Chat with Language Advocates: Advocating for Language Access in the Time of Pandemic

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

By Eliana Trinaistic and Nicole Anichini

In early February 2020, a group of MCIS Language Solutions’ language rights advocates visited the 40th annual Language Advocacy Day, a Joint National Committee on Languages (JNCL) education lobbying event in Washington, DC, to see if Ontario language advocacy groups such as OCCI, ATIO and APLI collaborating with service and ethnic media agencies, could benefit from organizing a day of advocating for better language access. This perspective provides MCIS' views on lessons learned from the language advocacy and pandemic language service perspective.

 

The insight, excitement and energy in the room we experienced at the JNCL event in Washington, DC in March 2020 was for us a genuine game-changer. The enthusiasm of the group that has been coming together continuously for 40 years was not only inspiring but also provided a very small glimpse into how language advocacy could work if it is done with a long-term view and if the timing is right. And the timing for language advocacy was right. For example, we knew that around the same time, another 500 representatives from 50 countries were meeting in Mexico City for an event organized by UNESCO and Mexico to discuss a strategic roadmap for the Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). From this event came the Los Pinos Declaration, the key document to lead the upcoming decade “placing indigenous peoples at the centre under the slogan ‘Nothing for us without us.’” We also knew that, in many ways, 2019 was already a historical year for language rights legislation in Canada, for reasons we will explain below. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic declared shortly after our visit to Washington, the year 2020 was promising to be “pivotal”.


The disruptive nature of 2020 brought about a dramatic change in how we would conduct our personal and professional lives, exposed sharp (language) inequities and transformed our views on what equitable language justice and support in emergencies means. Preceding what was later perceived as auspicious momentum, MCIS’ 2019 decision to advocate for language access proactively, secure a budget, connect with language access champions (this is also you, indispensable Craig and Lola!) and volunteers, and begin to practice, hands-on, grassroots advocacy seemed to be timely and appropriate.


Background on Official Languages in Canada


2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act, a federal statute created by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, which made English and French the official languages of Canada. Given that the Act has only been reviewed once since its adoption in 1969, the Office recognized the 50th anniversary as an opportunity to modernize the Act and ensure that it is still responding to the needs of Canadians by launching a round of public consultations in Spring 2019.


The mandate of the Office - to promote, oversee and protect Canadian bilingualism - made it best suited to start these conversations, as the establishment of the Office in 1969 was also meant to end a 200-year struggle for official recognition of the political, economic, and cultural role of francophone Canadians since Canada’s confederation in 1867.

Partially due to continuous pressure from and readiness of Indigenous communities, and partially due to timing with respect to Canada’s commitment to the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) - the declared Year of Indigenous Languages, on June 21, 2019 - the Canadian Bill C-91, commonly known as Indigenous Languages Act, also received royal assent. What it meant was that new funding for Indigenous language education, revitalization, translation and interpretation to and from Indigenous languages would be provided “in the course of the federal institution’s activities(Article 11). Two years later, almost to the date, Canada also appointed respected scholar and language advocate Dr. Ronald E. Ignace as the very first Commissioner of Indigenous Languages. Simultaneously, a former Canadian diplomat and Inuk Leader, Mary Simon, was appointed as Governor-General, the first to be fluent in both English and Inuktitut (an official language in the province of Nunavut), but not in Canada’s other official language, French. For that reason, her appointment sparked a huge controversy, triggering over 1,000 public complaints to the Commissioner of Official Languages Raymond Théberge requesting measures from mandatory French language training to replacement. A probe was launched in June with the November conclusion of the preliminary investigation that complaints on "the process that led to the 2021 appointment of the Governor-General are unfounded" and "that the appointment of an Indigenous governor-general is a significant step toward reconciliation".


In Canada, we certainly do not take our language rights and justice for granted.


What is language justice?


There are several definitions or angles by which language justice could be observed or determined. However, within the context of equitable access, we adopted the definition proposed by our colleagues from a 2011 Language Justice Learning Circle (Language Justice Toolkit). Acknowledging that there is not one single or even static definition of language justice, the Circle decided on a definition seen through the lens of community building or “sustaining multilingual spaces in our organizations and social movements so that everyone’s voice can be heard... recognizing the social and political dimensions of languages/ language access while working to dismantle language barriers, equalize power dynamics, and build strong communities for social and racial justice.


By adopting this approach, our ongoing interest in language intersectionality, or how it relates to many different aspects of our professional and personal life, inclusive of immigration, education, health, or legal services, allowed for a very broad mandate with additional opportunities to expand our informal reach, our understanding of where do we as a service organization belong and how language advocacy in Canada can be positioned to serve the objectives of our shared Coalition the best.


