Mr. Speaker, I rise today on a question of privilege concerning the interpretation resources that are available for committee meetings and other parliamentary proceedings.
I am raising this issue after Friday's meeting of the Standing Committee on Health. It was suspended on the claims of its chair, the hon. member for Coquitlam—Port Coquitlam, that there were no staff resources, interpreters, clerks and so on, available after 4:30 p.m. and therefore the committee could no longer continue to meet. That meeting was seized with a motion to order the production of the federal government's vaccine contracts, something the Liberal government has been treating as Ottawa's most highly guarded secret.
While I recognize that the usual practice of the House is that a complaint arising in a committee should first be reported from the committee itself, this has been a growing and systemic issue plaguing our hybrid committee structure. The health committee's meeting last week was merely the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak.
I understand that a recent meeting of the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations was similarly plagued by an abrupt adjournment as well. This past autumn, the Standing Committee on Finance witnessed a whole series of suspensions premised on unavailable resources.
At last week's health committee meeting, the hon. member for Beauport—Limoilou struggled to participate in a vote shortly before the suspension, attributing her difficulties to interpretation challenges. What is more, she noted that this was not the first time this caused a problem for her to vote, reflecting on a high-profile vote she cast at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics back on October 26.
These are just a few examples that come to mind and I am sure a number of other cases could very easily be cited with just a bit more reflection.
All of this is to say that there is a bigger picture here, a pattern, if we will, to take into consideration. It is this pattern which I respectfully submit meets the threshold of “very serious and special circumstances”, which Speaker Fraser articulated on March 26, 1990, at page 9756 of the Debates, in respect of the Chair intervening in committee matters.
To begin, and before anyone gets the wrong impression, let me clearly say that Conservatives strongly support bilingualism within Parliament. That was a basic premise of Confederation, that great legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier, that guaranteed, under section 133 of the British North America Act, that English or French could be used by any person during debates in the chambers of Canada's Parliament and that these two languages should be used in the respective records and journals of those chambers.
It was the government of Richard Bennett, a fellow Albertan, that created the Translation Bureau. Under subsection 4(1) of the Translation Bureau Act, the Translation Bureau shall collaborate with and act for both Houses of Parliament in all matters relating to the making and revising of translations from one language into another of documents, including correspondence, reports, proceedings, debates, bills and Acts, and to interpretation, sign-language interpretation and terminology.
It was John Diefenbaker's government that introduced simultaneous interpretation in the House of Commons and the Senate. It was Brian Mulroney's government that enshrined our simultaneous interpretation system in the Official Languages Act in 1988 in what is now subsection 4(2) of that act. Facilities shall be made available for the simultaneous interpretation of the debates and other proceedings of Parliament from one official language into the other.
Conservatives have been the parents and champions of bilingualism in Parliament.
Turning specifically to the health committee's meeting, at about 4:25 on Friday the chair stated, according to the blues, “I just want to advise the committee that we have a hard stop at 4:30 eastern time. After 4:30 we have no interpreters, no clerk, no analysts, and no room.”
As to the adjournment of committee meetings, allow me to quote from page 1099 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, third edition:
A committee meeting may be adjourned by the adoption of a motion to that effect. However, most meetings are adjourned more informally, when the Chair receives the implied consent of members to adjourn. The committee Chair cannot adjourn the meeting without the consent of a majority of the members, unless the Chair decides that a case of disorder or misconduct is so serious as to prevent the committee from continuing its work.
There is nothing in there about adjourning because inadequate resources have been provided to a committee.
A page earlier, on meeting suspensions, Bosc and Gagnon explain:
Committees frequently suspend their meetings for various reasons, with the intention to resume later in the day.
Some of the examples include:
to change from public to in camera mode, or the reverse; to enable witnesses to be seated or to hear witnesses by video conference; to put an end to disorder; to resolve a problem with the simultaneous interpretation system; or to move from one item on the agenda to the next.
