Indigenous Languages in Parliament: Comparing Canada and Australia

Article 5 / 13 , Vol 43 No 4 (Winter)

Indigenous Languages in Parliament: Comparing Canada and Australia

In 2018, a committee of the Canadian House of Commons conducted an inquiry into how it might better incorporate Indigenous languages in its proceedings. One witness in that inquiry gave evidence from over 15,000 kilometres away, in the Northern Territory of Australia. While many of the challenges faced by speakers of Indigenous languages in Canada and Australia are very different, it appears that each jurisdiction might have something to learn from the other – as indicated by the knowledge shared in 2018. This article advances the project of comparing the Canadian and Australian approach to incorporating Indigenous languages in federal and sub-federal parliamentary proceedings. The analysis will touch upon the symbolic importance of facilitating Indigenous language use in parliament, the practical benefits flowing from the same, and the logistical issues – including interpretation, translation, recording and funding – that arise.

In May 2017, Robert-Falcon Ouellette gave a speech to the Canadian House of Commons on violence within Indigenous communities. Ouellette spoke in Cree, because he wanted to “address the violence in a manner that would be noticed” and to reach the younger population.1 Although Ouellette had contacted the relevant parliamentary office ahead of time and provided the English text of the speech, no simultaneous interpretation was offered from Cree to English. Although Ouellette’s use of Cree did not contravene the Standing Orders, it highlighted the fact that no mechanism existed to have his words simultaneously interpreted so that other Members could understand him. After the speech, Ouellette objected to the status quo and the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs conducted an inquiry into the use of Indigenous languages in House Proceedings and Committees.2 During the course of that inquiry, the Committee received testimony for 31 witnesses, the last of whom gave evidence from some 15,000 kilometres away in Australia. That witness – Michael Tatham, Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory – explained the extent to which Indigenous languages were then accommodated within the Northern Territory Parliament. This distant Australian witness’ appearance before the Committee, and the inclusion of his evidence in the final report, suggests that – as much as there are significant differences between the obstacles to Indigenous parliamentary involvement in Canada and Australia – there are also potentially some shared experiences. In this article, we hope to outline the current position in Australia with respect to the use of Indigenous languages in Parliament, touching upon the symbolic importance of facilitating Indigenous language use, the practical benefits flowing from the same, and the logistical issues – including interpretation, translation, recording and funding – that arise. In the course of our discussion we focus in particular on recent developments and, where possible, we drawn on comparisons with the Canadian experience.

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