Thu. Feb 29th, 2024

Federal government's language obligations face major hurdle: years of wait and $300 million bill for committee to obtain translated documents in French.

An index in French at 16 million dollars

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The work of the parliamentary committee which is looking into the invocation of the Emergency Measures Act is paralyzed pending the translation of documents.

  • Laurence Martin (View profile)Laurence Martin

Voice synthesis, based on artificial intelligence, allows you to generate spoken text from written text.

“We are told, yes, Canada is a bilingual country, yes, Parliament is bilingual, provided that it does not cost too much,” says Bloc Québécois MP Rhéal Fortin, in an interview with Radio-Canada.

The Bloc member has been serving for almost two years on a joint committee, made up of senators and deputies, responsible for studying the use of the Act respecting emergency measures by the Trudeau government.

However, for months, the work of the joint committee has been stopped. The reason? Translations are pending. In 2022, committee members asked to recover thousands of documents and testimonies that were presented during the Rouleau Commission – which also looked into the state of emergency – among other things to avoid duplication.< /p>

The problem: a large portion of these documents only exists in English, which has also been the subject of complaints to the Commissioner for official languages.

In June 2023, the committee therefore asked the Privy Council Office (PCO), which retrieved the testimony and reports presented during the Rouleau commission, for a translation of the 'entire proof.

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The BCP, which coordinates the work of federal departments, comes back with a staggering estimate: translating all the documents would cost more than $300 million and require years of work, we can read in a letter that the Office sent to the committee clerk and of which Radio-Canada obtained a copy. This is because the total number of pieces of evidence is estimated at more than 265,000.

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In February 2022, at least 5,000 protesters were present in the streets of Ottawa.

In November 2023, committee members agree to a compromise: rather than translating all the documents, they will be able to choose those that are essential for writing their report. They are therefore asking the Privy Council Office for an index of all the evidence that exists – with the title, subject, date, number of pages and language of the document – ​​to then be able to target the necessary translations into French .

The BCP's response left some members speechless: such a list would, they estimate, cost $16 million and take about 12 months to produce.

The The mandate of the joint committee is to examine whether the Emergency Measures Act, invoked after the deployment of a convoy of truckers in downtown Ottawa, was applied in a compliant manner. The committee's work parallels that of the Rouleau commission, which studied whether the use of the law was justified. Parliamentarians are therefore more interested in the how than the why.

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In the past, Rhéal Fortin has also denounced the redaction of multiple government documents tabled in committee.

It's hard to imagine that it could cost $16 million […] to make an index, says Bloc MP Rhéal Fortin, called to react to the letter obtained by Radio-Canada.

We do not ;is not in a bilingual institution if we are not even capable of preparing an index of documents.

A quote from Rhéal Fortin, Bloc member for Rivière-du-Nord

Lawyer Gabriel Poliquin, specialized in public law, who worked as a prosecutor for the Rouleau Commission, admits that the sum of $16 million also raised eyebrows for him as a taxpayer, especially since compiling such an index has probably already been done by the Commission.

Same reaction from the lawyer Mark Power, who regularly deals with linguistic issues.

I find it hard to believe […] that it costs $16 million to generate a list of documents that may already exist.

A quote from Mark Power, lawyer specializing in language law< /blockquote>Open in full screen mode

The Privy Council Office is responsible for providing impartial advice to the Prime Minister.

We attempted to obtain explanations from the Privy Council Office. He declined our request for an interview, but in writing, a spokesperson indicated that the collections of documents transferred to the BCP by the State of Emergency Commission were not organized in such a way that an index containing the details requested by the committee could be easily produced and its production would involve considerable manual data entry.

In addition, he adds, the Rouleau commission produced a final report of more than 2,000 pages, available in both official languages, which summarizes the documents, interviews and evidence it examined during its investigation. .

The PCO spokesperson ends by indicating that the Privy Council Office continues [sic] to be available to to collaborate with the committee.

For MP Joël Godin, spokesperson for the Conservative Party on linguistic rights, this explanation from the BCP is unacceptable. He finds it absurd to bully parliamentarians who want to work in one of the two official languages, which is French.

According to him, the federal government has an obligation to find solutions [and] ways to translate, particularly with all the technological means that exist. The Privy Council Office, however, tells us that it is not currently using artificial intelligence for information security reasons.

The federal Minister of Official Languages, Randy Boissonneault, did not respond to our request for an interview.

The request from the joint committee in Ottawa still raises an interesting question: does the federal government have an obligation to translate all documents presented to the committee, even when they contain hundreds of thousands of pages and their translation can prove to be long and expensive?

Lawyer Gabriel Poliquin, who worked as prosecutor for the Rouleau commission, believes that only reports or testimony that emanate from a federal institution should be automatically accessible in both official languages. On the other hand, if the documents come for example from the province of Ontario (therefore from a non-federal institution) and they were only presented in English to the Rouleau commission, there is no no obligation, subsequently, to translate them if they are tabled before a parliamentary committee.

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Commissioner Rouleau determined in his report filed in February 2023 that the use of emergency measures was justified.

A vision that several jurists do not share, including Michel Doucet, professor of linguistic law at the University of Moncton. According to him, MPs have the constitutional right to use the language of their choice in Parliament, and this includes having the necessary tools so that they can effectively do their job.

M. Doucet recognizes that monetary and time considerations may be taken into account and that there is reason to ask which documents are essential to translate. But, according to him, the question of additional costs cannot prevent a language right.

The Acadian jurist also wonders how unilingual English-speaking deputies would have reacted if they had had to produce a report with untranslated documents, almost exclusively in French. Once again, he believes, we are not putting the two official languages ​​on an equal footing.

We assume in this case that all MPs can speak in English, therefore that they are able to access these documents.

A quote from Michel Doucet, professor of linguistic law, University of Moncton

Committee members will have to decide in the coming weeks how they will react to the letter from the Privy Council Office. Production of the $16 million index, which is the preliminary step to then determining which documents to translate, may not be completed before the next election.

Ultimately, it is the work of the committee that is delayed, which concerns Bloc member Rhéal Fortin, especially since the Emergency Measures Act was invoked almost two years ago: Do ​​we, on the government side, still want our committee to deliver a report? he asks. Is the government calculating that such a report could harm it?

According to lawyer Mark Power, it should definitely not be the Privy Council Office uses French as an excuse or as a shield to avoid analysis. This would, according to him, not only be embarrassing, but illegal.

With the collaboration of Marie Chabot-Johnson< /p>

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