We have all encountered those in our times here and, yes, while problems with interpretation are in fact mentioned and can occasionally be common, that is usually a quick matter of ensuring that all the switches are in the right position and whatnot. Therefore, it is not a matter of staff simply not being scheduled to support parliamentary work. Even if it were, it should have only been for as long as was required for new interpreters to come and take a shift in the booth, not for the 95 or so hours that it had been since the health committee's deliberations were suspended.
Debate on the vaccine contract production motion kicked off shortly before noon that day. It is my understanding that by approximately 2 p.m., first, it was clear to all concerned that a Liberal filibuster was in flight; second, there was an understanding that a majority of committee members would not give expressed or implied consent to adjourn the meeting along the lines expressed on page 1099 of Bosc and Gagnon, which I just quoted; and third, these developments had been communicated to senior House administration officials in order that the necessary arrangements could then be made for the health committee's meeting to continue into the evening.
Our move to hybrid and virtual proceedings, necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has indeed put strains on the technical ability to secure bilingualism in the House's proceedings. Last year, I was a member of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs when that committee looked at whether to incorporate virtual elements into our proceedings during this pandemic.
On May 4, the procedure and House affairs committee heard from the Canadian Association of Professional Employees that there were 70 staff interpreters working in official languages and that 40 of them were at the time unable to work either because of health issues or child care needs when schools were closed. The union also informed the committee:
We are getting close to our worst-case scenario, which is that too many interpreters end up needing rest and healing at the same time. We fear that interpreters are getting dangerously close to being unable to keep up with the demand and having to refuse assignments in too great numbers to find replacements. This would jeopardize the conduct of parliamentary activities. Nobody wants to get to the point where we no longer have enough available qualified interpreters to support parliamentary work.
In the Conservative dissenting report to the procedure and House affairs committee's fifth report, tabled last May, we wrote that the interpretation situation we had heard about was “Not only is this distressing for our hard-working interpreters, but it places bilingualism in the House at grave risk.” I understand that the grave risk has continued to develop and mature instead of being met, addressed and mitigated.
All this is to say that it is not just some bolt out of the blue. We saw it coming in the very first weeks of the pandemic situation when we were only dipping our toes into the world of virtual committee meetings. In the procedure and House affairs committee's fifth report, it was acknowledged by all parties, at page 10, “The Committee notes that increasing the complexity of House proceedings could result in the need for more simultaneous interpreters”, yet, here we are, hearing that the situation has been moving in fact in the opposite direction.
In January, The Canadian Press reported on a survey conducted by the Canadian chapter of the International Association of Conference Interpreters. It revealed that 60% of respondents had experienced auditory issues requiring time off work. Our interpreters reported over a nine-month period triple the number of workplace injuries that had been experienced in the preceding 20 months.
These reports prompted the Standing Committee on Official Languages to begin a study looking into the challenges facing our interpreters. The official languages committee heard on February 2 from the conference interpreters association that:
There is already a critical shortage of interpreters qualified to work on the Hill.... The shortage of interpreters preceded the pandemic, which merely exacerbated the situation.
According to the association's evidence, there are only about 80 freelance interpreters in all of Canada who meet the Translation Bureau's standards to supplement the work of about 50 staff interpreters.
The association ended its presentation to the official languages committee with this plea:
...please urge the Minister to address the critical shortage of qualified interpreters in Canada on an urgent basis and ensure the very small existing pool of Government accredited interpreters is encouraged to work in the Parliament of Canada and not actively discouraged as they have been.
It goes without saying that our simultaneous interpreters have been the unsung heroes of maintaining parliamentary democracy throughout this pandemic. My deepest thanks goes to them for the work they are putting in and for the challenges they are enduring. My remarks today are in no way aimed at them as individuals, but rather at the management and organization.
Of course, Mr. Speaker, as you would know, though I do not believe everyone is as familiar with the unique jurisdictional lines on Parliament Hill, the House of Commons does not actually employ the interpreters who work here among us. Instead, the Translation Bureau, a special operating agency of the federal government, which reports to the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, has a statutory mandate, which I quoted earlier, to act for both Houses of Parliament in all matters concerning interpretation.
