Mr. Chair, honourable members, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you this morning.
Please allow me to also thank my interpreter colleagues who are working in the anonymity of the booth and to apologize in advance if I speak too quickly so as not to run out of time.
First, I would like to say a few words about the Canadian region of the International Association of Conference Interpreters, or AIIC.
Founded in 1953, AIIC has close to 3,000 members worldwide, in 89 countries and 24 regions.
We are a professional association that promotes high standards of quality and ethics, improves the practice through training and research, and ensures working conditions that are conducive to quality.
The only Canadian association of its kind, AIIC Canada has 125 members, most of whom are freelancers, but some of whom work full time for institutions including the translation bureau. The vast majority of AIIC Canada freelancers are accredited by the translation bureau to work for conferences and parliamentary interpretation services.
Approximately 70% of translation bureau conference interpretation services are provided by freelancers, and about 30% of the bureau's parliamentary interpretation services are provided by freelancers.
This small community is crucial to ensuring Canadians have equal quality of access to the proceedings of federal institutions in the official language of their choice.
I, myself, am a conference interpreter. I must say I am more comfortable whispering in your ear than speaking from the witness chair.
We are grateful for your invitation. We hope to convey two things to you. We want to place on the record our views about what you learned and recommended after studying the Translation Bureau. We also want to brief you about significant concerns we have about a new system for procuring the services of freelance interpreters that will make the problems you identified at the Translation Bureau infinitely worse, not better.
First, in terms of your report, we believe that implementation of your recommendations for the Translation Bureau is crucial for the federal government's ability to meet its official languages objectives and obligations, which are fundamental to the preservation of Canada's French and English linguistic duality. The Translation Bureau's shift to cost recovery as a special operating agency has launched a race to the bottom, where the lowest cost eclipses the importance of quality translation and interpretation services. Equal access to the proceedings of federal institutions in the language of choice for Canadians is likely suffering as a result, as have the quality and availability of documents in both official languages. The committee's recommendations could begin to address the significant decline.
Your committee has suggested that Canadian Heritage is where all programs and policies related to official languages reside. We believe that the responsibility for the bureau should be held by Canadian Heritage rather than by PSPC and Treasury Board. As recommended, seasoned interpreters, translators, and terminologists, not public services and procurement managers, must manage the language services that are essential to making federal institutions accessible. We are particularly supportive of your recommendations 3, 4, and 8. The bureau has been starved for too long. It must have the necessary financial resources, as your committee so eloquently recommended. Overall, we give your committee high marks.
However, we were mystified that the government's response to your report and recommendations was so blasé. Your call for major reform was met with a status quo response.
I know Minister Foote will be appearing before your committee on Thursday, February 9. When she does, we will be listening attentively in the hope that she updates the government's response. We will also be listening to her remarks concerning her department's proposed system for procuring the services of freelance interpreters.
Let me preface my remarks on this topic by saying that AIIC Canada has been engaged in extensive discussions with the government and the minister's office concerning the proposed system. We have raised the alarm that the new system her department has built will undermine the government's ability to meet its official languages obligations. We have told anyone in government who will listen that Canadians' ability to follow the proceedings of federal institutions in the official language of their choice will be undermined by the new system.
By and large, we have had a sympathetic audience within government. They seem to be listening, and they fed back words of support for our concerns. But, the bottom line is that nothing has changed when it comes to the proposed new system, and in fact, parts of it have already been implemented, such as lowest bid.
Meanwhile, after several delays, the request for standing offer will close on March 9, 2017.
I would like to provide you some details about the changes we have asked for and why.
First, the new system is based almost exclusively on a lowest bid principle. All but a handful of interpreter assignments will be handed out to the person who bids the lowest price. Unless the system is changed, your committee and every other standing committee of the House of Commons and Senate will be assigned interpreters that have bid the lowest price to do the work and nothing else. Imagine this cut-rate system for the seat of our democracy in our bilingual country!
The proposed system discriminates against quality. It seeks to establish one all-inclusive rate for each of the streams, regardless of the mode of interpretation. As a result, the more versatile, specialized, and experienced interpreters will lose out to the lowest bidders. This will shrink the already small pool of qualified interpreters.
Because you get what you pay for, we have asked the minister to abandon this approach in favour of assigning work on the basis of who is best-qualified to do the work and to pay them a fair premium that recognizes special skills and additional responsibilities.
If the minister were to adopt a best-fit approach in place of lowest bid, we have asked that she establish a mechanism to monitor the bureau's performance when it comes to making assignments based on best fit.
The new system proposes to create a dual-stream structure where only a handful of federal conferences and events will be assigned to interpreters with the best skill set for the job. All the rest, about 95%, will receive the services of interpreters assigned, not because they have the right skills, experience, and subject matter knowledge for the job. No. They will be assigned to events categorized as “generic” because they have bid the lowest rate. It's as if the designers of this new system think some conference events are less equal than others when it comes to the government's official languages obligations of equal quality.
Based on the record of changes at the Translation Bureau, we fear this flawed design could well lead to the assignment of non-accredited interpreters to cover the proceedings of most federal institutions whose work would fall into the generic or less important category. Because this would create a double standard of quality, we have asked the minister to abandon the high stakes and generic streams and ensure that all assignments are treated equally when it comes to quality.
You may know that interpreters must pass a rigorous Government of Canada examination to be qualified to work for the Translation Bureau. This accreditation process is envied around the globe. It’s the gold standard, which is appropriate given the essential nature of the work. However, this assurance of quality has been undermined over time.
For over 20 years, federal departments and agencies have had the green light to contract interpretation and translation services from providers other than the Translation Bureau, with no obligation to hire accredited professionals. Today, some of those government departments and agencies routinely hire interpreters who are considered unqualified by Translation Bureau standards.
Because this double standard must end, we’ve asked the minister to impose the requirement of Translation Bureau accreditation across the government to uphold the highest standard of quality, in compliance with its obligations under the Official Languages Act. We’ve also asked for a commitment in writing from Minister Foote to that effect, as well as the unequivocal assurance that the accreditation exam will neither be outsourced nor watered down.
The RFSO, which closes on March 9, started being developed in 2014. The final version, 66-page document, was published in June last year. It was and continues to be replete with template provisions drawn from other RFSO documents that simply don’t apply to the profession. What does “Freight on Board” have to do with interpretation? Nothing, of course. Yet, the RFSO has a “Freight on Board” clause.
Since it was first published, the RFSO has been amended 15 times in a failed attempt to clarify its provisions, and it may be amended yet again. More than 300 questions and answers have been published on the Buy and Sell site. Because of this chaos, we're seeking the indefinite postponement of the RFSO, until PSPC can provide a proper document.
Conversely, should the RFSO closing date of March 9 be maintained, we request that, at the very least, the existing RFSO be withdrawn and re-issued with all appropriate revisions.
Even though this may not be the current government’s policy, we believe the ultimate goal of this system is the privatization of the Translation Bureau to cut costs. This option that has just been rejected by the only other officially bilingual government in the country for fear that it would unacceptably undermine the service quality.
In closing, I want to restate that we’re anxiously awaiting the minister’s appearance on Thursday and we’ll be listening carefully to what she has to say.
We’re now ready to answer your questions.
Thank you for your attention.