Editorial: Time to fix Ontario’s interpreter shortage

Despite years of criticism over the lack of fully accredited interpreters in court, it appears the Ontario government has yet to fix the problem.

Judges in two recent rulings, in fact, rejected the proposed interpreters for criminal trials. In R. v. Akaeze, Anyiam, Superior Court Justice Thomas Bielby considered two proposed interpreters for an accused drug trafficker whose first language is Ibo. One interpreter, Blessing Omere, was born in Nigeria and speaks Ibo at home but has little experience in the criminal courts. The Ministry of the Attorney General hasn’t accredited her for interpretation of Ibo, although she has handled some matters in the provincial offences court and at the Immigration and Refugee Board.

The other interpreter has conditional accreditation for Ibo. He has much more experience in criminal matters but scored low marks on the accreditation test. According to Bielby, there are reportedly only four Ibo interpreters in Ontario.

In the other case, R. v. Abrha-Beyene, the accused required a Tigrigna interpreter. The interpreter, A.T., had also scored relatively low marks on the ministry-approved testing. As a result, he, too, had conditional accreditation for interpretation. The case involved a charge of driving over 80. Ontario Court Justice Heather McArthur issued her ruling on A.T.’s ability to interpret the trial on Dec. 11 following a voir dire held on Dec. 7.

In both cases, the judges rejected the proposed interpreters despite submissions by the Crown that they should allow them. “The ruling of this court is that Ms. Omere and Mr. Mbaegbu are not competent to interpret in this Superior Court trial,” wrote Bielby.

The rulings follow long-standing concerns over the availability of fully accredited interpreters for a number of languages. Admittedly, the languages in these two cases aren’t among the most common, although there certainly are a number of Ibo speakers in this country. But the government has known about the problems in this area for some time and doesn’t appear to have fixed it yet. In the meantime, courts such as those in Akaeze, Anyiam and Abrha-Beyene face repeated difficulties and delays in moving forward due to interpretation issues.

Bielby, in fact, offered some advice to the government as he reached his conclusions. “While the [ministry] cannot conscript interpreters, it can certainly make the need to qualify via standardized testing more attractive by increasing the remuneration and thereby increasing the incentive,” he wrote.

“Court services and [the ministry] will likely be required to look further afield to seek competent English/Ibo interpreters in this matter.”

Bielby is right. As we start another year, let’s hope the government listens.

Glenn Kauth

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