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COVID Stories: Highlights of Challenges Facing Ontario’s Language Services Sector

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

By: Craig Carter-Edwards

The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a stress-test for many essential services offered in Ontario. It has brought to light the challenges, inequities and structural flaws within systems designed to support the health and well-being of Ontarians. These challenges, of course, existed before COVID-19, but this crisis has increased the level of general public’s awareness of them.

Among these are translation and interpretation services. Many Ontarians with limited knowledge of English and/or French were being left behind, as information about how to stay safe, new government regulations, and financial support programs were rolled out but not made available in their mother tongues.

What were the challenges facing these Limited English and/or French Speakers (LEFS), and the agencies that support them, before the crisis?

Over the summer, the Language Advocacy Day Canada team has engaged with language services providers (LSPs), their client organizations (including hospitals, school boards and community centres), translators and interpreters, and LEFS Ontarians themselves.

You can see our complete survey here, and if you work in the language services industry or benefit from it, we’d love to hear from you as well. You can contact us with the email provided at the end of this blog.

So far, we have had responses from every corner of Ontario, representing jurisdictions in the North, Southwest, East, and in and around the GTA. In general, the type of responses we are receiving fall into four main categories:

I. Lack of Awareness

Many LEFS don’t know that they have a legal right to professional interpretation and translation services. Unfortunately, many service providers seem to be unfamiliar with this as well. Additionally, there is often a lack of understanding as to why professional interpretation services matter. If a colleague in the office or a family member of the person being served can translate or interpret, why should it be necessary to call in a professional?

There are many reasons why it matters to have a professionally trained interpreter available in settings such as hospitals, courts, and other public service institutions, which we will discuss in a future blog post. A key reason to recognize is that a professional interpreter is trained to not speak for the person they are serving, but to ensure their intentions are properly communicated. Similarly, they also ensure that the intentions of the doctor, judge, or counsellor they are speaking with are communicated to the LEFS accurately.

The fact that there are so many public service providers who aren’t aware of the importance of professional interpretation or of the legal rights LEFS have to professional interpretation services, is definitely a structural problem. It helps explain why there weren’t extensive, systematic efforts to translate COVID-19 response measures into other languages, and why some of these already marginalized community members were unnecessarily put at greater risk.

This ties into our next general theme.

II. Lack of Access

Most of our respondents talked about challenges related to accessing language interpretation services, particularly immediate and on-site interpretation. Finding yourself in an emergency room, in an encounter with police, or even interacting with Legal Aid, is a difficult experience for everyone. But, if you are a LEFS, having to wait for someone to arrange telephone interpretation fosters another layer of anxiety and confusion, making already difficult situations even harder. Whether it’s in language-diverse cities like Toronto, where more than 140 languages and dialects are spoken, or in more remote Northern communities, where there may be no local access to an interpreter, the impacts can be devastating.

Particular concerns were raised by several survey participants about the Ontario court system.  In criminal courts, for example, there is no easily-accessed central hub where individuals can request interpretation services. Further, when language services are required, they need to be requested beforehand. If you don’t know you have a right to interpretation and don’t know where to go to request an interpreter, the process of understanding what’s happening and being able to best represent yourself is inequitably less than it is for native English and French speakers. This is not equal justice.

Another aspect of access is cost. Professional interpretation services aren’t cheap, and service-providing organizations, particularly not-for-profits that are already struggling to stretch their funding, may have to rely on agencies willing to provide free interpretation services.

At the same time, interpreters themselves are hard to come by. It’s not easy work, the hours are unpredictable, and, as one respondent pointed out, with no increases to their rates in over two decades, experienced interpreters are frequently switching to other, more stable, lines of work.

Which leads to our last theme.

III. Quality of Service

When we think about how poorly professional interpretation is understood and how limited access is to highly experienced interpreters, this only makes sense. A lack of understanding leads to a lack of support and resources, which in turn leads to less people pursuing interpretation as a career. While the demand for interpretation services increases as Ontario’s demographics change, policy, programming, and funding aren’t keeping pace.In fact, the Association of Translators and Interpreters Act (which first granted a reserved title for certified members of ATIO, making it illegal to call oneself a Certified Interpreter, Terminologist or Translator in Ontario without ATIO certification) hasn’t been revisited since 1989. While ATIO is responsible for supporting and protecting the collective status, dignity and integrity of professional translators and interpreters, the 1989 Act gives them no legal ability to penalize those who falsely present themselves as such.

Many of the LSPs we spoke to mentioned a time in the past when the Government of Ontario brought them together to discuss challenges and best practices, which allowed for better communication across the sector and strengthened the services they offered. Many have suggested that convening on a regular basis, to discuss these issues, would be a good thing to put back into practice.

While there were other challenges raised and suggestions made, these are the primary categories we have found in our responses so far. If there are others you feel are missing, we’d love to hear from you! Feel free to drop us a line at

More COVID-19 Stories exploring how non profit sector is coping with disruption to critical services delivery can be found on MCIS Language Solutions Blog page.

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