As the House administration's chief information officer succinctly explained to the official languages committee on February 2:
The Translation Bureau provides the service. As you know, the interpreters work for the Translation Bureau. We provide the technical environment in accordance with the standards established by the Bureau.
While there is a service agreement in place between the House administration and the Translation Bureau, it is important to recall that subsection 12(1) of the Translation Bureau regulations sets out the prime directive for the bureau:
The requirements of both Houses of the Parliament of Canada and of the committees thereof in respect of interpretation services shall be given first priority by the Bureau.
It says first priority. It could not be any clearer than that, yet the experience of the health committee on Friday would suggest that it was getting no priority.
The resources were not thinly stretched that day either. Last week was a constituency week, so there were not the usual, multiple pressures of a House sitting and a half-dozen or more simultaneous committee meetings at any given moment. In fact, the only other proceeding on that Friday was a 70-minute subcommittee meeting in the morning.
To put it more plainly, there was nothing else going on at all on Parliament Hill Friday afternoon when the health committee's meeting was suspended, and nothing else which would have been competing with the Translation Bureau's “first priority”.
That brings me to three more statements of the Chair of the health committee, the hon. member for Coquitlam—Port Coquitlam. This is what he told the committee on Friday, according to the blues.
First, at around 4:30 p.m., he said, “I am going to just say that the House resources are a matter of House administration to allocate, and the current situation is a matter of agreement between all the House whips and leaders. It's really not up to the chair, it's not up to the government how to allocate House resources.”
Second, around 4:35 p.m., he said, “I just wish to make it clear that this is a matter of House administration. For resources, it makes arrangements for staff or rooms, and has done so with the agreement of the House whips and the leaders.”
Third, a few moments later, he said, “I have ruled that it's really not up to us on the committee, it's not up to me as the chair, it's not up to the staff; it is a matter for the House administration that allocates resources and determines what resources are available in conjunction with conversations with the whips and House leaders.”
By contrast, allow me to quote from the special order adopted by this House on January 25, 2021 at pages 427 to 430 of the journals governing our virtual and hybrid proceedings this winter and spring. In paragraph (q) it is established that committee meetings are to be held in a hybrid format with virtual participation authorized, “provided that priority use of House resources...shall be established by an agreement of the whips”. Once again, the order says “priority use”, not all use, not any use, but rather priority use.
As I explained earlier, the health committee was practically the only show in town, so to speak, on Friday of last week. After 12:13 p.m., it was the only committee meeting happening. There was no one else seeking the use of House resources at the time, so the priority was self-evident by the simple fact that only one committee was meeting.
Paragraph (q) of the January 25 special order proposed to the House by the Liberal House leader does not afford the Liberal whip a veto over committee meetings any time the temperature gets a little too hot for the Prime Minister and his cabinet.
In short, the member for Coquitlam—Port Coquitlam misinformed the health committee when he tried to lay blame elsewhere for his plan to shut down the debate to force disclosure of the government's vaccine contracts.
I raise this as a question of privilege today because it is really the best and only outlet to remedy a situation that is fast becoming a serious impediment to our House's operations.
At the official languages committee recently, the hon. member for Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie asked the International Association of Conference Interpreters, “Are we at a breaking point, and is there a risk that we may not have enough interpreters to do the work in the Parliament of Canada?” The reply was yes.
The witness then elaborated by saying, “For lack of the necessary resources, the Translation Bureau already has to refuse to allow interpreters to work at certain meetings of members, such as caucuses, although it's not withholding their services from committee meetings for the moment.”
The evidence is that we are at a breaking point and we are careening toward a critical failure in the ability to conduct parliamentary proceedings. This is also not a new problem sprung on us by the pandemic and regardless, there were very early warning signs that the pandemic would accelerate the problem, yet the government has done nothing. Instead it sits back, folds its arms and takes comfort in the fact that Parliament cannot function fully and hold the government to account.
