Good evening. I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to the 16th meeting of the Standing Committee on Official Languages. Today, we are considering the challenges of the parliamentary interpretation service in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We must follow certain procedures. I know that a number of you, especially committee members, are very familiar with them. However, since we are hearing from witnesses, I will allow myself to outline those procedures.
First, I would once again like to welcome a new member of the committee, the member for Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, Joël Godin.
For those participating virtually, I would like to take the opportunity to remind all participants of the meeting that taking screenshots or photographs of your screen is not permitted, and also highlight the fact that this was mentioned by on September 29, 2020.
Members and witnesses may speak in the official language of their choice. Interpretation services are available for this meeting. You have the choice at the bottom of your screen of “floor”, “English” or “French”. Before speaking, click on the microphone icon to activate your own mike, and when you are done speaking, please put your mike on mute to minimize any interference.
I remind everyone that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair. When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly.
Unless there are exceptional circumstances, the use of headsets with a boom microphone is mandatory for everyone participating remotely. Should any technical challenge arise, please advise the chair. Please note that we may need to suspend for a few minutes as we need to ensure that all members are able to participate fully.
For those in the Wellington Building, masks are required, unless you are seated, when physical distancing is not possible. Should you wish to get my attention, signal the clerk.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses. We are hearing from Steven MacKinnon, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Services and Procurement. We are also welcoming, from the Department of Public Works and Government Services, Michael Vandergrift, associate deputy minister, Lucie Séguin, chief executive officer, Translation Bureau, and Matthew Ball, director of interpretation and chief interpreter, Translation Bureau.
Mr. MacKinnon, you have seven and a half minutes for your presentation. Each party will then have six minutes to ask questions.
On that note, I give you the floor.
I also thank the committee members for their kind invitation.
This evening, I am speaking to you directly from the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. I am joined by the people you just introduced, whom I will not introduce again. Suffice it to say that it is with pride that, for four years, I have been fulfilling the duties of parliamentary secretary in this department alongside the people accompanying me this evening, among others.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak about how my department is working to protect the health and safety of our interpreters during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Translation Bureau, which is about 87 years old, is part of Public Services and Procurement Canada. It supports the government in its efforts to serve and communicate with Canadians by providing linguistic services, such as translation and interpretation in both official languages, as well in indigenous and foreign languages. In addition to spoken languages, we also provide interpretation in sign languages.
The exceptional work of our interpreters is essential in facilitating meetings such as this one. Interpreters work mostly behind the scenes, ensuring parliamentarians and Canadians can follow our proceedings in the official language of their choice. Their work has been especially important over the last few months, as evidenced by your interest in this file.
I know that I speak for every parliamentarian and all Canadians when I say thank you to our interpreters.
In the fall of 2017, the Translation Bureau created the Conference Interpretation Advisory Panel and a special procurement working group representing the freelance interpreter community as together we sought a new contracting mechanism.
Many of the six guiding principles—and I worked on those with Minister Foote at the time—agreed upon between PSPC’s acquisitions branch, the Translation Bureau and the interpreter community back then continue to guide us today.
First, our goal is to ensure compliance with the federal government’s contracting policy by maximizing flexibility and agility to meet the specific needs of the interpretation community. Second, and this is very important, is to focus on the quality of services offered to clients. Third is to promote the economic vitality of Canada’s interpretation community. Fourth is to work together to define the most relevant, sustainable and effective tool for all. Fifth is to reduce the administrative burden associated with the new solution, both for the interpreter community and for the Translation Bureau. Finally, we recognize the practices related to the profession of conference interpretation.
The government is taking important steps to ensure that our interpreters have the support they need to do their jobs safely. Their health and well-being remain the top priority.
Creating the best possible conditions for interpretation ensures not only that the language rights of all Canadians are respected, but that the dedicated professionals who provide this service are protected at all times.
The Translation Bureau works closely with the House of Commons and the Senate, federal departments and agencies and other partners to provide interpretation of parliamentary and government proceedings, including virtual sessions.
To be clear, the bureau is not responsible for the technical aspects related to interpretation, such as providing the necessary equipment. That responsibility belongs to clients—including the House Administration—with whom the bureau collaborates closely to make sure interpreters have everything they need to provide quality service.
