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Environment Canada tornado tweets stalled by language laws

Meteorologists in the United States use Twitter to push weather warnings to the public, but that doesn't happen in Canada — official bilingualism has proved a barrier to weather warning tweets.

Ottawa developing software to tweet warnings in French and English simultaneously

Environment Canada has not yet perfected its social media presence for severe weather alerts. (CBC)

Meteorologists in the United States use Twitter to push weather warnings to the public, but that doesn't happen in Canada — official bilingualism has proved a barrier to weather warning tweets.

Canadian meteorologists are not authorized to tweet because all government communication has to follow Canada’s language laws, according to Environment Canada's executive director of national programs Ken Macdonald.

“We have to issue our warnings simultaneously in both languages,” Macdonald told the iTeam's Geoff Leo.

Macdonald said Environment Canada is working on software that would make this possible, but it's not ready yet.

We can’t expect every forecaster to be sitting at the desk tweeting in both languages.— Environment Canada's Ken Macdonald

“It has to be done in an automated way because we can’t expect every forecaster to be sitting at the desk tweeting in both languages.”

Macdonald said the software could be perfected and in use across Canada within a year or even sooner.

An Environment Canada meteorologist in Saskatchewan, Terry Lang, said the computer program is currently being tested in some parts of the country.

Environment Canada sends out informational messages on its English and French Twitter accounts, but it doesn't tweet out weather warnings. (CBC)

Lang said the agency doesn’t tweet weather warnings, but it does rely on others to use the technology.

“People tweet the warnings for us,” Lang said. “There’s a number of ways people can receive the warnings.”

She noted that Environment Canada does have active Twitter accounts in both languages, though they are focused more on informational tweets.

They offer tweets such as “#didyouknow that #CanadaGeese can live 20 years or more?” and “Summer is the perfect time to explore Canada’s natural riches.”

Former Environment Canada meteorologist Jay Anderson considers the delay in adopting Twitter for emergency alerts "silly."

Twitter has been around since 2006, and Anderson said it’s odd that it has taken so long to adopt a technology that could help with public safety.

“Basically what they’re saying is, ‘We’re not going to warn anybody because we can’t warn everybody,’” said Anderson. 

Regina storm chaser Greg Johnson said freeing meteorologists to tweet warnings would be a simple and affordable way to alert Canadians of danger.

“It’s a leadership issue, it’s an issue of policy,” Johnson said.

In 2013, the general issue of automating tweets from government agencies was examined in a scholarly paper presented at the Workshop on Language in Social Media held in June, in Atlanta, Georgia. The Canadian authors noted that although automating tweets in two languages poses challenges, there are numerous solutions.

About the Author

Geoff Leo

iTeam Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo has been a reporter for CBC News in Saskatchewan since 2001. His work has won numerous awards.

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