Shortage of Indigenous-language interpreters slows justice in northern Quebec

A shortage of Indigenous-language interpreters in northern Quebec is leading to delays in the justice system — and in some cases even forcing judges to cancel to trials.

'There isn't a month that goes by without a problem,' justice says

Demerise Blacksmith works as a Cree interpreter in northern Quebec. (Radio-Canada)

A shortage of Indigenous-language interpreters in northern Quebec is leading to delays in the justice system — and in some cases even forcing judges to cancel to trials.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that anyone accused of a crime is provided an interpreter free of charge if they don't fully understand the language being spoken at their trial.

But in Quebec's North, finding an interpreter can be a challenge.

A year ago in Inukjuak, a suspect accused of sexual assault had to be released by Quebec Court Judge Nancy Mckenna because an interpreter couldn't be found within a reasonable time period.

The accused never entered a plea in the case.

The shortage can be partly explained by an increase in the number of days the northern Quebec travelling court sits.

It sat for 220 days in 2006-07 compared to 374 days in 2015-16, an increase of 70 per cent.

Justice Danielle Côté says a month rarely goes by without a problem caused by a lack of interpreters. (Radio-Canada)
Associate Chief Justice Danielle Côté says the few interpreters on call sometimes show up late or not at all.

Côté says in some cases the interpreters are not objective because they come from small communities and have close ties to the accused or the victim. Some court cases have been cancelled altogether, she said.

"There isn't a month that goes by without a problem," she told Radio-Canada.

Defence lawyers have also noticed the issue.

"Recruitment and retention is the main problem," said Claudia Prémont, head of the Quebec Bar Association, adding that the job isn't always viewed positively in the community.