N.W.T. Legislature to expand translation services to 9 official languages

The N.W.T. has 11 official languages, but during the last government’s term, the legislative assembly only had full-time interpreters for Denesuline (Chipewyan), Tlicho and French, and part-time interpreters for North Slavey, South Slavey and Inuvialuktun.

Legislature aims to provide simultaneous interpretations of proceedings into at least 9 languages

Rosi Aggark, left, and Suzie Napayok are Inuktitut interpreters at the N.W.T. legislative assembly. (Submitted by the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly)

In an effort to make the business of government more accessible, the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly is beefing up its interpretation services.

The N.W.T. has 11 official languages, but during the last session the assembly only had full-time interpreters for Denesuline (Chipewyan), Tlicho and French, and part-time interpreters for North Slavey, South Slavey and Inuvialuktun. These interpreters would only do simultaneous translations for just the first two hours of each sitting day.

The plan now is to record proceedings of the legislature in at least nine of the territory's 11 official languages, and to post those recordings on social media, said assembly spokesperson Danielle Mager. Interpreters will also translate whole sittings, from start to finish. 

"The Legislative Assembly is the place of the people and represents all of the people of the entire territory," said Mager. "We really think that it's important for the people of the North to be able to access the Legislative Assembly proceedings in the languages that they speak."

The legislature is also aiming to make interpretations available in at least nine languages to visitors in the public gallery by the time it resumes sitting in December.

Mager could not say which Indigenous languages would be added.

Changes come after critical review

These changes come after the Northwest Territories languages commissioner Shannon Gullberg delivered a critical report on language services in the territory. She lambasted the Legislative Assembly for its "continued failure" to implement her office's recommendations, and called for assembly members to make reviewing the Official Languages Act a priority. 

"[Gullberg] was kind of saying that we were paying lip service to the people of the Northwest Territories and that we weren't actually walking the walk," Mager said. 

In her most recent annual report, Shannon Gullberg, N.W.T. Languages Commissioner, lambasted the legislative assembly for its “continued failure” to implement her office’s recommendations, and called for the legislative assembly to make reviewing the Official Languages Act a priority. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC )

Interpreting everything that goes on at the legislature into 11 languages is no simple task. The project has been hampered by outdated technology, some of which was last updated in the 1990s, Mager said. The assembly is also struggling to find Cree and Inuinnaqtun interpreters.

Right now, proceedings are broadcast on TV in Tlicho, Denesuline, South Slavey and North Slavey, while members on the chamber floor can follow along in as many languages as there are interpreters on a given day. 

Visitors in the public gallery can use special devices to listen in seven languages. The Legislative Assembly recently bought a license to increase the number of channels available from seven to 16, with the hope that visitors in the building will be able listen in all 11 languages.

But the legislature's languages budget has been tripled, said Mager — boosted from $100,000 to $300,000 — with the goal of interpreting more lawmaking activities, into more languages, within the next year. 

'It always worried me'

To Suzie Napayok, an Inuktitut interpreter at the Legislative Assembly, enhancing interpretation services at the territorial legislature is critical to all residents' autonomy.

Napayok, who has been interpreting assembly business since the late 1980s, when Nunavut was still part of the N.W.T., grew up on the Cape Dyer DEW-Line site, a now defunct Cold War-era radar site on Baffin Island.  

"I remember as a child my parents and mostly the elderly people never quite got a good grasp of what was being explained to them — and I'm not blaming the interpreters of the day, it was just a lot of information that should have been given was not," she said.

"It always worried me, even as a kid. These people should understand everything that's happening around them, everything that affects their lives, and I saw a lot of times that this wasn't happening."  

Restricting access to information was part of colonization, Napayok said.

These people should understand everything that's happening around them ... I saw a lot of times that this wasn't happening.- Suzie Napayok, Inuktitut interpreter

She offered this example: a couple years ago, Napayok participated in a terminology workshop in which she was assigned to teach about the justice system.

She wanted to know how much elders in her group already understood, so she asked if they knew they had the right not to answer police questions if approached at home. 

"And [the elders] go, 'What? I've always been afraid of the RCMP so every time they come near me or come to my house I answer everything they ask me, and I have done this all my life.' They don't even know their own rights because of the limit of information they have had access to," Napayok said.

"Isn't that scary?"

People must be able to understand the systems operating around them in order to participate in decisions being made on their behalf, said Napayok. It's one reason why the interpretation of government activity into the official languages is so important.

"I'm really, really pleased that they've reintroduced these languages back in the Legislative Assembly," she said.