House of Commons gearing up for Indigenous languages in chamber

The House of Commons is getting set to include real-time interpretations of Indigenous languages like Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut.

Internal government briefing note says Translation Bureau is building roster of interpreters

An internal briefing note from Public Services and Procurement Canada, obtained by CBC News, suggests the government plans to add more real-time Indigenous language interpreters in the House of Commons — something Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette has been pressing for. (Robert-Falcon Ouellette/Twitter)

Ottawa is boosting its roster of Indigenous language interpreters in the House of Commons, even as MPs grapple with whether to move beyond the chamber's two official languages, English and French.

An extra interpretation booth has already been added to the new Commons chamber in the West Block, slated to open next fall as the existing chamber gets a 10-year makeover. From there, specialists will be able to interpret Indigenous languages like Cree and Ojibway, as well as other languages, in real time.

"Given that there are approximately 60 different Indigenous dialects in Canada, grouped in 10 families, the capacity of qualified freelance interpreters in Indigenous languages is extremely limited," warns an internal briefing note from Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

An artist's rendering of the temporary House of Commons chamber, in the West Block, to open next fall. The new chamber has been fitted with a extra booth that can be used for simultaneous interpretation of Indigenous languages used by MPs. (Government of Canada)

"The [Translation] Bureau is working to develop this capacity and has assigned a senior interpreter to work on assessing and building capacity. Other factors to be considered are related to security clearance, travel (distances and costs are significant), and the ability to assess language skills in Indigenous languages, which is limited, as well."

The July 2017 document indicates the government is gearing up for a potential linguistic watershed: the first simultaneous interpretation of an Indigenous language ever provided in the Commons chamber.

The issue has been forced by Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Liberal MP for Winnipeg Centre, who gave a speech in Nehiyo, or Cree, in the chamber on May 4. One of every five people in his riding is Indigenous.

Ouellette provided 48 hours' notice of his speech, but there was no simultaneous interpretation into English and French — prompting him to ask the Speaker of the House to rule on a question of privilege.

Ruled against

Geoff Regan ruled against Ouellette, while acknowledging some MPs might find the situation "woefully inadequate."

Regan then wrote to the Commons committee on procedure and house affairs, on Sept. 25, suggesting MPs study the issue. The committee has agreed, and is expected to hold hearings early in the new year.

"I want the grandmother who's sitting in a reserve in her community to be able to turn on a channel and to listen to the Cree language, and listen to the great debates going on in our Parliament," Ouellette said in an interview.

The Commons chamber has echoed with many languages over the years, including Japanese, Cantonese, Punjabi and Italian, and even a 1983 exchange between two members in Latin and Greek.

Indigenous languages heard in debate have included Dene-North Slavey, Inuktitut, Ojibway, Salishan and Cree, including comments from New Democrat MP Romeo Saganash after the 2011 federal election.

But simultaneous interpretation in languages other than English-French has been restricted to those rare occasions when a foreign dignitary has visited, requiring an extra booth be set up in the crowded chamber.

The Translation Bureau did provide simultaneous interpretations for two Indigenous senators in the Upper Chamber for a 2009 pilot project. And two Commons committees received simultaneous interpretation of Indigenous languages for a total of 14 days in 2016, including during visits to Kuujjuaq and Iqaluit, says the briefing note.

These languages are dying out.- Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette  on the impending disappearance of Indigenous languages

The Commons chamber, though, has been restricted to English-French live interpretation since 1958, when MPs first agreed to simultaneous service in both official languages.

"The [Translation] Bureau is currently assessing the possibility of providing interpretation in Indigenous languages in the House of Commons," spokesperson Nicolas Boucher confirmed in an email to CBC News.

"We are meeting with Indigenous language community stakeholders to explore opportunities, develop stronger ties and to improve our Indigenous language services."

The bureau currently has a roster of about 100 freelance interpreters who speak 20 Indigenous languages.

Relies on elder

Ouellette relies on a Cree elder in his office to help with the language. Finding a Cree expression for "member of Parliament" was a challenge, for example, and the elder finally came up with a Cree word that translates as "the one who speaks on behalf of."

Ouellette says the Translation Bureau could start with five to 10 Indigenous interpreters, require 48 hours' notice from MPs and launch the service with the more common languages such as Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut. He says the cost would probably be less than the $5.6 million recently spent for a skating rink on Parliament Hill.

NDP MP Romeo Saganash spoke in Cree to the House of Commons in 2011. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

But Ouellette says something needs to happen soon, because Indigenous languages may be headed for extinction.

"These languages are dying out," he said. "People aren't using them. … I don't think we're going to be able to [save Indigenous languages] unless we have a large institution that has some skin in the game.

"If nothing is done within the next 10 to 15 years on these Indigenous languages in a significant way, they will be gone. We're actually at the cusp of the end. This is it."

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About the Author

Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby

With files from Aaron Wherry