Samian Indigenous Quebec rapper French

Reframing the refusal of Quebec Indigenous rapper Samian to perform in French

The barring of Samian from a Granby music festival has prompted a debate about what language(s) are really in danger in this province.

Quebec rapper Samian was recently invited to participate in the Festival international de la chanson de Granby. Since his latest album, Nikamo, features songs entirely in Anishinabemowin, he wanted to perform in his Indigenous language. Organizers, insisting the festival aims to promote francophone music, refused and rescinded the invitation. They later stated they would be able to live with an 80% francophone/ 20% Indigenous playlist. Samian, not interested in language quotas and feeling insulted by the refusal, declined. 

Samian, whose father is French Québécois and mother is Algonquin, later wrote a Facebook post, sharing his frustration over being approached by the festival only to be dictated the terms of his performance. “It is with dismay that I realize that my struggle over the past 15 years to promote First Nations culture and languages is not over, despite the few advances I’ve seen,” he wrote. “These ancestral languages have nothing that is threatening to French. I’m absolutely fed up with this colonial mentality! It’s time to change that in Quebec!”

Mixed reaction 

In response, the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador denounced the decision, and Ghislain Picard, chief of the AFNQ wrote, “Just another example of a colonial ideology, well established in Quebec.”

Canadian Senator Michèle Audette, the daughter of a French Québécois father and an Innu mother, tweeted: “Our rich ancestral languages are not a threat to French. Conversely, the imposition of French is a threat to the survival of our ancestral languages in addition to creating a systemic barrier.”

She linked her tweet to a petition urging the Quebec government to exempt First Nations students from the demands of Bill 96. Audette, and many other Indigenous leaders across Quebec, have been critical of the CAQ’s reform of the French-language charter, which prioritizes the survival of French over their own languages. They worry it will affect their ability to teach and retain their languages, far more fragile than a language that enjoys majority status in the province.

The incident, of course, caused a language kerfuffle. Le Devoir published an opinion piece that stated Samian had been “cancelled,” making references to “Speak White.” Columnist Sophie Durocher, with her usual conciliatory tone and deep comprehension of systemic racism, scoffingly told everyone to “just calm down.” As for me? I found myself in a rare place while writing my opinion column: on the fence. I sympathized with those insisting the festival aims to promote French so performances shouldn’t be in any other language. They were technically right. But they were also wrong, because Indigenous languages aren’t any other language. They’re the original languages spoken on these lands — and they’re dying.

Last Sunday, Samian found himself on TLMEP trying to explain his perspective. He noted that Montreal’s Francos (formerly FrancoFolies) festival never imposed linguistic restrictions on him. Les Francouvertes, another music fest for emerging French talent (with a fitting name, I might add), also opened its doors to artists who sing in an Aboriginal language. These two festivals show that one can promote French music and still be open to Indigenous voices, every bit a part of Quebec (Algonquin for “narrow passage” or “strait” by the way). 

Missed opportunity 

Indigenous languages
Reframing the refusal of Quebec Indigenous rapper Samian to perform in French

I mostly saw this language controversy as a missed opportunity to put our money where our mouth is and be more inclusive. When given a chance to be in solidarity with Indigenous peoples (who better, after all, than French speakers who understand what it’s like to constantly be fighting against the crushing omnipresence of the English language), some reacted with fear, annoyance or proprietary resentment. 

Time and time again, throughout Canada (and, yes, Quebec, too), we like to talk about reconciliation only when it doesn’t require anything from us. The moment a concession, a compromise or an uncomfortable request for the Indigenous perspective to be ranked above ours is demanded, we recoil, we revert to long-standing English and French colonial mentalities prioritizing the “two nations” and “two languages” that “founded” this country, pushing aside everything else. 

But asking an Indigenous artist to “set aside” their Indigenous language or imposing language quotas is not innocuous or minor within the context of our colonial history and the Indian Act. Indigenous languages and culture were violently supressed. Generations of Indigenous children were punished for speaking their languages at residential schools while the “Indian was beaten out of them.” 

Francophones in Quebec, particularly, balk at criticism from Indigenous communities, because they’re often unable to separate their role as colonized in relation to the British, from their role as colonizer in relation to the Indigenous. Even if some argue that francophones treated Indigenous communities better than the British, the end goal was always the same: cultural assimilation. Stated in simpler terms: Indigenous people in Canada don’t speak English or French by accident. They were forced to learn these languages, to the detriment of their own.

The truth is, we have never done a good job protecting minority-language rights in this country. Whether Indigenous across the country, francophones in the ROC or anglophones in Quebec, they all deserve support and financing to maintain their institutions. But putting Indigenous languages on equal footing with two colonial languages is intellectually dishonest. 

Indigenous languages are fragile 

Indigenous languages, spoken on these lands for thousands of years — far longer than English or French — do not enjoy the predominance or vitality that either of the country’s two colonial languages do. Seventy-five percent of Canada’s Indigenous languages are endangered, with some being only spoken by a handful of elders. Three-quarters of the country’s Indigenous languages are “definitely,” “severely” or “critically” endangered. The rest are classified as “vulnerable/unsafe.” Of Canada’s approximately 1.5 million Indigenous people, just 15% speak their heritage languages at home. Of the 60 or more Indigenous languages in Canada, just three — Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibwa — are stable and viable. 

In sharp contrast, French is an official language in 29 countries across multiple continents, the second most widely spoken mother tongue in the EU and the sixth most spoken language in the world. According to the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), approximately 300 million people worldwide are “able to speak the language.” Demographic projections expect those numbers to increase to 500 million in 2025 and 650 million by 2050. 

Francophones in Quebec may bemoan the fragility of French or the decline of francophones who have French as their mother tongue, as the demographics change. Francophones across Canada may rightfully fight for better protection, respect and funding for their linguistic communities. But French itself as a language is not in danger and never has been. Protecting it should not come at the expense of languages that are far more endangered.

I won’t even bother commenting on the status of the English language because we’re all aware of its omnipresence. Like any linguistic minority, anglophones in Quebec are worried about their institutions and their English-language rights; not the state of English itself. 

Revitalizing Indigenous languages

March 31 is National Indigenous Languages Day

Since the Indigenous Languages Act was introduced in Canada in 2019, efforts are underway to revitalize these languages. I understand Samian’s pride in rediscovering that part of who he is and wanting to share it with us. Gaining control of your own language, gaining a better sense of pride in your culture and history, is a form of decolonization, a way to reverse the damage done. Sharing it with others is an offering of love. Being told no is hurtful, it’s a rejection of who you are, a declaration of non-interest, the perpetuation of the colonial status quo. 

Samian rightfully pointed out that most Canadians can utter a few words in foreign languages when we travel, yet are unable to say “hello” or “thank you” in any of the languages that are native to this land. There’s been a shameful lack of curiosity or interest in these languages by most of us and these debates should frankly propel us towards self-reflection and more openness, for bridging the gaps. 

More active listening 

On a recent online thread, I saw a francophone speaker bemoaning the fact that Indigenous people “are always complaining and asking for more,” and I thought to myself, “That is precisely the unfair criticism lobbed against every minority language group in the country.” 

“Why are they always complaining and asking for more?” ask francophones and anglophones of Indigenous communities. 

“Why are they always complaining and asking for more?” ask English-language speakers across Canada of francophone minorities in Canadian provinces or Quebec as a whole. 

“Why are they always complaining and asking for more?” ask francophones in Quebec of English-speaking minorities. 

We would all benefit if we put the boxing gloves down and just listened to one another, if we simply extended to others the respect that we demand for what we value and love. 

Meegwetch to Samian for starting the conversation. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.