Good morning. Welcome to the 93rd meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. Pursuant to the committee's mandate to review and report on the procedures and practices of the House and its committees, today we are beginning a study on the potential use of indigenous languages in the proceedings of the House of Commons.
Members will recall that on June 20, 2017, the Speaker ruled on a question of privilege, which had been raised at a previous sitting by the member for , regarding simultaneous interpretation services available to members who use indigenous languages in the House. Although the Speaker did not find that a prima facie case of privilege existed, he did suggest that the committee consider studying the matter.
To this end, we are pleased to be joined by Charles Robert, Clerk of the House of Commons, and André Gagnon, deputy clerk, procedure.
Thank you both for being here.
Just so the committee knows, for the technical questions on this, Public Services and Procurement Canada provides these services—both translation and the document. We'll have them later as a witness and they can answer further technical questions after we get proposals from our witnesses. We have quite a list of witnesses that the parties have submitted, so it should be very interesting hearing from them.
We'll go to you, Mr. Clerk, for your opening comments. Thank you for coming. I know you're very busy, so we really appreciate your being here today.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. I am delighted to be here with you, and I would like to thank the committee for inviting me to appear today to speak on the use of indigenous languages in the House of Commons.
The right of members to speak in the House in either French or English has been guaranteed by section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Simultaneous interpretation was introduced in the House in January 1959, allowing all members to listen to every word spoken in the chamber in either French or English.
Over the years, various members have also addressed the House in languages other than English or French. This has prompted questions as to how these interventions could be understood for the benefit of all members of the House and those listening at home. Such interventions have often been limited to a few words, and most have occurred in statements by members.
Although simultaneous interpretation into English or French on the floor of the House is not available in these instances, a note is made in the Debates to explain that the member spoke in another language. If a translated version of the remarks made during statements by members is provided to the parliamentary publications directorate, that will also be documented. As an example, the Debates would state, “Member spoke in Cree and provided the following translation”, which is then accompanied by the text of the statement.
Members have also chosen to speak in another language at other times. This has occurred during debate on a bill, a motion, or even during oral questions. When a member speaks in a language other than English or French, outside of statements by members, the Debates simply note which language was spoken, without including a translation of the remarks, as follows: "[Member spoke in Cree.]".
To facilitate understanding of what is being said in the chamber, the speaker has generally encouraged members using another languages to repeat the remarks in one of the official languages so they can be interpreted. This ensures that their interventions are fully reflected in the Debates.
In response to the question of privilege raised by the member for , Mr. Ouellette, Speaker Regan reiterated on June 20, 2017, that:
[...] given the House's current limited technical and physical capacity for interpretation, if members want to ensure that the comments they make in a language other than French or English can be understood by those who are following the proceedings and are part of the official record in the Debates, an extra step is required. Specifically, members need to repeat their comments in one of the two official languages so that our interpreters can provide the appropriate interpretation and so that they may be fully captured in the Debates. By doing so, all members of the House and the public will be able to benefit from the rich value of these interventions.
Admittedly, going beyond this and expanding support for the use of other languages does raise significant considerations involving technical and physical capacity, linguistic expertise, and information technology requirements; these, of course, would need to be thoroughly assessed.
While other jurisdictions have some experience upon which you could draw, it will be important to recognize the uniqueness of each context in order to understand the real possibilities for the House of Commons. The recent experience in the Senate is worth noting. The practical challenges it experienced are likely similar to the types the House would face in attempting to support the use of other languages in our proceedings, such as the issue of securing the services of qualified interpreters and addressing the logistical and technical limitations.
Whatever decisions the House makes on including other languages in its proceedings, I can assure you that the administration will do all it can to support you in your discussions and to implement your decisions.
With that, I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have, with the assistance of André Gagnon.
Thank you both for being here.
This is an exciting project, I must say. I've been really looking forward to this. Canada is still an unfinished work, a work in progress, and this is part of nation-building. Certainly it reflects a lot of the importance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report, and I mention this because the government is committed to implementing every single one of those recommendations.
I want to underscore that on page 321, under “Language and culture”, in number 14, the commission called upon the federal government to enact an aboriginal languages act that would incorporate certain principles, including the following:
i. Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them....
iii. The federal government has a responsibility to provide sufficient funds for Aboriginal-language revitalization and preservation....
v. Funding for Aboriginal language initiatives must reflect the diversity of Aboriginal languages.
This is interesting, and I just throw it out to colleagues. This may be a jumping-off point to address this promise, since I consider nation-building to be a file that we all own and have as a priority. In 15, the commission's report states:
We call upon the federal government to appoint, in consultation with Aboriginal groups, an Aboriginal Languages Commissioner. The commissioner should help promote Aboriginal languages and report on the adequacy of federal funding of Aboriginal-languages initiatives.
There may be an opportunity to use this as a segue into that promise, given its obvious connections.