Even in ordinary times, interpretation is a demanding and complex task. We know that it requires very specific technical conditions to be performed safely, particularly with respect to sound quality.
The pandemic has forced us to find different ways to meet and work together. Now more than ever, it is especially important to respect public safety guidelines. As we rely more and more on virtual meetings, we continue to adapt to new challenges.
Health and safety is a priority for Parliament, and it is priority for our government, and we are making every effort to ensure that our staff and freelance interpreters are protected.
At all times, interpreters are instructed to interrupt the service if the sound does not allow for safe interpretation.
Since virtual sittings of Parliament became the norm, the government has strengthened existing measures to protect interpreters at meetings involving remote participants.
May of these measures came out of recommendations made to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
For example, Parliament is providing headsets with an integrated microphone to members of Parliament and senators, as well as to witnesses appearing before parliamentary committees. These headsets improve sound quality and decrease health and safety incidents.
Another measure is having a technician present with the interpreters at all times and having sound checks conducted ahead of meetings.
Moreover, the Translation Bureau has reduced the length of assignments for interpreters working at virtual sessions without reducing their compensation.
The bureau has also instructed participants to provide written statements to interpreters in advance, as I have done tonight, when possible, as well as to use video conference to allow interpreters to see their facial expressions and adjust their tone.
To ensure high-quality and safe interpretation services, the Translation Bureau is pushing forward with several research initiatives to develop evidence-based solutions. For example, it has undertaken a research project with the University of Geneva in Switzerland on fatigue and cognitive load during remote interpretation.
Furthermore, the National Research Council of Canada has tested a new active sound limiter. This type of device can protect interpreters from acoustic shock and can measure their daily exposure to sound levels so that they can avoid exceeding the daily dose.
The National Research Council of Canada has also provided the bureau with preliminary results of an analysis to confirm that sound levels in Parliament do not exceed federal noise exposure regulations, and is continuing testing and sampling to ensure safer working conditions.
I should also note that the Parliament of Canada, on the advice of the Translation Bureau, has replaced all of its interpretation consoles with models equipped with built-in sound limiters, which also meet international standards.
Finally, with the support of health and safety experts at PSPC and external audiologists, the bureau is developing a hearing protection standard for interpreters.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted an abrupt shift in how interpretation services are being delivered. Although far from ready to go completely virtual, the work to improve conditions for interpretation was already well underway. As a result—
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I welcome our witness and his partners.
Mr. MacKinnon, thank you for appearing before the committee.
You are seeing all the challenges of real-time interpretation. Our meeting started a bit late.
I would like to begin by thanking you for the sensitivity you are showing toward our interpreters. We have already held two meetings on this issue. Today's meeting is the third. The committee felt it was necessary to get to the bottom of things.
It is true that you provide us with headsets, but we have learned that they could be of better quality, especially for people working in Parliament. It's not about having stereo sound, but rather about having better sound quality for interpreters, who must hear and interpret at the same time, which presents an additional difficulty.
Mr. Parliamentary Secretary, our first suggestion would be to provide high-quality headsets. Some interpreters have only one earpiece. We can imagine the work our interpreters do.
The other aspect I would like to discuss is hybrid Parliament. This evening, I am in Lévis, you are in Gatineau and our chair is in Montreal. We know there are two types of meetings. Some are held in person and others are virtual. As soon as someone is in virtual mode, like me this evening, do you consider that to be a virtual meeting, as suggested by the European Parliament's definition?
We want to make sure there are enough interpreters. We recommend three interpreters for a four-hour segment. I would like you to talk about that. I feel that you are very concerned about ensuring that the interpreters, who are the ears of the House, provide us with a very important service in the best possible way.
Thank you very much, Mr. Blaney. I thank all of you for worrying about the plight, health and work safety of interpreters. I thank them from the bottom of my heart, once again, for their work.
As I said in my presentation, Parliament and our clients provide headsets and all the technical equipment that we use in our work and that interpreters use. I am sure it would be a good idea to send your suggestion to them. Of course, you regularly make recommendations to our partners on the technical equipment provided to interpreters and on its use.
Concerning the definition of “meeting”, as I said in my presentation, we have had to adapt along the way. Measures were taken as we went along. The Translation Bureau and freelance interpreters have had to adapt a number of things, including the contract between us. That contract was amended in December, but retroactively, to cover the period starting nearly at the beginning of virtual meetings. Unfortunately, that agreement or those contracts are about to expire.
