The NWT’s 11 official languages aren’t given equal treatment in legislative assembly proceedings, a GNWT committee heard on Tuesday.
The government “accommodates” non-English languages rather than treating them as official languages, Batiste Foisy said during a Standing Committee on Rules and Procedures hearing on official language use in the assembly.
“Interpretations in all the languages aren’t available every day. Eight or nine languages can be (simultaneously) translated at the assembly but some days they’re not available,” Foisy, a francophone journalist at Radio Taïga in Yellowknife, said through an English translation.
“Not all 11 official languages work in the earpiece devices (in the assembly). The official track is the English track used to prepare the record of the debates.”
Foisy cited instances over the last several months when speeches in Tlicho from Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty weren’t translated into English because the interpreter wasn’t in attendance.
In March, Lafferty called for an adjournment of the House when the Tlicho interpreter wasn’t available, saying that he couldn’t properly address fellow MLAs in his language.
The interpreter was also unavailable when Lafferty gave comments in Tlicho to a Committee of the Whole meeting on Nov. 3 regarding the Covid-19 Secretariat.
Although Foisy acknowledged that there has been improvement in multilingual service over the years, such as past sessions posted on YouTube with translation in non-English languages, he said work remains to be done.
“Sometimes recordings are made available long after the sessions are over. Some staff at the assembly said they need more staff to be able to load them up online,” he said. “We thought that was stunning, bearing in mind modern technology can make it possible to put it online automatically. It shouldn’t necessarily be the work of an individual, a device can do it.”
He also pointed to the lack of transcripts, press releases and tabled documents in languages other than English.
“I doubt the legislature has the capacity to table documents that aren’t in English,” he said. “If the intention of the (GNWT) is to offer an equal service for the speakers and legislators, regardless of the language they speak at the assembly… this is (currently) not equal service.”
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly, who chaired the meeting, asked Foisy if he knows of examples, based on other Canadian legislatures, demonstrating ways the NWT could improve.
Foisy responded that the legislature in Nunavut does a good job of releasing the Hansard transcript in Inuktitut and English and that the New Brunswick legislature publishes its Hansard in English and French.
“They don’t translate (proceedings),” he said. “They have stenographers typing as the words are spoken.”
Foisy was perhaps feeling deja vu on Tuesday as his comments echoed the same criticisms he made more than five years ago.
During March – Aboriginal Languages Month – in 2015, Foisy said Indigenous languages spoken in the assembly are put into the Hansard in English only, as News/North reported on March 30, 2015.
History is repeating itself for Lafferty as well. The article noted that Lafferty, who at the time was minister responsible for official languages, had spoken in Tlicho without an English translation 42 times since 2008.
Ombud Colette Langlois, who was assembly clerk in 2015, told News/North at the time that limited funding and infrastructure meant that interpreters for all languages couldn’t always be present at the same time, nor was transcribing speeches into Indigenous languages feasible.
The News/North story spurred the Office of the Language Commissioner to launch an investigation into the issues raised.
The final report of the probe was released in 2018 by former commissioner Shannon Gullberg, whose term ended in October of 2020. It found that the assembly “expressed there are technical limitations to the recording and broadcasting of assembly proceedings”; that there aren’t enough properly trained interpreters and translators in the NWT, particularly for some Indigenous languages and that there isn’t a formal training program for those individuals.
It also found that the assembly hasn’t kept statistics on requests made by MLAs for interpretation, or the nature of those requests.
However, the report stated that the Office of the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly consults with MLAs to determine the level of interpretation services required and that advance notice is needed to ensure that the services can be prepared.
In the report’s recommendations, Gullberg said the assembly’s language policy should hinge on a rights-based model instead of on a needs-based model, taking into consideration the desire of MLAs to speak various official languages in assembly proceedings, regardless of need, and the requirement for MLAs to understand “in a timely manner” what is said in the assembly.
The rights-based model should also address the public’s ability to participate in the legislative process through language services allowing communities to hear assembly proceedings in the official languages.
A spokesperson from the office of the assembly clerk wasn’t immediately available. An office manager at the language commission said inquiries about language issues could be addressed once a new commissioner is hired, likely in 2021.