Virginia Weizineau said her daughter Jessica Chachai arrived home one day in January, dumbfounded by what had happened to her at her Roberval, Que., high school.
The 15-year-old told her mother she had been sitting at a table in her arts class and was speaking with her friend in Atikamekw, their first language, when the teacher came up to them and ordered them to speak French.
“She was really surprised,” said Weizineau, who said it was the first time something like this had happened to Jessica.
“It came out of nowhere, and it was really something for her — to be told not to speak Atikamekw,” Weizineau told CBC.
Weizineau posted the incident on Facebook, and several parents chimed in, reporting their children had had similar experiences at La Cité étudiante high school.
“This is not 1950, it’s 2020,” one person wrote.
“Come on! She should be allowed to speak her own language,” commented someone else.
The director of the Lac-Saint-Jean Native Friendship Centre, Mélanie Boivin, said she has also had “seven or eight” kids come to her over the past three years with comparable stories.
“It’s definitely not the message we want to send to our community,” said Boivin.
Around 70 students, roughly 10 per cent of La Cité étudiante’s student population, are Indigenous.
Most are from the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, a 10-minute drive from Roberval.
But an increasing number of families are moving to the area from the Atikamekw reserve of Obedjiwan, nearly 300 kilometres away in the upper Mauricie region, either because of the lack of housing in Obedjiwan or to seek opportunities, such as getting their children into local hockey programs.
In most cases, the mother tongue of those children is Atikamekw.
“We have to find ways to preserve and promote the language,” said Boivin. “That has to start in school.”
‘A question of class management’
The principal of La Cité, Sylvain Bouchard, said the school does not have a blanket ban on the speaking of Atikamekw or Innu.
But Bouchard said the school’s first mandate — and his obligation to students enrolled there — is to provide a French-language education.
“I have students who speak Innu, Italian, Arabic: do we ask them not to speak their language? No. But in an educational setting, we do ask them to speak French.”
Without referring to a specific instance, Bouchard confirmed teachers have asked students to switch to French.
He said, for example, if a teacher was at the front of the class giving instruction and students were chattering among themselves in Atikamekw, that teacher would ask the students to stop.
“It’s a question of class management,” said Bouchard.
Teachers need to understand what students are talking about, he said, “to be able to react to any problematic situations.”
Jessica said in their case, she and her friend weren’t interrupting the teacher or causing a disturbance.
Her mother said the principal’s arguments simply don’t cut it.
“There was a time when Atikamekw and [other] Indigenous students were forbidden from speaking their language in residential schools,” said Weizineau.
“To hear this now, in 2020, it’s disappointing.”
Cultural pride and belonging key to growth
While Weizineau is too young to have lived through the residential school era, Mary Coon remembers it well.
Coon, who is originally from Mistissini, Que., was forbidden from speaking Cree anywhere — whether it was in the classroom, in the hallway or in the schoolyard.
“If you were caught saying something to another child, or another child told the teacher you said something in your language, they would wash your mouth out with soap,” Coon said.
Being shamed into forgetting your mother tongue meant you also forgot the “spirit of the language,” Coon reflected.
Thanks to her family — particularly her grandmother, who brought her “back into the bush” as soon as she returned home — Coon managed to reclaim her Cree language and identity.
“You have to belong to a culture” to have confidence and grow, said Coon.
It’s a lesson she now tries to pass on to a younger generation of First Nations children in the workshops and ceremonies she brings to Quebec’s Atikamekw communities.
Speaking to a CBC reporter on a stop at the Lac-Saint-Jean Native Friendship Centre, Coon said the incident at La Cité high school should serve as an opportunity to speak up and make sure children have a place that is “culturally safe.”
“We have to make sure our rights are respected,” said Coon.
Having moved from Mistissini to the Atikamekw community of Wemotaci as a young adult, Coon said she can relate to the teachers’ point of view — how hearing a language you don’t understand can leave you feeling lost, “wondering if they’re talking about you.”
“But I think the teachers have to learn to watch what the students are doing. Are they helping each other? Or are they laughing at their peers?”
‘Mutual trust’ needed
Mélanie Boivin, the Friendship Centre director, said those misunderstandings underscore how important it is to offer teachers and other educators cultural sensitivity training.
While Boivin sees some openness, she said it has been “difficult” to organize workshops at La Cité.
The school passed up a chance to host a conference on Atikamekw culture and language given by Serge Bouchard, a well-known Quebec anthropologist.
School principal Sylvain Bouchard said “an odd set of circumstances” prevented the event from taking place at the school in the autumn.
But he said he will now be attending the conference, taking place at the Roberval public library on Feb. 21, and hopes teachers will join him.
“There are things we can get out of it to better understand our students and better help them,” he said.
The school has also expressed interest in hosting Innu language workshops during the lunch hour — one of several initiatives the Friendship Centre is hoping to see launched.
Boivin’s hope is that such partnerships will help build “a mutual trust system, for the students but also for the teachers, so they have the confidence to build a safe environment.”
But as far as the classroom goes, Bouchard is firm.
His first objective remains “to provide education to students, and the minister of education requires I do it in French.”