Culture By Ainslie MacLellan 1755 Views

Indigenous youth in Quebec child protection told not to speak their own languages, sources say

'How can we still be doing this?' asks Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal

At least three Quebec group homes or rehabilitation centres for youth stand accused of discouraging Indigenous children from speaking their languages and, in some cases, punishing them for doing it, according to sources and public testimony — allegations that are flatly denied by the health boards overseeing the facilities.

Sources expressed concern that the practice is reminiscent of what was done for decades in Canada's residential school system.

At two Montreal group homes, under the jurisdiction of Batshaw Youth and Family Services and the CIUSSS Ouest-de-l'Ile-de-Montréal, several youth were told they could not speak Inuktitut among themselves, said a person with knowledge of the Batshaw's operations.

CBC News has agreed not to name the person to allow them to speak freely, without compromising their work.

"They were being told constantly 'No, no, English. No, English,'" said the source, saying staff framed it as a safety issue.

The source said staff felt they needed to be able to understand what the youth were saying, so they'd know if they were planning to run away or do something else that could be harmful.

'An exceptional incident' can change the rules

In a statement, Batshaw said that "no restrictions are imposed on the languages these young people can use in expressing themselves unless there is an exceptional incident wherein the safety of the youth or another person is threatened."​

But the source said, "For me, it's just a continuation of residential [schools] abuse. 'Don't speak your language. Here, you're going to assimilate.'"

In Canada's residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996, students were often severely punished for speaking their first language or practising Indigenous traditions.

Protecting the right of Indigenous people to speak their own language was a key recommendation made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, said she also became aware of the situation because of her advisory role with Batshaw.

"How can we still be doing this? How come the social worker or whoever it is, the person in charge, thinks that this is OK?" she said.

Viens commission hears allegations

A similar situation was described earlier this year by an Atikamekw couple at the Viens Commission, a provincial inquiry into the government's treatment of Indigenous people.

The testimony transcripts were redacted to protect the identities of the parents and their children, who had been in the custody of Quebec's youth protection agency.

The parents testified that in 2007 staff at a youth rehabilitation centre in Trois-Rivières put their daughter in isolation for speaking her own language.

"If she'd speak one word in her language ... she'd be confined to the isolation room for an hour, or two and a half hours," the mother testified.

The woman added that her daughter had told her that other Atikamekw youth at the centre faced the same restrictions, even on their lunch hour.

"She cried on the phone with me, because she found it difficult not to be able to speak her language," the woman testified.

No ban or punishment, authorities say

But Mathieu Bédard, assistant director for youth homes with the CIUSSS Mauricie-Centre-du-Québec, which oversees the youth rehabilitation centre, disputed that testimony, saying there is no ban on youth speaking Indigenous languages.

Bédard said youth are only put in isolation as an exceptional measure if they present a danger to themselves or to others and would never be put in isolation for speaking their mother tongue.

"I think it was a situation that was misinterpreted," said Bédard. "You could have someone who went through residential schools and is carrying that trauma and that leads them to believe that it's the same situation today, which is far from the case."

However, Bédard said, there could be situations where a staff member asks youth to speak French for safety concerns — for example if staff suspected youth were planning a suicide pact. If a staff member sees that a young person's mood or body language has changed, following a discussion in another language, that employee may ask that youth to speak French so that staff can understand them.

Bédard acknowledged that asking Atikamekw youth to speak French could contribute to the "culture shock" they may feel in youth protection, but emphasized that the intention of staff was not to discriminate against Indigenous youth.

No Atikamekw speakers on staff

Bédard said the centre does not have any Atikamekw speakers on staff, though he said the CIUSSS is studying ways to strengthen cultural ties between Indigenous youth under the care of the CIUSSS and their communities.

The Council of the Atikamekw Nation (CNA) signed an agreement with the province of Quebec in January to take over control of youth protection in the Atikamekw communities of Wemotaci and Manawan and cases involving Atikamekw youth in the city of La Tuque, but some Atikamekw youth still remain in care overseen by the CIUSSS.

The CNA had been running its own youth protection as a pilot project since 2000, with a focus on keeping children in their own community.

In a statement, the office of Lionel Carmant, the minister responsible for the DPJ, said conserving the cultural identity of young people is essential and that the DPJ always takes it into consideration. 

"Though there are some restrictions for exceptional reasons, notably security, we wish for all children in DPJ centres to be able to flourish," the statement said.