COVID Series: One Year In

By: Latha Sukumar, Executive Director

And now finally there is light at the end of the tunnel. But as the saying goes “it is darkest before dawn..” We have to keep our marbles about us during this darkest hour of what still seems like a perpetual lockdown.

`It has been a while since I reflected on MCIS and how it has weathered this global crisis. In a word, MCIS and its staff have been spectacular. We have thrived beyond my wildest expectations. I cannot take any credit for this, except to say I have just stepped out of the way. I had formed an intention a couple of years back to build a succession team that would take over day to day operations. Covid presented a wonderful opportunity to do more of this. Working remote I began to work on self care so I could be a good hands-off leader. This meant, I had to learn to trust my reports even more than before. I had to listen more and offer counsel only as needed, while keeping my eye on the existential threats, mostly financial and legal. I had to ensure we made the most of all opportunities to maximise our financial gains and steer the organisation skillfully to ensure this happened. I had to be available and listen but not overwhelm with my ideas of how things should get done. I had to support opportunities that helped staff feel like they belonged, as with our diversity initiative and mental health webinars, while also encouraging diverse perspectives as with the MCIS initiated and sponsored, Language Advocacy Day initiative. MCIS’ Board has been actively engaged and provided me tremendous support.  MCIS could not have done weathered this crisis without their support.

So what do I mean when I say MCIS has done spectacularly well? Do I mean we have had a smooth ride of it? Absolutely not. There have been many bumps along the way. Three of our most difficult ones were as follows. One, confusion around whether in person interpreting assignments would be a go or not. Here, our challenges were numerous with interpreters, understandably, less willing to take these assignments, or worse yet showing up to be sent away by the service provider, in most cases hospitals, due to a breakdown in the lines of communication within said organisation. Two, video assignments taking off in a big way. This has meant a lot more coordination with video links and technical support from MCIS staff, where the individuals on the various video platforms were unable to problem solve connectivity issues. Three,  the sheer volume of calls overwhelming our call centre, resulting in the teams having to put in place workarounds and communications in a timely fashion at all hours of day and night. And all this with everyone working remote! Through Whatsapp groups, phone and zoom the team resolved all matters, putting out their best!

As for achievements, they have been numerous. In the previous blog I mentioned that we had successfully completed our Organisational Restructure, our Strategic Plan for the next three years and our Operational Plan for next year. The transition between team members as they took on different roles and, sometimes, newly created roles has gone very well, considering it all happened while working remote. We recently launched our Over the Phone interpretation service on our new platform, switching from our previous one, thereby further strengthening the scope and size of our in-house offering. We also went live with our new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system for much better and more streamlined communications with our customers. But our most ambitious work has been facilitating, with a broad coalition of passionate stakeholders interested in Language Access, the Language Advocacy Day 2021 initiative, which took place as an online event on February 4, 2021. Though our contribution was sponsorship and help with planning, our role served as a catalyst to inspire thought leaders from across the country to educate an interested public on the importance of this cause. It is MCIS’ fervent hope that the coalition carries this initiative forward to make it an annual event. There were panelists from across the country and sectors, and participants from across the globe. The stakeholders successfully advocated with MPPs across the political spectrum for an annual Language Advocacy Day. There is momentum, post event, to bring a private member’s bill forward for this purpose.

Throughout this pandemic we have worked hard to provide free services where they were needed. We averaged over 2000 minutes of OPI for food banks and immigrant serving groups offering access to critical services for a total of $24000 to date. So far we have also fulfilled translation requests to the tune of $30,000 and offered training services worth $3500. The stories on our beneficiaries and the impact these services have had on their lives are being published in the MCIS blog. This time around, Language Advocacy Day was fully sponsored by MCIS, though we remained arms-length to ensure it was a community initiative that represented diverse views. Our Covid resources in multiple languages continue to be accessed by a wide cross-section of the population.

This past year MCIS commissioned a Needs Assessment so we could reimagine linguistic services to ensure the full and complete participation of all in Canadian society. Covid helped shine the light on various inequities that persist for immigrant and refugee populations. The report (“Establishing Best Practices for Limited English Speakers, Needs Assessment Report by Marmitha Yogarajah and funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation) will soon be published on our website. The author captures MCIS’ sentiments here:

“We know that limited access to language services for limited English speakers presents multiple barriers, and can often decrease participation in programs, cause social isolation and various delays in personal development in most settings. Language interpretation and translation services provide an effective way to address language barriers and can help limited English speakers mitigate the negative effects of misinterpretation by wholly understanding and appreciating their circumstances. We also know that the current system is not prioritizing language services and does not allow limited English speakers the autonomy to access services on their own and on demand.”

In the post Covid world, we will need to reinvent our delivery of services everyday. It will call for courage, flexibility and resilience as the unanticipated continues to rear itself as the norm. We will have to continually respond to emerging and new service needs as we are doing with Community based Remote Simultaneous Interpreting, for town-halls and public meetings online, where linguistically diverse populations are given a voice to participate. Our new reality will be more and more technology platform based and may need to embrace a B to C model. Our challenges will be to remain intentional about engaging local resources, to adapt to the new technological reality and provide timely and responsive services to our most vulnerable, wherever we find them.

We have much work left to do, but I am optimistic. In the immortal words of my colleague and friend Roman Zelenka (https://www.linkedin.com/in/romanzelenka/)

“There are times when we need to face the rough descent to the valley and brave the steep climb up a ⛰ bigger mountain to take in the spectacular summit…”