Accessible civic literacy: Toronto’s efforts in removing language barriers for municipal elections

By: Jack Xu

By: Sanah Matadar, Social Media Coordinator, MCIS Language Solutions

With ward divisions causing uncertainty and the accompanying media storm, it feels as though the 2018 municipal election race has been playing out in the background for a very long time. However, there was one thing that stuck out to me during this race, something I had never really questioned before. I was on my way to the bus stop, and as I passed by a neighbour’s house, a big campaign lawn sign caught my eye. Now, despite its size, it wasn’t the lawn sign itself that piqued my interest, but rather the amount of text on it. In contrast to the typical ‘Vote’ followed by the candidate’s name, this sign had information translated to four different languages. I thought to myself, this candidate is smart. Not only had their sign caught my attention, but it would no doubt catch the attention of those who spoke those languages.

So What?

You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again: Toronto is a diverse city, one of the most multicultural in the world. Census data from 2016 confirms this, with immigrants accounting for 47 percent of the city’s total population, and 51.5 percent identifying as visible minorities. Even after accounting for the fact that migrants must achieve citizenship before being eligible to vote, Toronto is a city where the minority vote matters.

And while it may not be explicitly stated anywhere, the idea that migrants are regularly asked to assimilate to Canadian culture is not farfetched. The most notable of these assimilation tactics involves language, and being encouraged to learn one of Canada’s two official languages. Indeed, one of the first things that many Syrian refugees took part in upon arriving in Canada was language training offered by the Federal government. Of course, this isn’t the worst thing in the world; learning English to begin a new life in an English speaking country seems intuitive. The fact remains however, that not everyone does speaks English. 1 in 20 Torontonians don’t speak either of Canada’s official languages. Accordingly, over 130,000 voters are unable to entirely understand election information if it is only made available in English or French.

This in turn raises the question of how much election information is understood by Torontonians, and whether civic literacy, the knowledge and ability to be involved in community and social changes, is at risk. In a time where attending to campaign promises and propositions is vital, and maximizing the power of your vote is key, how many Torontonians fully understand who and what they’re voting for? Voting is important, and it can be easy, but it must be made accessible to maximize such effectiveness.

Available Language Resources for the Municipal Elections:

Those born and raised in Canada are at an advantage when it comes to the ease with which they vote. But what does that mean for those who weren’t born here; those who speak little English, and who, as citizens of Toronto, are just as impacted by city council decisions as those who speak English fluently?

Some years ago, representatives at City Hall had similar concerns. In 2009, the city introduced By-law No. 1176-2009, which permitted election related materials, such as notices and forms, to be made available in languages other than English, specifically in wards where a minimum of 2 percent of the population speak the target language. In August 2017, the City of Toronto Multilingual Information Provisions Policy was implemented. As opposed to the 2009 by-law, the purpose of this policy was not strictly election-related. It was created in hopes of developing more accessible information of city programs, services, and activities, with the overarching goal of keeping Torontonians informed and engaged.

With such policies in place, it seems as though the city is strongly committed to increasing accessibility. So, how are we faring in the first municipal elections since the 2017 policy was conceived? Moreover, what are the exact resources available to non-English speaking voters?

During election years, the City of Toronto’s official website makes information on the How-To’s of voting available in 25 languages. In case voters don’t access this resource online, hard-copy booklets are also available at voting locations on Election Day. For languages that fall outside of these special 25, voters can call 311 for over-the-phone interpretation, a service offered in over 180 languages.

New to 2018’s election, you may see staff wearing tags listing the languages they speak. However, no live translation or interpretation is available. Still, it is within voters’ rights to have someone interpret for them, as long as the interpreter is not a candidate or scrutineer. The interpreter is also barred from accompanying the voter behind the voting screen.

Where does the city go from here? Surely we can do even more to increase the accessibility of election campaign information. For instance, perhaps each candidate’s platform can be added to the city’s website, where information is typically translated and available in various languages. Alternatively, debates could be transcribed and translated, then made available online. Whatever the solution may be, there also needs to be increased awareness around the issue of civic literacy and language barriers. As such, work remains to be done to create a more language accessible civic life for all Torontonians.

Thank you to Tammy Robbinson (Communications Manager, City of Toronto), for contributing to this article.