Discussions and informal negotiations are underway. I have participated in them with stakeholders and interpreter representatives to discuss those issues. The formal consultation process that was launched on February 5 through a request for information is still ongoing. This will naturally transform into a request for a proposal to sign a contract on July 1 that will better regulate and anticipate interpreters' virtual circumstances.
Thank you for inviting our colleagues from the Translation Bureau and from Public Services and Procurement Canada to participate in this very important study.
The Translation Bureau takes very seriously the increase in the number of health and safety incidents. The vast majority of the Translation Bureau's salaried employees have reported incidents. The majority of them are reporting excessive fatigue and headaches, but also tinnitus, ear pain and hypersensitivity.
To deal with that, as Mr. MacKinnon mentioned, the bureau immediately implemented very rigorous measures. It also began a research program to obtain evidence on the impact that has on interpreters, not only in the short term, but also in the long term. As our colleagues from the IACI said when they appeared, on February 2, there is very little evidence, very little scientific data on the impact that has on interpreters' hearing health.
I will talk about a few of our initiatives. We are developing and implementing a program for protecting interpreters' hearing. The program includes training, research and tests in a variety of areas including acoustics, interpretation function and audiology, which are carried out by experts, by qualified physicians.
We immediately implemented and distributed internal and external sound limiters, which are used to protect interpreters from acoustic shocks. That is another measure we have adopted.
As the parliamentary secretary mentioned, we have shortened work days and have increased the rest period between assignments.
We informed you of the situation, and I am happy to see how seriously you are taking interpreters' health and safety. For instance, you do sound checks with interpreters beforehand. We really appreciate that.
In addition, committees have instructions: headsets with integrated microphones, as Mr. Blaney mentioned, cable Internet connections and awareness of our environment—in other words, minimizing noise and muting our microphone when we are not speaking.
In addition to the sound checks we are doing, there is now always a sound technician and a coordinator on site in case of problems, which is a step forward.
We have also instructed interpreters to interrupt the service if they feel that their health and safety are at risk. This is really important because we want to avoid them increasing the volume, which could lead to acoustic shocks.
I could give you more details on the research underway if you like, but we work closely with our colleagues from the House of Commons in charge of technological aspects.
Thank you for your question.
With respect to the equipment, we communicate the requirements to ensure health, safety and sound quality to our partners in the House of Commons, who are responsible for providing the equipment to you, honourable members. So we'll be communicating to our colleagues in the House of Commons that headsets must be compliant.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we adjusted fairly quickly. New generations of headsets have already been deployed, and we're trying to keep up with this evolution.
As for the pool of interpreters, there are 74 salaried interpreters at the Translation Bureau. Sixty-three of them are assigned to official languages, five to foreign languages and six to sign languages. With respect to official languages—which is of most interest to this committee—25 of our interpreters work in English booths and 38 work in French booths.
With respect to the shortage, we rely heavily on the contribution of freelance interpreters from the private sector. This includes AIIC members, but also unrepresented or independent freelance interpreters. More than 100 interpreters in Canada have passed the Translation Bureau's rigorous accreditation process.
With respect to your third question, which was on the definition of virtual mode, I'll let my colleague, Matthew Ball, provide you with some information on that.
I'll do this quickly, Mr. Chair.
I'd like to thank the witnesses for being here.
I'm new to this committee. What I'm hearing this evening is that everything is good. Everything is under control and everything is fine. We're taking good care of our interpreters, and there's no problem. The pandemic started 10 months ago, and there's some finetuning going on so that we're even better equipped, but there's no problem.
Yet, last Friday, the Standing Committee on Health met. I don't want to ascribe motives to my colleagues in the Liberal Party, but there was filibustering. At 4:30 p.m. the meeting was suspended. The committee is still suspended, and the interpreters are being made to take the blame.
If there's a problem with interpreter availability, why are we looking for new interpreters?
Could you tell us what constraints and problems you've been experiencing since the beginning of the pandemic?
What have you done concretely, and what are you going to do shortly?
Thank you very much for your question.
