and language.

Subjected to aggressive assimilationist policies, I have seen much damage and suffering to Indigenous people who have moved to urban areas and tried to make a better life. I watch how they fall through the cracks. It was this awareness that led me to seek an education and dedicate my life to improving the situation.

In the early days of residential schools, children had to learn English and were told that their language was evil, the devil’s language. The language was beaten out of them. Upon returning from residential schools, they had difficulty communicating with their parents, as they lost their Indigenous language, further alienating them from their family, community and culture.

While many of the laws that were created to explicitly deny rights to Indigenous people have since been repealed, we still live in a society whose foundation was built on our oppression. The result is that we live with systemic racism and racial profiling. Here in Quebec, few of the 142 Viens Commission recommendations have been implemented and Indigenous youth in care are still denied the right to use their traditional languages.

And so, Indigenous people are struggling. Most were sent to English residential schools and have had difficulty accessing services in the only language they speak. Regardless of what the official policies may be, they are already getting services refused because they can’t speak French. I know this because I run a women’s shelter where Indigenous women routinely report these kinds of incidents to me.

Now imagine what it would be like if you’re homeless, have been assaulted, raped or are otherwise in crisis and Bill 96 further emboldens those who already think they don’t need to bother to speak English to Indigenous people. How will you explain your predicament if you can’t express it in French?

Indigenous people, be they English-speaking or French-speaking, are still afraid of entering hospitals since the death of Joyce Echaquan. As systemic racism is still rampant in institutions, we now have to worry about the way we communicate our emergencies and whether they will be understood. In her documentary Indecently Exposed, diversity educator Jane Elliott says “If you make the situation uncomfortable enough, people will refuse to tolerate it, and they will leave.”

Indigenous people will continue to experience emergency situations, but if the climate of the institutions is oppressive, they will not subject themselves to this treatment. It is far too painful.

In 2008, Brian Sinclair arrived at the Health Sciences Centre ER in Winnipeg. When he passed out in a wheelchair, staff assumed he was drunk, when in fact he had died. I was outspoken when the government announced the COVID-19 curfew and had stated at a protest that someone could die because of the failure to acknowledge the realities of homeless people.

Unfortunately, Raphaël André was collateral damage, and therefore, I spearheaded the establishment of the Raphaël André Memorial tent, in the hope of keeping others safe.

My testimony at the hearings was meant to demonstrate our reality and no, we are not fearful, we are terrified.

Nakuset is executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and the director of development and philanthropy for the day shelter Resilience Montreal.

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