A chronic staff shortage related to hearing injuries among federal interpreters in Ottawa has led to cancellations of House of Commons and Senate committee meetings, slowing the work of Parliament.
Interpreters who orally translate from English to French and vice versa help both parliamentarians and members of the public follow government proceedings.
Interpreters are our eyes and ears, we need them.– Bloc MP Claude de Bellefeuille
They’ve been reporting an increase in hearing injuries such as headaches, nausea, “acoustic shock” and tinnitus, which can cause a persistent ringing in the ears, since parliamentary work shifted to virtual formats during the pandemic.
In a recent report presented to the Board of Internal Economy of the House of Commons, the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) said that in April 2022 about 10 of the approximately 60 interpreters were either unavailable or only partly available to interpret because of injuries caused by the poor audio quality they deal with at work.
André Picotte, the union’s vice-president, said interpreters are asking to be reassigned from simultaneous translation to other tasks or to leave Public Service and Procurement Canada’s Translation Bureau entirely.
Over the past three years, 12 interpreters have retired while that bureau has only hired nine.
Bloc Québécois whip Claude de Bellefeuille said five committees were cancelled last Tuesday because of the lack of available interpreters.
She said their work is essential so that French-speaking members of Parliament can represent their constituents and contribute to lawmaking.
“Interpreters are our eyes and ears, we need them,” she told Radio-Canada.
Even in 2019, the Translation Bureau was looking into serious hearing problems among federal interpreters.
Lucie Séguin, its president and CEO, said the bureau has been studying hearing health, upgrading audio systems and providing advice on better headsets.
Translator hours have also been reduced to protect their health and safety, she said.
Séguin noted translators are in high demand and said the bureau works to recruit them directly out of school.
Conservative Sen. Claude Carignan said the situation is urgent and requires the government to provide better conditions to recruit and retain interpreters.
“We have to care [for] these people so that we can function. It is not normal that Parliament’s work is affected,” Carignan said in French.
In a statement, chief government whip Steven MacKinnon said his office is working closely with House of Commons administration to ensure interpretation services are available.
The union has also called on Public Services and Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi to intervene directly and replace the audio systems on Parliament Hill.