REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Standing Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament

has the honour to present its


Pursuant to Rule 86(1)(f)(i), your committee is pleased to report its findings and a recommendation relating to the use of Inuktitut, and prospectively other Aboriginal languages, in the Senate. On 14 November 2007, your committee decided pursuant to this authority to take up several items of business that were not concluded at the end of the first session of the 39th Parliament, including the matter of the interpretation of Aboriginal languages in the Senate Chamber.

On 20 November 2007 the committee agreed to proceed with a fact-finding trip to Iqaluit. This was the remaining investigative activity that had been planned during earlier phases of the committee’s work. Its completion on 21 February 2008 enabled the finalization of this report.




In the first session of the 38th Parliament, Senator Eymard G. Corbin proposed an amendment to Rule 32 of the Rules of the Senate, whereby a senator desiring to address the Senate in Inuktitut, upon giving at least four hours’ notice to the Clerk of the Senate, would be able to do so, with the remarks to be printed in the Debates of the Senate and the Journals of the Senate in English and French with a notation that they had been delivered in Inuktitut. On 17 May 2005, the motion was referred to your committee for study. Your committee held a number of meetings on the issue, and established an informal group of three members to explore options for implementing the motion. Unfortunately, the 38th Parliament was dissolved before your committee could complete its work.

In the first session of the 39th Parliament, on 6 April 2006, Senator Corbin gave notice of the following motion:

That the Senate should recognize the inalienable right of the first inhabitants of the land now known as Canada to use their ancestral language to communicate for any purpose; and

That, to facilitate the expression of this right, the Senate should immediately take the necessary administrative and technical measures so that senators wishing to use their ancestral language in this House may do so.

This motion was debated in the Senate on a number of occasions. On 19 October 2006, Senator Gerald J. Comeau moved, seconded by Senator Corbin, that the question be referred to the Standing Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament, and the motion was adopted. During the remainder of the first session of the 39th Parliament, the committee continued its earlier deliberations on this matter.

On 14 February 2007, the committee heard from Mr. Mark Audcent, Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel of the Senate, with respect to the constitutional scope of the motion. The central constitutional reality, with respect to languages, is that Canada’s official languages are English and French. Under the Constitution, it is clear that both have equal status, and either can be used in the Parliament of Canada. There is, however, nothing to prevent the use of a language other than English and French in parliamentary proceedings. Indeed, members of your committee are aware that, from time to time, for a variety of reasons, the practice has been that senators deliver brief remarks in other languages. This is permitted as a courtesy, and similar practices exist in other legislative bodies.

On 12 June 2007, the committee received a briefing from Mr. Alain Wood, Director, Interpretation and Translation, of the Department of Public Works and Government Services. General challenges include the maintenance of quality standards, attracting qualified candidates (especially Aboriginal/French language interpreters), concerns about the adequacy of training programs and possible concerns about the provision of adequate facilities. Options, some of which avoid several of these concerns, include the simultaneous reading of already-translated written material, which would require 48 hours’ notice and could be implemented in six to twelve months. Another option involves the use of interpreters in remote locations receiving and transmitting sound feeds electronically. With respect to simultaneous interpretation onsite (as well as from remote locations), the two major options are interpretation to and from an Aboriginal language by English and French language interpreters both qualified in the Aboriginal language, or relay interpretation that enables, for example, a French language interpreter to work from the English language interpretation of the Aboriginal language being used by a speaker. Initiatives to expand the pool of qualified interpreters could also be undertaken, perhaps in the form of a partnership among the Senate, the Translation Bureau and Nunavut Arctic College.



Between 19 and 21 February 2008, a delegation of committee members consisting of Senators Bert Brown, Fernand Robichaud and David Smith travelled to Iqaluit to explore issues and practices relating to the use of Inuit languages in the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut. The delegation was joined by Senator Willie Adams, who represents Nunavut in the Senate.

