Cree leader fears Quebec's new French-language law will complicate relief during natural disasters
With wildfires affecting every community in her nation, Grand Chief and Chairperson of the Cree Nation Mandy Gull-Masty said she hopes the Quebec government takes a look at how the changes to the French-Language Charter will affect communication and logistics with the 11 communities spanning around 400,000 square kilometres of the Eeyou Istchee (Cree territory).
"The French language is something that can contribute to additional communication issues," Gull-Masty told CTV News.
"We are an English-speaking nation for the majority -- we are Cree language speakers, our colonial language is English -- [and] there has to be accommodation. There has to be a review of certain components of that bill because English is going to be something that's very apparent in an emergency situation in our territory."
Though Indigenous people are exempt from Bill 96, those in the provincial emergency response teams, such as SOPFEU, are not and will need to communicate with the around 18,000 people in the vast territory.
The biggest operational challenge for a massive territory like the one the Cree occupy is evacuation, the grand chief said.
"Getting communities seven or eight hours away to the point of evacuation was extremely challenging ... It's an expensive territory," said Gull-Masty. "If you drive from one point right across, that's about 15 hours of travel, so it's really important that our communication is very, very highly developed."
The currently raging fires have affected every community on Cree territory and they are the worst the grand chief has seen. She said she fears it could get worse in the summer months.
"Sadly, it has just started," she said, adding that the federal and provincial governments need to harmonize services with her communities.
This year, Gull-Masty said the coordination has been efficient but fears how rules related to the French-language law will affect that coordination in the future.
"My question to the government is: how are you going to be rolling that out? How will you be monitoring and sensitizing government services to ensure that when an Indigenous person comes forward and requests those English services that they have been trained to do so and know which steps to take in offering that," she said.
"My concerns are in the future. If you don't have a francophone or an anglophone on your team, how are you going to overcome those barriers, especially in times like this, where you have to react very quickly?"