New Brunswick’s legislative assembly has set aside money to ensure the official records of all past and future sessions are translated into both official languages, ending a 15-year period where debates weren’t available in both French and English.
The assembly’s speaker Bill Oliver made a rare appearance before the committee on estimates and supply to announce $245,000 in funding to create new translator positions, which will not only help the Hansard office keep up with translating and publishing debates as they happen, but also begin to chip away at translating 15 years’ worth of transcripts where translation was not completed.
“What we’re working towards is to have the translations done for each session that we’re moving through and if we find that we’re capable of doing that, then we would move towards translating (the backlog),” Oliver said.
Oliver says only six days have yet to be translated from the current legislative session, which began in the fall of 2020.
But from 2005 to 2020, Hansard was not translating debate transcripts into both official languages. Unofficial transcripts of debates from those years could be requested from Hansard, but only included speeches in the language being spoken by each member.
The lack of translated records from that 15-year period means there is a 23-million-word deficit, which will cost approximately $4.5 million to catch up on.
The funding will also mean that documents submitted by the public to the legislature’s various committees are translated into both official languages before being distributed to MLAs.
Kent-North MLA Kevin Arseneau has been pushing for the assembly to ensure it meets its linguistic obligations since he was first elected in 2018. He says the change will allow all MLAs in to better perform their legislative duties and represent their constituents.
Members often rely on Hansard when researching old issues that are rearing their head inside the legislature once more. For example, Arseneau said he looked at debates from the ’60s and ’70s when the province was debating the equal opportunity program in search of context for the ongoing process of local governance reform that took place during the current session.
“For the legislators themselves, it’s being able to research the archives, to understand how decisions were made and where the debate is at today. We need to go and look at what was said in 2006 about this issue, what was said in 2010 about this issue,” he said.
“It’s fundamental to the parliamentary process.”
Arseneau, while bilingual, says the lack of translation for a 15-year period has made research into those years much more difficult.
“I might speak OK in English but I think in French,” Arseneau said.
“When it comes to understanding concepts, understanding what was really said, anyone should be able to work in their first language. Anyone is going to understand better, analyze better, represent their citizens better if they can grasp the concepts that they’re reading.”
The change will also improve public access to debate transcripts. By law, the assembly must publish debate records in both official languages, meaning it can’t publish comments made in just French or English. That poses obvious problems for the assembly, where speakers often alternate between the two languages, even in the course of a single line of questioning.
“To publish a record in either only in French or English is unconstitutional,” constitutional lawyer Lyle Skinner wrote on Twitter.
“So what had happened is simply the records of debate are not published due to a lack of resources. This avoids Charter issues but raises challenges in access to the debates in the assembly.”
Translated question period debates going back to 1995 are already available on the legislature’s revamped website. With the additional translation services announced Friday, Oliver hopes all proceedings going forward will be published online as well.