Language Policy Hackathon: Report

By: Eliana Trinaistic, MCIS Language Solutions & Niha Shahzad, Policy Innovation Initiative

Click here to read the final report.

Language access is a complex topic and one that is highly volatile.

On the one hand, the views on language access are constantly changing and evolving due to changes in migration patterns or technology. On the other hand, they remain fundamentally grounded in the concept of nationhood.

The scope of language rights is determined by a large number of international documents: the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (1996), the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (1992), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (1998), the Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960), as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). The foundational piece, however, was provided in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, articles 2, 10, 19 and 26 that defined “the right to have the interpreter translate the proceedings, including court documents and the right to freedom of expression.

In Canada, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) granted linguistic rights to the French and English language communities as well as “the right to the assistance of an interpreter” (article 14). On the other hand, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (1988) recognized Canada’s multicultural heritage, Aboriginal rights and “that other languages may be used” for “minorities to enjoy their cultures.”  Recently, the Government co-developed the National First Nations, Inuit and Métis Languages Act (Bill C-91), which recognizes Indigenous languages more widely. The Act received Royal Assent on June 21, 2019.

However, other issues beyond existing legislative frames, such as employment, demographics, migration, health, climate change, literacy and aging are continuously increasing the complexities of language-facilitated access to critical information and services, inadvertently impacting the sense of well-being of individuals and communities.

In addition, across Canada, the different levels of government are seeking ways to harness the power of communities to innovate (policies), transform (society), and improve economic opportunities in the global and local job markets. The Federal, Provincial and Territorial Declaration on Public Sector Innovations (2018) calls for “sharing knowledge and data with citizens in an open and transparent way, while learning from them and incorporating their expertise and input into our work…to succeed in the face of rapid social, economic, environmental and technological change.” However, engagement of this scope and ambition requires non-traditional collaborations. By seeing citizens as a resource of lived experience and localized knowledge and by creating opportunities for citizens to contribute to public policies more frequently, governments can actively modernize public governance, including how public decisions are made and how public actions are carried out. Social innovation in particular depends on inclusive, authentic, and easily implemented public policies.

Our interest in having larger conversations around language as a policy and language as infrastructure of access was partially motivated by our interest to explore various aspects of language service delivery.

We also wanted to see if policy making could inspire Canadians from all walks of life to connect with each other and with policy makers on issues that matter. In fact, 39% of the participants, irrespective of their professional or personal backgrounds, indicated that the greatest value of a hackathon is creating a space and “an atmosphere where people with different skill sets can brainstorm together, create partnerships, and learn about a problem or challenge.”

To facilitate this type of collaboration among key players in the area of language-facilitated access to social services and to have a much broader conversation about how more inclusive language access infrastructure (people, data, evidence, technology, training, processes, policies, regulations) could be built, we set out to explore a range of questions, from “how do we engage community leaders in the mental health process to build a trusted source for services in culturally sensitive situations?” to “how do we increase newcomer voter turnout among immigrants?” and many others in between.

This Report, therefore, puts forth three common recommendations from the 21 insights that were determined by participants as the best practices for policymakers working to improve language access to follow:

  • Cultural competency training for service providers and first responders
  • More funding and support for interpretation and translation services
  • Better neighbourhood and community support (e.g. language appropriate workshops, neighbourhood hubs, public health visits to seniors)

We present you with these recommendations as members of a rather informal citizens’ coalition of practitioners, non -profits, academia, government and policy professionals, as well as other interested groups and individuals, and invite you to contribute to, refine and expand our findings.

And, if you do have an idea for a simple solution-focused language access initiative, please submit it here so we can continue our conversation!