The Nunavut Legislative Assembly provides simultaneous interpretation for speakers of Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun (a major regional dialect), and English on the floor of the legislative chamber for all sittings of the House. Interpretation is also supplied for all sittings of the Nunavut Leadership Forum (the executive); all sittings of standing and special committees; all meetings of Full Caucus (all assembly members) and the non-cabinet caucus. As well, Hansard is published in both English and Inuktitut (syllabics). This model is the result of continuous development since 1999, when Nunavut was established as a separate territory, and thus reflects substantial experience relevant to the priority interests that have been identified by your committee.

The trip was structured to provide senators with the opportunity for discussions directly with Nunavut MLAs and Assembly staff, as well as government officials responsible for language‑related services, and to directly experience simultaneous interpretation services in the legislative chamber and in a committee room.



Committee members were struck by the extensiveness of the use of Inuktitut during debate, Member’s Statements, and Question Period in the legislature. Although there is a significant level of bilingualism among the 86% of the Nunavut population whose first language is Inuktitut, much of the discussion heard by committee members was in Inuktitut. It is noteworthy, as well, that Nunavut has launched a number of initiatives to sustain the Inuktitut language in the long term, which increases the probability of a continuing need for the language services now provided.

The prominence of Inuktitut in the proceedings of the Assembly testifies to the practical impact of the simultaneous interpretation service. It permits members to participate in the democratic process using the language in which they can express themselves most fully, freely and precisely. Equally important, given the demographics of Nunavut, it makes the legislative proceedings more accessible by enabling a substantial portion of debate to occur in the first language of most voters. Moving beyond practical considerations, during our roundtable a number of members of the Assembly affirmed the importance, to them, of the respect for their first language conveyed by the existence of arrangements enabling them to use it in legislative proceedings.



In addition to confirming the value of a place for Aboriginal languages in the legislature, discussions with Nunavut MLAs and officials of the Assembly provided valuable insights concerning the challenges involved in implementing simultaneous interpretation arrangements, and available solutions. Aside from prospective challenges posed by proposed legislation that would establish a quadrilingual Hansard; a continuing shortage of fully qualified Inuinnaqtun interpreter/translators; competition with other bodies for qualified Inuktitut interpreter/translators; the need for further development of Inuktitut equivalents for technical terminology; and the issue of standardizing writing systems and dialects for use in official publications were mentioned.

An Aboriginal languages initiative in the Senate would not face all of these challenges, and it could profit from work already done in Nunavut in addressing several. Notably, it could leverage the work on terminologies carried out by the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, which is already shared with the federal Translation Service. We were advised that Ottawa is now home to Canada’s third largest urban population of Inuit, and several MLAs suggested that concerns about competition for scarce resources could be minimized if the Senate were to rely on the population of Inuktitut speakers already in Ottawa, at least as a first resort.

There was also discussion of options for the sharing of interpreter/translator resources, via satellite-based communication systems. This could eventually enable jurisdictions to mutually support one another in providing language services, especially if Senate initiatives were to foster the development of a pool of qualified interpreters in Ottawa. The Clerk of the Nunavut Assembly affirmed willingness to share existing interpreter/translator resources, subject to the needs of the Assembly.



The availability of qualified Inuktitut/French language interpreters was identified as a potential problem. The Nunavut Assembly does not presently provide this service or maintain staff with the required skills. However, the French language is recognized as an official language, alongside English, and the facilities have been designed to provide simultaneous interpretation in this language should the presence of French language speakers in the legislature require it. This enabled the delegation to test the viability of French language interpretation based on the existing English language channel in the Assembly, by arranging to have the English/French interpreters travelling with the committee installed in the Assembly facilities to provide a French language version of proceedings.

Concerns that a simultaneous French language interpretation based on the English language interpretation of speech being delivered in Inuktitut would involve excessive delays proved unfounded in practice. Committee members found that the French language interpretation resulting from this method did not significantly lag the original Inuktitut. We were, however, advised that simultaneous interpretation only captures about 80% of the original speech, on average, so that a French language version based on an English language interpretation of an original Inuktitut speech could not be relied upon to capture more than about 65% of the original. This would suggest that French language interpretation via English should be viewed as a transitional procedure only, pending the availability of qualified Inuktitut/French interpreters who could provide the interpretation directly.



