Interpreter training has been 'wiped off the face of the N.W.T,' say language advocates

Dennis Drygeese is one of the youngest Indigenous language interpreter/translators in the N.W.T. The territory has been without an official training program for 20 years, and many say it's a critical service if the languages are to survive.

20 years since territory offered accredited interpreter/translator training in Indigenous languages

'Among translators in the territory, I am probably one of the youngest,' says Dennis Drygeese. The N.W.T. hasn't had a training program for interpreter/translators in 20 years. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

In his cap and T-shirt, Dennis Drygeese stands out among the row of interpreter/translators seated in the booths along the back wall at the recent Dene Languages Conference in Yellowknife. He's speaking Denesuline, or Chipweyan.

"Among translators in the territory, I am probably one of the youngest," he says. 

At 40 years old, he's probably right. Drygeese is among the last of the interpreter/translators to receive accredited training in the N.W.T. He took part in a program at Aurora College in the mid-90s — a program the college axed in 1996 citing a lack of interest and low enrolment.

The 2016 Dene Language Conference in Yellowknife in early June. (Leitha Kochon/CBC)

The Languages Bureau, which took over managing interpreter/translators, closed shortly thereafter.

"It's almost like interpreting and translation was wiped off the face of the N.W.T.," says Betty Harnum, a former languages commissioner for the territory.   

Harnum is among many language advocates who believe the territory is on a dangerous road in failing to provide training as the current generation ages.   

"If there are no interpreter/translators, then we are forcing people to speak English," she says.

"What you are saying is that we aren't going to help you speak your language. We're not going to support it."

Interpreting requires complex skills

Many elders turn to family or community members who speak the language for help, but Harnum says that's not a long-term solution.

"Just because you speak your language doesn't mean you can interpret or translate," she says. "You might have an ability, but you don't have the skills." 

While terminology workshops help, Harnum says the job can be complex.

"You can't expect an interpreter to walk into a meeting on climate change or finance or politics and know the material and then have a proper translation for every single one of those words."

'We are at a critical juncture, I think people's voices are getting louder about wanting to ensure that those services exist,' says Shannon Gullberg, the N.W.T.'s languages commissioner. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC )

Shannon Gullberg, the N.W.T.'s current languages commissioner, sees even deeper problems with relying on friends and family to interpret/translate — namely, privacy.  

"It's folly to assume that a relative is comfortable with discussions about medical issues happening around a family member," she says. "It can become uncomfortable very quickly."   

Patients may get embarrassed and stop talking to their health care provider, or the family member could be put in the difficult position of having to relay a diagnosis to their loved one.

No qualifications needed

According to the Department of Education, the N.W.T. government currently maintains a list of aboriginal interpreter/translators, but there is no process for verification, and no qualifications required.

That's left groups like the Goyatiko Language Society in Dettah struggling to fill the gap. The non-profit offers courses in the Weledeh dialect of Tlicho, but they aren't accredited.

'I will interpret as long as I have my voice. But we need to start training our people,' says Mary Rose Sundberg, who runs the Goyatiko Language Society in Dettah. (Sonja Koenig/CBC )
"Over the years I've been asking to revitalize the interpreter/translator program," says Mary Rose Sundberg, who runs Goyatiko. "Since they cut off the training, there's been no new interpreters that I know of."

Sundberg says, under the territory's Languages Act, Dene have a right to use the language anywhere they want.

"We're aging," says Sundberg. "And I will interpret as long as I have my voice. But we need to start training our people."

Program costs 'a lot of money'

In the past Gullberg, who also served as languages commissioner from 2004 to 2008, made recommendations to the territorial government about the need for trained interpreter/translators.  

And she isn't the only one.  

According to former commissioner Harnum, over the years there's been one report after another by language advocates asking the government to bring the interpreter/translator program back.

Gullberg doesn't believe the territorial government is simply ignoring the issue, though.

"If you want to get the interpreter/translator program up and running again, it costs money, a lot of money," she says.

"While it can't be all about the money in my view, we are dealing with a tight fiscal [budget], so I am sure the government is aware of that."

She also doesn't believe the need is lost on MLAs.

"I think they care a lot. But I do think that people need to just decide, we're moving forward, and we need to find ways to make this work."  

Action plan in the works

In an email, Jackie McKinnon, a spokeswoman with the Department of Education, says the territorial government is aware of the need, confirming it has heard complaints as recently as last week.

To date there's no plan to bring the program back, but McKinnon says the government is updating its languages plan from 2010, and developing an action plan. Both will be focussed on interpretation and translation.  

For many like Dennis Drygeese, it can't come soon enough.    

"I think they should bring that program back again because it's really needed," he says. "It's helped me and allowed me to gain more knowledge of my language and my culture by speaking it."