Crossing Borders: Language and Discrimination

Imagine you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language. Now imagine you’re being asked by a doctor for permission to operate, or being cautioned by police in Punjabi, or Hebrew.

What’s that you’re saying? You don’t understand? That’s unfortunate because you’ve just missed being told your rights. Are there any important questions you’d like to ask at this time? Tough. -What’s that? Your human rights are being violated..?

For reasons often directly connected to the international foreign policies of the world’s richest and most powerful nations, many people seek refuge in Canada, a vast and underpopulated country with a reputation for supposedly considering (im)migration a national necessity rather than a national burden. Canada needs people.

Those who manage to jump through all the immigration hoops, others who happen to fall through them and of course those who simply have the money to pay, may come from countries where human rights are at best a low priority, and at worst, not a priority at all. They may come from countries where disregard for human rights may result in illness, wrongful imprisonment and death. Well, I’ve got news for you; they’ve just arrived in Canada, another country where disregard for human rights may result in illness, wrongful imprisonment and death; all because many of Canada’s newest arrivals are guilty of the heinous crime of not speaking English/French. And Canada is making them pay for it, dearly. All too often, the right to communicate, to understand and to make oneself understood is denied them.

You might say that everything is relative, and that the results of being deprived of this right are not as serious as the human rights abuses taking place in some of their native countries. Try telling that to the families of those who become dangerously ill or even die because of the absence of an interpreter at a crucial moment of diagnosis or treatment. Try telling that to the elderly woman who becomes hysterical as she’s wheeled to the operating theatre because she has not been given an explanation about what’s happening to her. Try telling that to those who are wrongfully imprisoned because no interpreter was called to the police interview. Try telling that to a family with three children who don’t have enough to eat because they can’t argue their case when an administrative error deprives them of a welfare entitlement.

You might say that there are a lot of bilingual and trilingual people in Canada. Indeed, there are. But let’s try an experiment; those of you who speak two languages or more fluently, would you know immediately how to interpret words such as ‘bail,’ ‘triple heart bypass, ‘manslaughter,’ and ‘residual weakness?’ Do you have an exceptional memory and listening skills? Can you switch very rapidly from one language to the other? Are you fully acquainted with health, legal and social service procedures and codes of practice? Do you have a complete understanding of the ethics of confidentiality and interpreter impartiality?

If you answered yes, then congratulations; the interpreting examinations will be a piece of cake. Canada’s newest citizens need you to help uphold federal Multiculturalism policy based on those Canadian values they’ve heard all about of equality and mutual respect for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, language or religion.

As for those of you who are monolingual, you might want to write/visit your MP and demand to know why Canada is failing so many of it’s new population. You might want to remind your MP of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 21, Section 2) which states that ‘Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.’ You might want to suggest to your MP that Canada urgently passes new legislation to give all non-English/French-speaking residents and citizens the right to a qualified interpreter in all public service sectors.

Or perhaps Canada didn’t mean what it said in the 1993 Multiculturalism Act when it proposed the fostering of a society with no impediments to full and free participation for all?