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Kahnawake leaders to meet with Quebec lawmakers, demand 'total exemption' from Bill 96

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Kahnawake chiefs will meet with Quebec lawmakers Friday to reiterate their calls for a total exemption from Bill 96. 

Community leaders have demanded Quebec lawmakers leave people from Kahnawake out of their plans to reform the French language charter, which, if passed, would compel Quebec residents to take additional mandatory French classes in CEGEP, among other provisions.  

In Kahnawake, where residents mostly speak Kanien'kéha (Mohawk) and English, local leaders fear the bill will create additional barriers to education.

"For us, the only solution is a total exemption or a carve-out from this bill that it doesn't apply to us," said Kahnawake Grand Chief Kahsennanhawe Sky-Deer in a video posted to social media. 

"We know it's easy to say it doesn't apply in the community, but of course, all of the services and the things that would happen outside of the community is what we're really concerned about."

Kahnawake chiefs joined leaders of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) Tuesday to make similar demands.

Sky-Deer says she received a request for a meeting with Quebec Indigenous Services Minister Ian Lafreniere Wednesday evening.

French Language Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who is responsible for Bill 96, will also be present at the meeting Friday morning. 

Those ministers have expressed hesitation to provide an exception to the bill. 

Lafreniere said in recent days that the bill's aim -- to protect the French language in Quebec -- doesn't come at the expense of other languages. 

"Can we stop putting in a position, the protection of French and the protection of different languages? We can do both," he said.

But the implications of Bill 96 run deeper than just language, according to Indigenous advocates, who say the bill's prioritization of French means Indigenous peoples in Quebec would be further assimilated into Quebec culture or pushed out of the province altogether. 

"This law stems from Quebec aspirations of nationalism and ignores the linguistic, cultural, and educational issues of the nations that precede them. It is indisputably a categorical act by a colonialist government," read a recent statement by the AFNLQ.

If the bill is passed as planned, it will "force an exodus of our students to other schools outside of Quebec," said Ghislain Picard, Chief of the AFNQL on Tuesday.

"It's a staggering irony that the first occupants of the territory in Quebec are being forced to study outside their territory, and that is something we find unacceptable."

A round of amendments was passed Thursday, including relaxed updates to required French CEGEP courses.

Under the new proposal, CEGEP students will have the option to take three additional courses designed to help students learn French. In previous iterations, students would have had to take a selection of their core courses in French. 

Sky-Deer said Thursday she hopes the meeting offer is a step toward compromise on the bill's application for Kahnawake residents. 

"I think people are listening," she said. "I'm hopeful that we're going to get the same kind of momentum in terms of what we're asking for."

"I won't settle for anything short of, like I said, an exemption, or ... concrete amendments."

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