The trip to Iqaluit was a valuable experience for committee members. Our discussions with the Speaker and members of the Assembly, Assembly staff and government officials have strongly confirmed the principles reflected in the original motion of Senator Corbin, and concerning which there has been a longstanding consensus in the committee. Indeed, the committee was commended by members of the Legislature for its effort to advance the principle of respect for first languages in Canada’s institutions. We also obtained valuable practical insights, including those reviewed above, and came away with a wealth of professional contacts and sources of future assistance and advice. Members who participated in the trip would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those with whom we met for their wonderful hospitality, and for being so generous with their time and knowledge.



In approaching this matter, your committee has benefited from the work of its predecessors, and is pleased to note that a consensus concerning general principles has prevailed throughout the deliberations of successive committees, as well as debate in the Chamber, on the possible role of Aboriginal languages in the Senate.

Aboriginal Canadians have been appointed to sit in the Senate only over the past 50 years. They have made a valuable contribution and bring an important perspective. To date, 13 senators of First Nation, Inuit or Métis origin have been appointed to sit in the Senate. At present, of the 91 senators in office, seven, or approximately 7.7% of the membership, have identified themselves as having Aboriginal roots.

In the discussions of this issue in the Senate and in your committee, in both this Parliament and the previous one, there was no disagreement with or dissent from the basic principle that Aboriginal senators should be able to use their Aboriginal languages in the Senate chamber. The practice of enabling the use of Aboriginal languages would be in keeping with the rights of Aboriginal Canadians under the Canadian Constitution, including section 22 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and would reflect the unique position of Canada’s First Nations. It would also meet the standard set by another Westminster model Parliament, that of New Zealand, where parliamentarians have been entitled to speak the Maori language in the House of Representatives since 1985.

The use of Aboriginal languages in the Senate would constitute recognition of their unique status in Canada. Canada’s Aboriginal peoples were here long before the arrival of the Europeans, and have never been conquered. Moreover, language is an integral part of culture and heritage. Facilitating the use of Aboriginal languages would be a tangible demonstration of the Senate’s commitment to minority rights and a manifestation of its role in reflecting and representing Canadians.

The Senate has an important role to play in representing the regions of Canada and in reflecting the different cultural and minority groups that make up the country. Both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut permit – and, indeed, encourage – the use of Aboriginal languages. This is also a positive way of affirming the legitimacy of these languages. Moreover, the survival of these languages is a source of concern. Allowing the use of Aboriginal languages on the floor of the Senate would send a powerful message about the importance that we attach to them.

Furthermore, enabling Aboriginal senators to speak in their first languages would facilitate their valuable contribution to the debates in the Senate. It is extremely uncommon for individuals to achieve levels of bilingualism that enable them to express themselves as freely, fully, completely and precisely in their second language as in their original language. As has been pointed out by a number of senators during our deliberations, the ability to communicate in one’s mother tongue is important. It is often difficult to convey subtleties and nuances in a second or third language. Given the special status of Aboriginal languages, the Senate must attempt to facilitate the use of such languages.

The use of an Aboriginal language cannot be separated from the capacity of others to understand what is being said. If a senator is to be permitted to speak in an Aboriginal language in the Senate, then your committee believes that facilities must be available to ensure that his or her remarks are translated so that other senators can understand, in English and in French, what is being said. At the core of the Senate’s role is the opportunity to discuss and debate issues, and communication is a two-way street.

Turning from the basic principle involved to the issue of how it is to be implemented, your committee notes two related but distinct questions. First, there is the specific situation of two Inuit senators to be accommodated. Second, there is the general question of how other Aboriginal languages are to be accommodated. Your committee has sought practical and cost-effective responses to each of these questions that will meet the needs of individual senators, the Senate as a deliberative institution, and Canadians.

Both during debate in the Senate Chamber and in committee on the motions outlined above, Senator Corbin has made it abundantly clear that while his motivation is historical fairness, his specific concern has always been with the immediate needs of colleagues. The mother tongue of Senators Willie Adams and Charlie Watt is Inuktitut, and this is the language in which they are most comfortable and fluent. The ability to communicate in this language in the Senate would aid their contribution to our deliberations. Your committee agrees that some reasonable accommodation to permit this must be found.