Having said all of that, I don't have a lot of questions. I appreciate that we need to start with your framework, but I would be interested, notwithstanding your remarks here, to know what you would consider to be the biggest administrative challenge we would face as members wanting to bring this about. What's the biggest one?
I can describe it to you because I have actually bumped into pages in the Debates before 1959, when it was only in English and only in French. If you didn't speak the other language or understand it, it was basically tough luck, because the way section 133 was interpreted, you can work in either language, but if there is no translation or interpretation, there's no principal violation of the guarantee that you can work in either language.
The period of friction that I was reading through was basically at the time around World War I when Canada was very keen on participating and doing its bit in the war effort, and bills were coming into the House and the Senate, and they were available only in one language. Well, the French senators, the French MPs, those of that language, were furious. They were actually being deprived of their capacity to function as parliamentarians because they could not see the draft legislation in their language.
That was an issue, and I assume that it would have been an issue from 1867 through to 1959. Everyone, I suspect, was really quite grateful that technology had advanced so far that we could actually allow for simultaneous translation in practice, and I think that was in some sense how, as a parliament, we actually fulfilled the intent of section 133 more completely.
I want to thank you all for inviting me to bring my thoughts here while you're working on this and trying to bring other languages to be spoken here at these meetings.
I would also like to say that I'm really happy that I'm here to be able to put forward my thoughts on this.
I want to let you guys know that I will be speaking English sometimes on some of the things that I will be talking about. Maybe you won't understand if I share it all in Cree, but what I will talk about is the Constitution. That's what I'll be talking in English about, when I start talking about the Constitution and the way we look at it.
I know that this was talked about in the past. One of the things I want to discuss is this. I know that it can be easy to bring people here so that our people can speak their native language, and I can help you guys. I really expect the Cree language will be able to be spoken. I would always tell you guys ahead of time what I would be talking about. I can tell you guys about what I think, and I think that it's easy.
Can you hear Priscilla interpreting in the background? I want to thank her. She's here helping us today.
I know that I don't have much time to talk to you guys, but I will try to talk about what I need to talk about here.
I really think that you will help people, especially aboriginal people, to be able to speak their language. It really helps us to speak our native language. You probably know that before they took me, before I was sent over here, there was no title for someone to be working in what I am doing right now. There was no title as to how we were going to be called, for what you'd call a member of Parliament. We tried to find a name for us. Today I can say that we call them “the people who speak on our behalf, on their behalf”. That's what they call me, and this is what I bring, my word, here in Ottawa, and that's what I did. We didn't have that. You guys had speakers, but we didn't have that. Now we call that “the boss of words”.
That's how we can help each other—by allowing aboriginal people to speak their language. I really think we look at the Constitution too much. We should look at section 16 of part I the Constitution, but it's not the only one we should be looking at. We should also be looking at sections 22, 25, 26, and 34. Those are all the ones that we should all look at equally so we can understand where they came from, about my knowledge, about how I'm able to speak my language.
Mr. Chair, I have read some of the stuff the Senate has done in the past with respect to the feasibility of achieving what I've been proposing since I got elected to this place in 2011. Is it feasible? In my view, it's a resounding yes.
As I said in Cree, those who wish to speak their indigenous language can provide advance notices as to whether it's going to be a question, a statement, or a speech in the House. The notice may change to that effect. Development of a bank of interpreters like Priscilla in the back is easy. That should be developed jointly with the member of Parliament. There are known interpreters up in my riding, many of them who do speak Cree. I think it's a matter of resolving the technology and the space required. I don't know if any of you have visited one of the cubicles of the interpreters in the House of Commons. They're pretty small. It wouldn't be possible today because of that.
I also did mention in my opening remarks that the recognition of my right to speak Cree in the House of Commons will benefit all indigenous languages. If we are serious about recognition of rights in this country then we need to do that. I'll come to the constitutional aspects in a while.
Protection and preservation of indigenous languages is one thing, but there's also the development aspect of indigenous languages when we do recognize the right of indigenous people to speak their language in the House of Commons. I gave two examples there. We didn't have a word in Cree for member of Parliament until I got elected and we had to develop that exactly.
I explained to elders what a member of Parliament does. They suggested a couple of words and we came up with yimstimagesu, “He or she who speaks on your behalf”. We did the same for the Speaker.
I know that my time is flying by, but I did want to touch on certain aspects. We seem to be focused too much on section 16 of part I of our Constitution, which recognizes the two official languages of this country and the House of Commons. We need to read section 16 jointly with sections 22, 25, 26 and, of course, section 35 of the Constitution of Canada. I think if you combine and read along with other sections there is a definite constitutional right for me to do so in the House of Commons.
Added to that, since our Constitution, UNDRIP, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, was adopted in 2007 by the UN General Assembly. Section 13.2 of the UN declaration states:
States shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected and also to ensure that indigenous peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.