How we built the case for Canadian Language Advocacy Day 2021 (#LAD21)

Our shared idea around what a language advocacy day of action would look like from our (MCIS’) perspective took shape slowly, partially informed by our past activities and partially by our pre-pandemic advocacy opportunities. For example, one of the significant past activities was a 2019 one-day Language Policy Hackathon that sprung from the 50th anniversary of the Official Languages Act. Over the years, with events similar to this one, we were continuously able to mobilize a large network of champions - government, academia, agencies, end-users and civic tech - the very people we are going to reach out to in 2021. In terms of having opportunities for learning about advocacy, the existence of MCIS’ Social Benefits Initiative (SBI) Fund set aside in 2016 to provide free language services for individuals and small organizations without the relevant funding, created a unique position to learn about language issues while funding them.


It is obvious to us now, although not as obvious back at the beginning, how solid our advocacy network was. However, it took the pandemic lockdowns to permit the level of mobilization and outreach to new champions and politicians we might not have been able to reach so easily otherwise. The more we were bombarded with conflicting messaging, increasing our overall confusion and vulnerability, the more we became open to collaboration. For some of us, language advocacy became a lifeline. Even the groups that we would not normally invite or anticipate to be open to us to work with, our "competitors", began entering difficult conversations around what language justice should be as concerned citizens and advocates. We found that we are sharing the same worries about our families and safety, the same fears about disruption and disinformation, the same concerns about our lack of access to services as our lowered capacity for sense-making. It also seemed as if we were all experiencing a language or sense-making barrier of a kind created by media distortion and incoherence. Suddenly, the concept of "fluency" or “access to information”, phrases that we used almost exclusively in reference to our beneficiaries, became a shared lived experience for us all. This very understanding of language as a critical foundation for conveying key messages created a fertile ground we could now work with.


In addition, the Zoom meetings that we, as an agency that predominantly relied on in-person relations, initially anticipated being a barrier, became a new, fresh opportunity for much deeper, one-on-one conversations. The level of individual attention and connections established by Zoom would probably not take place if we had been meeting in groups. Our continuous processes of discarding assumptions (how do we meet/work together) and rediscovering ways to communicate helped to deepen our relations with each other and with Members of Parliament we were meeting before, after, and on the day of lobbying. The JNCL Chair, Amanda Seewald, conveyed the same, surprisingly positive discovery of the effect Zoom calls on their advocacy efforts:

Having 30 uninterrupted Zoom minutes is very different from being at the busy MP office. We loved this, and we hope we will use it again!

Advocating for language in pandemics and emergency - language service lessons learned


As much as Language Advocacy Day helped us learn how to advocate for changing language policy and how to navigate working with partners and volunteers, the above mentioned SBI Fund, a sandbox for experimenting and learning about language justice, was truly instrumental in helping to critically examine the possible future for equitable language response, especially in emergencies.


This is what we have learned.

  1. First, although face-to-face interpretations early on in pandemics stopped altogether, a majority of clients, service providers and language professionals, quickly pivoted, transitioning to an online format. The fact that many of our key clients are now bringing back face-to-face interpretation supports the argument that in-person interpretation is an essential health-related service and will not become obsolete in the future (also see the Access Alliance 2021 report: Investing in Language Access to Optimize Health System Performance).

  2. Next, the newly emerging needs we identified pointed to some low-hanging fruits in respect to gaps in funding. For example, the food banks that worked in the past primarily in person without having dedicated language support benefited from having short, standardized written protocols for safe food handling translated in several languages, and a very limited 9-5 access to a multilingual support phone line. This two-prong approach with a small, dedicated translation budget on one side, and access to over-the-phone interpretation, on the other, should be embedded with emergency protocols for all small agencies addressing essential needs of the vulnerable populations, especially food or housing.

  3. The speed of dissemination of the official public health pandemic information is not as ideal as one would hope, including the built-in consideration for multilingual localization. To fill this gap, many innovative, language-accessible initiatives became both as successful as they were indispensable.

  4. For example, grassroots coalitions such as Ottawa’s The Refugee 613 or Surrey’s The Sikh Health Foundation, working in collaboration with medical doctors and public health officials, created a number of community-sourced, multilingual videos and/or infographics distributed through alternative media channels, such as WhatsApp or Facebook, reaching tens of thousand viewers in a few days, much faster and more efficiently than any of the official government channels.

  5. Both organizations, and many others, continued to carry this work successfully through the vaccination phase that started in May 2021 by producing multilingual documents and hosting multilingual Vaccination Zoom Town Halls, and expanding upon trusting relationships with communities served. And again, as most of these initiatives were without reliable funding, we supported some. This is also how we found that for every $2,000 invested in language services, up to 1,000 individuals are reached by critical messaging that otherwise would not have been informed. Language services are expensive, but the investment may be better utilized if we would allow agencies capable of offering creative, rapid, well-localized (community-driven), multimedia, multi-channel and multi-language support to lead our community emergency communication efforts.