Furthermore, your committee notes that the concentration of speakers of Inuktitut in Nunavut, establishing a critical mass in support of the language, combined with the probable impact of efforts to foster future use of the language, make it likely that there will be a continuing presence in the Senate of Inuit senators whose contribution would be significantly enhanced by the opportunity to engage in deliberations using their first language.

Your committee therefore recommends that a pilot project involving the use of Inuktitut in the Senate chamber be commenced at the earliest opportunity. As an initial step, reasonable notice of an intention to speak Inuktitut would be required to be given to the Principal Clerk, Chamber and Procedure Office, who is the Senate official responsible for the management of simultaneous interpretation services. The minimum period of notice would be determined by your committee following consultations between the Principal Clerk and the Translation Bureau. Remarks should be in the form of a speech, statement, tribute or similar intervention and, where possible, a copy of the remarks should be provided in advance in both English and French to facilitate interpretation and/or for distribution. During this initial implementation phase, every effort should be made to accommodate extemporaneous discussion following remarks based on a text. However, it must be recognized that this is likely to be difficult to sustain for any length of time in these circumstances.

The medium term objective of the pilot project would be the provision of simultaneous interpretation for speakers of English, French and Inuktitut in the Senate chamber. It is understood that following approval of this proposal, arrangements will have to be made to obtain the services of qualified interpreters, to modify the interpretation facilities to accommodate the additional interpreters, and to ensure that simultaneous interpretation into English, French and Inuktitut can be undertaken. There will be initial costs, and these should be carefully monitored. Your committee believes, however, that the phased approach outlined above provides the most cost-effective approach available to meeting the probable needs of Inuit senators.

Your committee recommends that the scope of the pilot project be extended to the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples and the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. As successive levels of service are established in the Senate chamber, and subject to the availability of additional resources, equivalent levels of service should be provided to members of these two committees, each of which has traditionally benefited from high levels of participation by Aboriginal senators. Priority access to committee rooms capable of multiple‑language interpretation will need to be afforded by the party whips.

In making these recommendations, it is not your committee’s intent to limit the use of Aboriginal languages in the Senate to the use of Inuktitut. Although there are practical reasons for beginning with Inuktitut, in principle other Aboriginal languages have an equal claim. Your committee has consulted with our colleagues of Aboriginal descent and, while it does not appear that there is an identifiable need or demand at this point in time, a number of them would appreciate the opportunity from time to time to speak their Aboriginal languages in the Senate, and have indicated that they are prepared to give advance notice of at least two weeks when they desire to do so. This could enable simultaneous interpretation to be provided on a contract basis, potentially avoiding the fixed costs of more continuous arrangements.

Your committee therefore recommends that, after a reasonable period of time of experience with Inuktitut – such as one Parliament – a review be undertaken to identify cost-effective approaches to the accommodation of other Aboriginal languages in the Senate chamber. This may involve different notice requirements depending on the Aboriginal language concerned, and additional facilities may be required.

While the specific details will need to be worked out, the basic concept is clear: Aboriginal languages will be able, upon request, to be spoken and understood in the Senate chamber, subject to reasonable guidelines. Practical limitations, including the availability of qualified interpreters, will inevitably shape the implementation of this concept, and your committee regretfully notes that the information it has obtained suggests that there may be significant practical barriers relating to Aboriginal languages or dialects that do not have a significant population of current speakers.

Your committee is recommending an incremental approach. It will continue to monitor the implementation of this proposal, and will, if necessary, recommend changes if they are desirable from a service perspective or necessary to ensure that costs do not become excessive. As well, the Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budget and Administration will need to be involved at successive implementation stages, because of the cost implications of this proposal.

It is important to recall that this is an evolving area in which changing technologies may be expected to create enhanced capacities. Over time, we fully expect that with experience and expertise some of the initial conditions can be relaxed or even eliminated.

Your committee strongly believes that facilitating the use of Aboriginal languages in the Senate is the right thing to do. It is in the interests of all senators, however, that this objective be achieved properly, and your committee will endeavour to ensure that this is done.

Respectfully submitted,


Top of document