The role of the Bureau, by virtue of its legislative mandate, is to provide linguistic services. A lot has been said about interpretation this evening, but our translators are currently preparing the minutes of this meeting, and they will be working until the task is completed. We provide linguistic services to the Senate, to the House of Commons and to federal departments. They are our clients.
In your example, our client is the House Administration. All our clients, including the House Administration, are responsible for the computer platforms and hardware required for our professionals to provide their services. The same is true for the Senate Administration.
Ensuring sound quality requires a very complex, integrated chain. As you also mentioned on February 2, there are a number of factors. These include the humans, the technology, the transfer of information and audio feed. The Translation Bureau is the expert when it comes to working with professionals and employers. We also use a good number of freelancers from the private sector. We also rely on the contribution of some interpreters that we find in Canadian society.
To answer that question very quickly, I would like to give you some information about the Translation Bureau's accreditation process. This very rigorous process is recognized internationally as one of the most rigorous in the world.
The accreditation process used by the bureau is a minimum criterion for providing the bureau's services. We ensure that interpreters are able to interpret into their mother tongue, which we call their A language, and into the B language, which is the other official language.
Our interpreters, those who are accredited and employed by the bureau, have the ability to provide quality service and have passed a test for that. “Quality” means that it is in compliance with the Official Languages Act.
A number of interpreters choose to interpret in both languages, but we do not force anyone, either our employees or our freelance interpreters, to do so. Our interpreters who do not feel comfortable enough to interpret into their B language have the right to refuse.
If you want more details, I can ask Mr. Ball to provide you with some and tell you how things are done in the booth. The proportion is correct, the total number of official language interpreters is 63. Of that number, 25 work in the English booth and 38 work in the French booth.
Thank you for the question.
Actually, the issue of sound quality is new to all of us. We are familiar with the quantity of sound, the pressure levels. We know how many decibels for how much time pose a risk to hearing health, but we know less about the quality of sound. Right now, we are trying to learn more about many aspects of sound quality.
Ms. Séguin referred to the research project that the bureau has sponsored with the University of Geneva, Switzerland, in conjunction with the National Research Council of Canada. We are trying to better understand the issue of sound quality and how it affects hearing health.
We know from reports from the interpreters, both staff and freelance, that there is certainly a problem. We see the number of incidents. That is why we would like to understand more about the issue of quality.
There are certainly problems with Zoom, but it is used all over the world for interpretation and for virtual meetings like these. However, there are other platforms out there, and we are also testing them to see if they affect sound quality. But it's not just the platform; it's also the microphone, the stability of the Internet, and so on.
Thank you very much for your question.
In Canada, at the Translation Bureau, the long-term effects and impacts of exposure to sub-optimal sound quality have not been fully documented. Our AIIC colleagues who appeared before you made the same comment.
First, the Translation Bureau is investing resources to gather statistical evidence to help not only Canada and the Translation Bureau, but also to be ready to collaborate with the AIIC and with independent interpreters by sharing those results with them. That is a commitment. Our commitment is to share the results once the research is done.
Second, we have adopted new measures. Previously, when interpretation was done in person, we required interpretation for six consecutive hours. We have now reduced that to a maximum of four hours. On average, our freelance interpreters and our employees spend three hours in active interpretation.
So we have reduced the hours of work, because we recognize the inherent risks involved. At the same time, we have also implemented other measures such as sound limiters. We support our employees and our freelancers who make the decision to interrupt their service by giving them the right to do so. As you will have noticed, that does happen. If interpreters cannot hear you, they can't interpret what you are saying.
We do provide these protections, this support. We are delighted to see that members and honourable senators are fully aware, and are understanding and patient. We want—
As for your article, Ms. Lattanzio, you would have to send it to the clerk in both official languages so that it can be distributed to members. The analysts will be able to see it too.
Mr. Beaulieu, we are not currently in camera, so we will take note of your comment.
Let me thank the witnesses for their testimony this evening; it was very enlightening. Let me start with Lucie Séguin, the CEO of the Translation Bureau. My thanks also go to Michael Vandergrift, the associate deputy minister and Matthew Ball, who is the director of interpretation and chief interpreter at the Translation Bureau.
On behalf of all members of the committee, I also want to thank the entire technical team, the interpreters, the clerk and the analysts for helping us this evening in holding this very important session.
Without further delay, I declare the session adjourned.
(The meeting is adjourned.)