I am now prepared to rule on the question of privilege raised on June 8, 2017 by the honourable member for Winnipeg Centre concerning the right of members to use indigenous languages in proceedings in the House of Commons.
I would like to thank the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre for having raised this important matter.
The member began by explaining that, despite having provided documentation to interpretation services 48 hours in advance, simultaneous interpretation was not provided when he made a statement in nehiyo, the Cree language, on May 4, 2017. Unable to be understood by his fellow parliamentarians and those viewing the proceedings, he felt that he had been effectively silenced and his privileges violated. The member asked for not only the right to use indigenous languages in the proceedings of the House but also for minimal resources to enable him to participate and interact fully with other members in the proceedings and them with him in turn.
The issue raised by the member for Winnipeg Centre speaks to the very core of what members need when they come to this chamber, that is, not only to be free to speak but also to be understood. To be clear, the sacrosanct right of members to speak is not what is now being questioned; rather, it is the right of members to be understood immediately when they speak in a language other than one of the two official languages that is being raised.
This acknowledge of the need to bridge understanding between languages was surely at the root of the introduction of simultaneous interpretation for Canada's two official languages in the House in 1958. House of Commons Procedure and Practice, second edition, at page 287, explains the intentions of members at that time:
Members were of the opinion that this would give further expression to the Constitution, which provides for the equal status of the official languages and for their use in parliamentary debate.
This critical service, which began by way of an order of the House when members unanimously agreed to a government motion on August 11, 1958, continues to provide integral support to members as they search to understand and participate in parliamentary proceedings.
The fact that interpretation is provided in our two official languages was not designed or intended to prohibit members from speaking other languages in this chamber. Acting Speaker Kilger confirmed this on June 12, 1995, at page 13605 of Debates, when he stated:
At this time, there is nothing in the standing orders preventing anyone from using, as you say, a language that is not one of Canada's two official languages.
Members have availed themselves of this opportunity on many occasions, speaking not only indigenous languages but others as well. However, 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.
The Chair understands fully how some members could find this to be woefully inadequate. Perhaps there is some merit to that view. Perhaps being able to speak in other languages without the benefit of simultaneous interpretation is not good enough for some, even as the Chair reminds members of the impact that inherent physical limitations of the chamber have on the capacity for interpretation.
To offer something more, something different in terms of interpretation services, that is a decision that belongs to the House. As the member for Winnipeg Centre made a passionate argument for the improvement of interpretive services offered simultaneously in the House, I invite him to raise this issue with the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, which has a mandate for reviewing the procedures and practices of the House and its committees. As the member for Winnipeg Centre noted, other legislative bodies in Canada have had some experience with this issue, perhaps experiences from which the committee could draw upon should it undertake a study on the matter.
In conclusion, while the Chair understands that the current offering of interpretation may be not be seen as ideal by some members, I cannot find that the member for Winnipeg Centre has been prevented from conducting his parliamentary functions.
Therefore, I cannot find that a prima facie case of privilege exists in this case.
I thank hon. members for their attention.