  6. Another great example of an innovative initiative is the work of Toronto-based OCAD Health Design Studio that developed standardized glossaries of symbols and signs to replace words that can be used specifically in pandemics or climate emergency communication. In this case, they aimed for symbolic, universal, easily recognized, and economical messaging that would also end up being less expensive if replicated in other languages. Said examples demonstrate clearly that the “how” of communicating in pandemics and emergencies benefits from the innovation of medium (multimedia vs. written), language diversity (multilingual vs. monolingual) and the format (plain language/symbols vs. regular text).

  7. Finally, given that migrant work is used abundantly, particularly in agriculture, hospitality, and food processing, many of these places in Canada and worldwide also became pandemic hot spots. And many of the migrant workers we knew about, not being fluent in the languages of work, were living in a community without immigration agencies, while working in an industry temporarily hijacked by a pandemic. Unnecessary pressure created for social services in smaller communities without financial support forced to provide band-aid solutions could be avoided by better framing. For example, as the emergencies force the government to deliver (“duty to inform”) so employers too could be held to the same standard with a twist. The private employer’s commitment to language justice could be seen as an enhancement of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) efforts incorporated with labour standards and communicated via clever PR strategy.


Conclusion


The conclusion of our first year of journey-ing is that grassroots language advocacy is a collaboration readiness meeting opportunity.


Our "readiness" meant that without 30 years of history of working within a network of language advocates in Ontario and Canada, plus the five years of experimenting with the outcomes of the Fund we purposefully put aside our ability to take the understanding, framing, collaborating or mobilizing one step further to take advantage of this opportunity would not be there. What language advocacy in Canada experienced in 2020-21 was also an “issue flashpoint” Nora Loreto defines as:

something to help to withstand normal ebbs and flows of political struggle and social movement of life. When an issue creates a flashpoint, it’s easier to organize around it. There's an excitement that helps to push people into action. It can catalyze a general sentiment that already exists in society. This, of course, can happen with or without a formal and organized social movement strategy. But it’s in time between political flashpoints that movements engage in the more mundane work of advocacy: training, building knowledge, pushing debates, and creating a movement around which to organize.”

We are now at the point where the structure of Language Advocacy Day, now renamed the Language Access Coalition of Canada, is becoming more significant although we are still without a clear prescription in terms of what our exact future will look like.


And, as we are approaching the decade of Indigenous languages 2022-2032, it seems that the only option left to us "in time between political flashpoints" is to keep debating, discussing, negotiating, arguing, convincing, and expanding while continuously seeking consensus from anyone willing to join us and contribute to this issue. If any of this resonates with you, dear reader, we would love to have you join us.


CALL TO ACTION


The details of last year’s event, our asks, and activities are outlined elsewhere on our Language Advocacy Day site, and it is sufficient to say here that it secured the support of 30 partners, 13 meetings, and 230 attendees at the 2021 Canadian Language Rights Conference and Film Festival.

  1. In preparation for #LAD22 on February 22, 2022, we completed a series of monthly workshops focusing on Canadian language advocacy available for free to language advocates worldwide. We are also getting ready for the Canadian Language Rights 2022 Conference. If you want to get in touch and share ideas about what you would like to see and if there is a profile of a Canadian language advocate you want us to feature, let us know.

  2. Our partner and collaborator, Global Coalition for Language Rights (GCLR) is also spearheading the initiative to coordinate a worldwide day of action (Global Language Advocacy Day, #GLAD22) coordinated on the same day, February 22, 2022.

  3. If you are interested in organizing or taking part in a day of advocacy in your country, please visit the GLCR website for more information or to get in touch with organizers.

  4. As February is the month of language advocacy, make sure you sign up, monitor and support Language at the Intersection, the 41st annual gathering of language advocates in the US coordinated by JNCL on February 2-4, 2022.


 

Eliana Trinaistic: Apart from her role at MCIS as a Social Impact Manager and contributor to both, LACC and GCLR, Eliana researches and writes about digital rights, inclusion, cooperatives and purpose at work, and provides pro-bono coaching/consultations to women-led social enterprises. She has presented on issues of the role of language professionals in “smart cities,” non-profit innovation, and contributed to several community initiatives and advisory groups addressing language justice and collaborative technologies. (@eTrinaistic)


Nicole Anichini: Nicole's background is in translation and French language & literature. She is MCIS Language Solutions’ Translation Manager and is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Translation Department and allocation of the SBI Fund. Nicole is a passionate advocate for language justice on the entire spectrum, from breaking down language barriers to ensuring equitable access to critical information and services, particularly for vulnerable populations. She is a core member of the LACC team, editor, translator and one of organizers of the Mobile Community Translation Clinics hosted by MCIS in Toronto.

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