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In Canada's Parliament, Indigenous languages still aren't an option

Ask Kady Anything: In Canada’s Parliament, Indigenous languages still aren’t an option

Greetings, Vicelanders! (Vicelandians?)

With just over a week to go before the curtain falls on another action-packed season of the longest-running parliamentary dramedy on the continent, I can report that the Hill and its denizens have hit peak pre-recess punchiness.

Which is, of course, pretty much business as usual, as far as the final burst of legislative busywork before the precinct shuts down for the holidays: having finally twigged to the relentless downticking of the clock, the government promptly goes into controlled panic mode over the many, many bills still languishing in limbo and attempt to cram as much paperwork as possible through the sausage-maker before time runs out.

This, of course, inevitably goes over like a leaking, radioactive lead balloon with the opposition parties, who, not unreasonably, utterly fail to see why a failure on the part of the prime minister to properly plot out his to-do list should constitute a crisis for the Commons.

Let’s start with a fundamental concept: communication in the House.

LIzTheWiz ((@lizwizCYLS) wants to know:

Okay, so first, the bad — or, at least, not actively good — news: Despite a longstanding push by First Nations and Indigenous groups, as far as I can tell, there’s no effort currently underway within the federal government to extend the Official Languages Act to include any additional languages beyond English and French.

Late last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did promise to bring in legislation to preserve, protect and strengthen Indigenous languages — a pledge that returned, albeit possibly briefly, to the spotlight just this week when Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly announced that she would be meeting with representatives from First Nations, Metis and Inuit leaders to discuss the next steps on the “co-development” of a new Act.

However, I can report that, within Parliament itself, the question of how much support should be provided to MPs who wish to address the chamber and their colleagues in an Indigenous language, courtesy of Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who wants to be able to speak Cree in official House proceedings.

In fact, he did so just last month, in a members’ statement on recent acts of violence against young, Indigenous women.

“In order to make a larger impact, it was felt that it would be appropriate to speak in Nehiyaw, or the Cree language,” he told House Speaker Geoff Regan in a question of privilege raised last week.

“Even though I had provided documentation to the translation and interpretative services 48 hours prior to my speaking … they were unable to provide a time-appropriate translation during members’ statements under Standing Order 31.”

This, he believes, was a violation of his parliamentary privilege.

“I could not be understood by my fellow parliamentarians and Canadians viewing the proceedings, thus negating the debate and point that I wished to make,” he noted.

“I was effectively silenced, and even though I had the floor and had been duly recognized, my speech was not translated, rendering me silent and thus violating the parliamentary privileges of all MPs present in this chamber.”

“Imagine,” he asked, “for an instance if a French Canadian spoke in the House but no translation and interpretative services were provided.”

He also pointed out that the Senate now offers interpretation and translation services in Inuktitut for Inuit senators, as does the legislature in the Northwest Territories.

“I am looking for not only the right to use my Indigenous language of Nehiyaw Cree in the proceedings of this House, but that Parliament provide minimal resources so I may participate fully with other members of the chamber in all activities of the House of Commons, and that all other members of the House may participate and interact fully with me in the chamber,” he concluded.

The speaker took his complaint under advisement, and is expected to return with a ruling soon — perhaps even before the summer recess.

When he does, it will, presumably, provide guidelines on how Parliament, at least, will treat Indigenous languages. Whether the federal government — and, indeed, the provinces — will follow its example remains to be seen, although it’s fair to say that adding any new language to the current roster would undoubtedly lead to logistical challenges in the interim, at least.

There are, for instance, likely far fewer translators and simultaneous interpreters working in Cree, Inuktitut or other Indigenous languages than English/French, which would make it difficult to roll out full service without a significant investment in recruitment and training.

So, what do the next few days hold? Well, for one thing, an answer to @CameronPaton’s question:

As it turns out, yes, there is! As Vice Canada’s intrepid Justin Ling reported this week, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale is finally – finally! – expected to table his government’s so-very-long-awaited bill to rejig what then-campaigning Liberal leader turned prime minister Justin Trudeau described as the “problematic elements” of the previous Conservative government’s anti-terror laws.