We have seen several committee meetings, which were proving uncomfortable for Liberal interests, suddenly and abruptly halted because of a lack of government-supplied interpreters. I would be remiss if I did not point out that the health committee on Friday was debating a motion to produce the federal government's COVID-19 vaccine contracts negotiated by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement. Then the debate was shut down because there were no interpreters available to support MP's work, and these interpreters are furnished to Parliament by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement.
Turning to the parliamentary privilege, Bosc and Gagnon explain at page 57 that, “It also refers to the powers possessed by the House to protect itself, its Members and its procedures from undue interference so that it can effectively carry out its principal functions which are to legislate, deliberate and hold the government to account. In that sense, parliamentary privilege can be viewed as the independence Parliament and its Members need to function unimpeded.”
Continuing at page 59, it states, “The House has the authority to assert privilege where its ability has been obstructed in the execution of its functions or where Members have been obstructed in the performance of their duties.”
At page 60 is an elaboration on the concept of contempt, which states, “Any conduct which offends the authority or dignity of the House, even though no breach of any specific privilege may have been committed, is referred to as a contempt of the House. Contempt may be an act or an omission. It does not have to actually obstruct or impede the House or a Member; it merely has to have the tendency to produce such results.”
Interpreting or disturbing the proceedings of the House or one of its committees, as we know, is an established type of contempt as identified in the 1999 report of the United Kingdom's Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege and recited also at page 82 of Bosc and Gagnon.
In the current situation, we have committee meetings that are being interrupted or disrupted because the government has failed to provide enough interpreters to do the work. While I recognize that these are new circumstances for raising a question of privilege, the authorities are clear that precedents are not always necessary.
Bosc and Gagnon, at page 81, reminds us of the following: “Throughout the Commonwealth most procedural authorities hold that contempts, as opposed to privileges, cannot be enumerated or categorized.”
Admittedly, we as a House are bound together with the Translation Bureau through the requirements of statute and regulations amplified by a service agreement between the two entities. That does not mean the House is powerless. Indeed, without the House standing up for itself and its own interests, we run the risk of being seen as acquiescent in this treatment by the Translation Bureau and the Minister of Public Services and Procurement and therefore risking this becoming the new standard. Perhaps, in the final analysis, this partnership is the best possible structure available, but no matter how we cut it improvements in the substance are vital and necessary.
Parliamentary privileges trace their lineage through centuries of struggle between the House of Commons and the King as well as the King's government. As page 62 of Bosc and Gagnon reminds us:
These privileges were found to be necessary to protect the House and its Members, not from the people, but from the power and interference of the King and the House of Lords....The House of Commons in Canada has not had to challenge the Crown, its executive or the Upper House in the same manner as the British House of Commons.
Could it be that we are reverting back to those early days? What I do know is that we seem to be starting down a path and staring down the barrel of a growing problem, and that is the problem of inefficient and effective operations of Parliament being caused by the inaction and atrophied responsibility of the government.
The procedural authorities often speak of contempt in the same breath as punishment. In this case, I am not seeking punishment, although if there should turn out to be any deliberate wrongdoing against the ability of the House to function, then there should absolutely be strong sanctions. What I am trying to do is place front and centre the issue of interpretation resources that are made available to us for the House to deliberate upon.
Should you agree with me, Mr. Speaker, that there is a prima facie case of privilege here, I am prepared to move an appropriate motion to refer the matter to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs for its usual thoughtful analysis. However, I am also open to seeking a different approach here if, while you are deliberating upon my arguments, informal discussions among parties and other interested actors suggest that there might a more efficient, effective and appropriate course of action that could see the issues meaningfully addressed and our parliamentary committees back functioning at full throttle.
Ultimately, the House needs to address this situation seriously and swiftly in order to be assured that the government is meeting its legal requirements, that we are giving the best possible expression to our constitutionally guaranteed bilingualism and our statutorily confirmed simultaneous interpretation system, and that we are ensuring that the House and its committees can function fully and completely without let or hindrance by the very government that we are meant to hold to account.