Ottawa court interpreters looking to unionize

Freelance court interpreters in the Ottawa area, many of whom are currently boycotting new assignments to voice their displeasure over wages that have stagnated over the past decade, are in the midst of holding discussions with the oldest and one of the largest media unions in Canada in a bid to strengthen their hand in negotiations with the Ontario government.

With the backing of the Court Interpreters Association of Ontario (CIAO), a loosely organized group of Ottawa-area freelancers, including the vast majority of French, Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish interpreters, pledged more than a month ago to stop taking new assignments after negotiations to increase the hourly rate from the current $25 an hour to $35 an hour stalled. “I received a flyer from a cleaning lady the other day, and she’s asking $29 an hour — and she isn’t even accredited,” pointed out Manuel Costa, one of three Ottawa freelance interpreters who launched the boycott.

Attempting to force the government’s hand, in much the same way that freelance court interpreters successfully did in British Columbia nearly three years ago when they obtained a $10 wage hike to $45 per hour, has met with mitigated success. The tactics are beginning to take its toll on the administration of justice yet the Ontario government has not budged from its hard-line stance, said Stella Rahman, past president of the CIAO. Rahman says that the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario is hiring unaccredited and unqualified interpreters or contracting out the work at great expense to Toronto-based interpreters. Interpreters travelling over 80 kilometres to a court date can bill $25 per hour for travel time as well as claim meals and mileage.

“The courts are having a very difficult time in filling in all the requests for interpreters, and that’s why many serious criminal charges are being thrown out,” said Rahman, adding that there are rumours that the ministry is compiling a blacklist of freelancers who are refusing to work — a charge the ministry flatly denies. “Interpreters are crucial for the justice system to function normally but when it comes to paying interpreters they say they don’t have any money. We have to push forward. Without a union, we’re heading nowhere. As an association, we tried our best to communicate and negotiate with the ministry but they’ve said no every time.”

According to Brendan Crawley, a spokesman with the ministry, there is “ongoing dialogue” between the ministry and “many” interpreter associations and ministry freelance interpreters. The ministry recently publicly stated that its current rate exceeds that which is offered by other provinces, and is comparable to that paid by other agencies such as the province’s Citizenship and Immigration Ministry and the federal Immigration and Refugee Board.

“There could be a number of reasons a freelance interpreter is not available,” said Crawley in an email exchange with The Lawyers Weekly. “The priority of the ministry is to ensure that the courts continue to run smoothly across the province. If an interpreter is unavailable for any reason, the ministry continues to contact other interpreters in order to meet the needs of the court.”

The labour conflict is exacerbating an already precarious situation. With only three staff interpreters, Ottawa courts rely heavily on the region’s approximately 100 freelancers. Ontario courts provide over 150,000 courtroom hours of interpretation annually but has only 142 fully accredited interpreters, including staff and freelancers, and 229 conditionally accredited, who can take on only less complex court proceedings such as bail hearings.

The dearth of qualified interpreters has become so severe that Ontario Superior Court Judge Casey Hill recently stated that judges are going so far as to poach them from one another. “Day in and day out, the courts are unable to get competent interpreters,” said Judge Hill late last year to the Criminal Lawyers’ Association (CLA). “The competition between courts has become almost cut-throat. There just aren’t enough to go around.”

It’s a situation that was aggravated when the ministry launched an effort to improve standards with a new accreditation test in 2009. The test, developed by the Vancouver Community College, a pioneer with a national and international reputation for its multilingual programs in interpreter training, still rankles. Rahman, who points out that “even interpreters with 20 years of experience in the courts” failed the test, asserts the test standards are not a true reflection of what actually takes place in court, particularly the test that examines an interpreter’s capacity to conduct simultaneous translation. She says that the simultaneous test is delivered at a clip rate of 190 words per minute when in fact during court proceedings interpreters, depending on the language, speak at a rate of between 130 and 140 words per minute. “When the test preparations were sent out, CIAO pointed out the problems about the speed of the test, and the ministry promised to do something about it — they never did,” said Rahman.

Ted Hobrough, the managing partner of The Language Bureau, a Vancouver-based professional interpreter and translation agency who had a hand in developing the Ontario interpreter’s test, categorically states that the test was not conducted at 190 words per minute. “That is wrong, absolutely unconditionally wrong,” said Hobrough.

In fact, Hobrough says that he is frankly bewildered that so many Ontario freelance court interpreters passed the test, particularly since research on the subject indicates that the pass rate is a dismal five per cent.
“Every jurisdiction that has brought in testing has been dismayed at how poorly people do,” said Hobrough, who is also the business manager of the Canadian Translators and Interpreters Guild, which is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America/Canada (CWA Canada), the union that has begun discussions with CIAO. “So here’s the question that needs to be asked: If the normal pass rate is five per cent, how did Ontario court interpreters manage a 30 per cent pass rate. Are they six times better than every other body of interpreters in the world?” asked Hobrough rhetorically.

David Bosveld, an organizing director with CWA Canada who approached CIAO, believes that both freelance court interpreters and the Ontario government would benefit if the freelancers would join their union. “We feel that our organization and our ability to create a strong voice speaking in one direction will be able to possibly generate some changes in their working conditions,” said Bosveld. While a traditional union model is out of the question, Bosveld feels that Ontario freelance court interpreters could benefit from alternative models for independent contractors that CWA Canada has implemented with freelance writers at the CBC. The government, on the other hand, would stand to gain from the creation of a union because CWA Canada could offer training to raise the standards of interpretation, said Bosveld.

Even the CLA has weighed in on the situation. The CLA supports a “robust wage” for court interpreters so that they “can deliver consistent and high quality services” to clients facing criminal proceedings in Ontario in a manner that is in keeping with the rights of those clients, as enshrined in s. 14 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the common law, said Patrice Band, a CLA director, in an email exchange.

In the meantime, Odette Borris, an Ottawa-based interpreter, is calling on judges and lawyers to “officially ask, on the record, if the interpreter is accredited, and if they are fully accredited or conditionally accredited because we know there are cases where the ministry is sending interpreters not officially deemed capable of handling the task according to their policy.”

By Luis Millan

Source: THE LAWYERS WEEKLY April 08 2011 issue 13/05/2011 20:42