According to his sources, the legislation will land in the Commons next Tuesday, just three days before the House is, as previously noted, set to power down until September.

Barring an unprecedented outpouring of unanimous, unquestioning support for that bill – which is almost certainly not going to happen – it’s not clear whether the government will even have time to kick off the opening round of debate, let alone send it to committee for the exhaustive review it will undoubtedly require.

So, given all that, it would be entirely fair to ask: Why even bother introducing it now, just before turning out the lights in the chamber?

Possibly for precisely that reason.

Tabling the bill does, after all, make it public, which means Goodale and his colleagues won’t have to spend the next two months shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact when asked that very same question posed by Cameron above.

Given the sweeping scope of opinions on the original C-51 – which did, after all, have some staunch supporters, although they weren’t necessarily so keen on it as to be willing to organize and populate cross-country rallies, as was the case with its opponents – it’s a good bet that there will be similarly strong views on whatever changes Goodale and his government put forward.

Without knowing for sure any specifics on what it will contain, we can say for sure that there will be those who aver that, given recent events in Manchester, Paris and elsewhere, it goes too far in hamstringing the police, while there will be just as many who declare that it doesn’t go nearly far enough in restoring the balance between civil liberty and security.

Rather than having to contend with such critiques while actively trying to shuttle the bill through the House, however, the government will have nearly three months to monitor the reaction and, if necessary, actually rewrite or rework particularly contentious sections.

Those crowd-sourced changes could then either be put forward as for-sure amendments to be made at committee.

Alternately, in the highly likely event that the prime minister chooses to prorogue Parliament – basically, rebooting the House and Senate, clearing the order paper of all remaining business and setting the stage for a Speech from the Throne to kick off a new session – it could form the basis of a revised bill that could be re-introduced in the new session.

 

Dropping a potentially politically loaded bill just before an extended House break allows the government to conduct an open beta test before releasing the final build. (Which can, of course, be updated after the fact, but it’s definitely easier to do it before the bill formally begins its trek through the parliamentary pipeline.)

On that note, I’d just like to take a brief sidebar to address a question that hasn’t been asked – not yet, that is – but almost certainly will if and when it happens:

Prorogue the House? Why would the government even think of doing such a thing? And what happens if it does?

So, first off, despite the psychodrama that ensued following Stephen Harper’s decision to prorogue the House twice during his second stint leading a minority government, prorogation actually isn’t usually seen as a diabolical scheme to thwart an opposition plot to seize power or otherwise make life difficult for the prime minister.

As noted above, it also wipes the entire remaining parliamentary to-do list in both the House and Senate, which is usually referred to as legislation “dying on the Order Paper,” but unlike the real world, this death is very much negotiable, as there’s a quick and painless process to reinstate all or some of those bills at the exact same stage that they had reached at the time of prorogation, while private members’ business is automatically restored. The speaker also stays on.

(Well, it’s not quite so quick and painless in minority parliaments, but really, nothing ever is, and since we don’t have one, let’s leave that aside for now.)

It does require a bit of administrative housekeeping at the start of the new session: re-striking committees, re-submitting written questions and that kind of thing, but it’s a minor hassle at best.

It’s actually a pretty standard move around the halfway point in a four year term: a mid-season premiere that gives the government an opportunity to put forward its priorities for the two years leading up to the election.

 

 

While that may very well include some of the same commitments made in the first Speech from the Throne — renewing and reasserting the relationship between the federal government and Canada’s First Nations and indigenous peoples, for instance — there’s usually also an attempt to quietly drop all references to other promises, like, say, making the 2015 election the last to be held under first-past-the-post.

Oh, and there’s usually some sort of surprise promise — like eliminating the penny or rewriting the anthem — that gives everyone something to look forward to while hanging out by the red carpet, waiting for the governor-general’s carriage — or, given the Ottawa climate, vice-regal sedan — to arrive.

That’s all for this week – keep those questions coming!

Cover: Photo of Robert-Falcon Ouellette via Facebook.

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