AFN Wants Indigenous Peoples Exempt from Official Bilingualism Requirement

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — The Assembly of First Nations says proposed changes to the Official Languages ​​Act will likely create more “arbitrary barriers” for Indigenous people who want to work in federal institutions and access higher levels.

The national organization, which represents more than 600 First Nations communities across the country, is therefore asking that Indigenous public servants be exempted from the English-French bilingualism requirements to work in the federal government.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) expressed its concerns in a brief to the parliamentary committee currently studying amendments to the federal bilingualism law. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government tabled a reform bill last May to modernize the Official Languages ​​Act. Certain measures in Bill C-13 aim to further promote the use of French in Canada.

In a brief submitted to the Standing Committee on Official Languages, which is currently studying the bill, the Assembly of First Nations states that C-13 « continues the federal government’s approach of privileging English and French while devaluing indigenous languages”.

Among the amendments proposed to the current law, the last modification of which dates back to 1988, Ottawa would like to extend the use of French within private companies under federal jurisdiction in Quebec and in regions “with a strong French-speaking presence”. The bill also provides that managers and supervisors of federal institutions in the capital region, in Ottawa and Gatineau, should be able to communicate in French and English.

Only about 10% of First Nations people can speak both official languages, according to the AFN brief, so the proposed changes risk limiting the number of Indigenous people who can access jobs in the federal public service.

“First Nations people should not be forced to learn additional colonial languages ​​to qualify for positions within federal institutions,” the AFN brief states. “The Government of Canada’s approach to languages ​​has favored English and French over Indigenous languages. It is a modern reflection of the exclusion of Indigenous peoples by Canadian colonialism.”

Although it raised its concerns with the Official Languages ​​Committee, the AFN did not appear as a witness. A list of 45 witnesses who are expected does not include any representatives of Aboriginal communities or organizations.

Members of the committee have already begun debating a motion to move the bill and all of its amendments to the next stage of the legislative process. Liberal MP Marc Serré, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Official Languages, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, said Tuesday that the bill should be passed as is.

Mr. Serré, who is a member of the committee, said that organizations had been invited to submit their thoughts in writing and that the government had heard from indigenous individuals and groups in previous consultations. But it was unclear whether he was aware of the AFN brief or the national body’s concerns.

Tensions over bilingualism requirements are not new to some Indigenous public servants. Earlier this year, the federal Treasury Board refused to pay public servants who can speak an official language and an Indigenous language the same $800 annual bonus that is paid to public servants who are required to speak both French and English.

The federal Liberals have also said they want to preserve and promote the use of Indigenous languages ​​in Canada. In 2019, the Liberal government passed legislation to help communities do just that, when previous public policies, like the residential school system for Indians, had sought to eradicate the very existence of these languages.

But the AFN says in its brief that this 2019 law provides nothing that could come close to the language protections afforded to French in the Official Languages ​​Act.


With the collaboration of Michel Saba

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