The Peace Tower is pictured on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021, as lawmakers return to the House of Commons following the winter break. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Liberals using interpreter shortage to dodge accountability, Conservatives allege

OTTAWA — Federal Conservatives say the Liberals are using a pandemic-induced shortage of translators to shut down House of Commons committees when they raise issues that cause the government discomfort.

Conservative whip Blake Richards points to a meeting of the health committee last Friday, which was abruptly cut short by Liberal chair Ron McKinnon announcing that the committee would not have any Commons staff resources, including interpreters, after 4:30 p.m.

At the time, Liberal members of the committee had been filibustering opposition attempts to pass a motion demanding disclosure of the contracts the government has signed with pharmaceutical companies for COVID-19 vaccines.

Richards says other committees have been similarly shut down at crucial moments.

And he blames the government for deliberately ignoring urgent warnings from the Commons’ translation bureau that virtual sittings of the chamber and its committees have caused a steep spike in interpreters taking sick leave for workplace injuries, including acute acoustic shock, tinnitus, headaches and nausea.

However, Speaker Anthony Rota says it’s his responsibility to make sure adequate resources are available and he’s asking Commons staff to work with party whips to develop a protocol to better ensure that happens.

“The question now facing the House is whether, in the context of the pandemic, certain situations, while quite justified, will eventually put a strain on the approach taken in recent months and the resources that are available to us,” Rota told the Commons on Friday.

“Despite best intentions, the exceptional dedication shown by the individuals involved and the clearly expressed desire to meet members’ expectations, resources are not unlimited.”

But Rota said it’s also up to all parties to work more closely with the Commons administration to make sure committees are not shut down in future for lack of interpreters or other Commons staff.

“The new reality confronting us requires us to be particularly vigilant, to communicate and to provide timely updates and to ensure close co-ordination with the staff required for each committee meeting.”

Rota was responding to a point of privilege raised earlier in the week by Richards, who laid the blame squarely on the Liberal government.

He said the pandemic has exacerbated a shortage of accredited interpreters and the government has had plenty of warning that injuries caused by bad audio quality during virtual meetings was leading to a crisis.

“The evidence … is that we are at a breaking point and that we are careening towards a critical failure in the ability to conduct parliamentary proceedings,” Richards argued.

“Yet the government has done nothing. Instead, it sits back, folds its arms and takes comfort in the fact that Parliament cannot function fully and hold the government to account.”

He said several committees, including finance and the special committee on Canada-China relations, have also been cut short due to a lack of interpreters just as they were “proving uncomfortable for Liberal interests.”

The health committee meeting which prompted Richards’ accusation resumed Friday, a week after its last meeting halted. The committee passed the motion seeking disclosure of the vaccine contracts.

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