I think under UNDRIP there is an article that pertains to that. I think the present government has committed to the UN declaration and implementing it, including, to a certain extent, article 5 as well.
The TRC also recommended to the government, in call to action 13, the following:
We call upon the federal government to acknowledge that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights.
That's call to action 13. I believe that the present government also endorsed all 94 calls to action. I think this committee needs to refer to both of those.
That's our framework, Mr. Chair.
I listened closely to the presentations of the clerks just a while ago. I raised these constitutional issues and fundamental rights issues because I don't want to be told as an indigenous person, “Yes, we will allow you to speak your language; yes, we will give you permission to speak your language in the House of Commons.” That's charity. I don't want charity. I want my rights to be recognized and respected in that place. I've always stood up for those rights, and I will continue to do so.
One other aspect that needs to be mentioned is that in the most important decision by the Supreme Court in June of 2014, the Tsilhqot'in case, the Supreme Court talked about human rights with respect to indigenous peoples for the first time. The Supreme Court said in its decision that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in part I of the Constitution and section 35 in part II of the Constitution are sister provisions. In that sense, we need to look at my right to speak Cree in the House of Commons as a constitutional and human right.
I don't know if I have much time, Mr. Chair, but....
Thank you, Chair, and I want to thank my colleague Romeo for coming in today.
I've been serving in Parliaments since 1990, provincially and federally, and although we're all equal, I have found that in every Parliament there are those among us who rise above. It's because of who they are and the gravitas their personality brings forward. Two of the people who I've served with and who I think come under that heading are Mr. Irwin Cotler and Mr. Ed Broadbent.
Romeo, I want to say that I add you to that, and I consider myself to be very honoured to serve at a time when you are here, because of your important role in building our nation, in giving life to our Constitution, and in doing it in a way that's so classy—I can't think of another word—and so elegant almost, and yet the forcefulness behind your passion is so clear.
Having said that, colleagues, I debated whether I wanted to say this or not, but I think I need to. As much as a successful outcome would be seen as a positive part of continuing to build our nation, I think we have to recognize, based on what our friend and colleague Romeo has said this morning, that the cost of failure is so great that failure is not an option.
We started this by asking “is it time?” and “how could we do it?”, and it was sort of notional, but having now started down this road and having laid out in front the historical implications of how important this is to many of our fellow Canadians, to then fail in this endeavour would mean that our time and our Parliament that we serve in have done more damage than harm, because we started out to do the right thing and failed. I will just say I personally feel that now that we've set down this course we have to succeed. We have to find a way to send the message to our fellow Canadians that we are serious about giving them their rights in a way that is respectful and about acknowledging the rights they have.
That's just to say that usually we do things that would be nice to do, but if they don't work, well, you know, we'll come back at it another time in another Parliament. We don't have that option. We really, really need to make this work, and I have a sense that we will.
I'm like my voting brother, Mr. —that's inside baseball and I don't expect anybody else to get it—on the 150 years. I'm having some trouble getting around the fact that there wasn't even a word for member of Parliament. Now, is that because we weren't electing enough people for this to become an issue? Is it because there was such a disconnect that there was no need for it?
Can you help me just understand a little, Romeo, how we could get to the point? I'm like Scotty: 150 years to come up with a word that describes what a member of Parliament does, given that it's the foundation of our constitutional democracy...? Help me understand, Romeo. How did we get here?
I'll say one last thing, and I don't expect you to have an answer to this, but you may know something about it, given the interpretation.
I think that at some point, Chair and colleagues, we're going to need to take a look at where we're going to be in the very near future in terms of simultaneous interpretation as it relates to AI. I don't know about others here, but I'm sure you're doing the same, reading and trying to get a sense of where things are and what the issues are that we need to grapple with.
There are those who suggest that within a very short period of time, AI will be such that you could actually almost have an earpiece and be talking to someone and have instantaneous interpretation. Are you familiar with this at all?
No? Okay. But I think it is something that we need to look at, because parliaments will exist for a long time and AI is going to have a major impact.
Romeo, thank you again, sir. I hope that we can call upon you at any time as we continue our deliberations.
I would have preferred Priscilla being in that room rather than being at the back—that kind of thing.
I want to add one thing about indigenous languages, following your comments. I've attended Assembly of First Nations meetings over the last 30 years. I've seen standing ovations for politicians many times in those assemblies. The biggest one I ever saw was when the announced that there would be an indigenous languages act. He got a rousing standing ovation for that announcement.
So if you're serious about protecting and revitalizing indigenous languages in this country, well, let's move forward. I don't know what the content of 's legislation will be. Much to my surprise, I haven't been consulted on the preparation or development of the legislation, unfortunately. I don't know if what we're trying to do here could be included in that legislation. I don't know. I haven't seen what's in the works at that end.
I'm hoping that we can deliver on this, because it's dangerous to abuse the trust of people. I think we're at a period of time, after 150 years, when we're no longer allowed to abuse the trust of indigenous peoples.