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OTTAWA — Public Services and Procurement Canada says it's investigating what led to a Parliament Hill language interpreter needing an ambulance ride last week, adding that it's the third hospitalization in recent years.

"The translation bureau is extremely concerned by this accident," wrote departmental spokeswoman Katherine Proulx.

At the Senate environment committee on Oct. 20, two witnesses testified over video conference with poor sound quality and did not wear the recommended headphones with a microphone wand.

During questions from senators, a buzz could be heard as the first witness spoke, similar to a smartphone vibrating on a table. As the second witness answered questions from senators, there was a sudden moment of loud feedback.

"Feedback occurred in the sound system and an interpreter suffered an acoustic shock. The interpreter subsequently received emergency care," Proulx wrote.

The department added that interpreters have needed emergency care two other times in the last five years, both before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020.

Acoustic shocks are when inner ear muscles are startled by sudden noises, such as someone tapping a microphone or suddenly speaking much louder when an interpreter has been straining to hear them.

Experts have testified to Parliament of multiple staff on leave with concussion-like symptoms, loud ringing in the ears or vertigo. With so many absences, officials have started hiring contractors with lower accreditations to fill gaps.

The Canadian Association of Professional Employees argues last week's meeting should have been halted at the time of the injury.

Instead, a translation bureau supervisor took over as the freelancer was escorted out of the room, where she collapsed.

In advance of virtual appearances, the Senate asks witnesses to use a proper headset, offering to reimburse up to $100 in pre-tax value to buy one. The House of Commons caps this at $175.

"Each participant is required to use a wired headset with an attached boom microphone to ensure optimal sound quality for simultaneous interpretation," reads the Senate's January 2021 instruction sheet, which specifically says not to use earbuds.

And yet, the injury occurred at a sitting where one witness wore earbuds, and the other had headphones with no microphone wand.

"Senate Administration staff and committee chairs make decisions regarding committee functioning, including witness participation," wrote House of Commons spokeswoman Amélie Crosson.

The office of Sen. Paul Massicotte, who chaired the meeting, diverted questions to the Senate administration.

"When interpreters indicate that sound quality is preventing them from interpreting, witnesses are told that they are unable to continue," wrote Senate spokeswoman Alison Korn. 

She said that was the case at last Thursday's meeting, yet the official recording shows the testimony continued in full.

The House of Commons audiovisual team maintains some Senate equipment, including in the room where the incident occurred.

They inspected the room after the incident, and "concluded that the consoles are performing normally and offer interpreters hearing protection," House spokeswoman Amélie Crosson wrote.

Proulx said the translation bureau "will also conduct an internal investigation, and will share its findings with key stakeholders when they are available."

Crosson added that the House audiovisual team does recurring checks to make sure all systems meet international safety regulations.

"The House of Commons, working with its partners, has taken efforts to ensure that any sound issues are addressed proactively or as they are identified, to enhance the remote participant experience, improve the quality of hybrid proceedings, and protect interpreters."

Sen. Michèle Audette, who was in the Oct. 20 committee meeting, recalled hearing a loud sound through her earpiece and in the room.

She said she was startled and then noticed the woman who was doing the translation had jumped too. She went to check on her and eventually accompanied her out of the room, where Audette said the interpreter said she was in pain.

In an interview Thursday, Audette described how translators are needed to help senators understand complex testimony and legislation, but also more generally, to bridge the divide.

She described the role they can play when it comes to relations between different Indigenous Peoples in Quebec where, along with their Indigenous languages, the Mohawk population speaks English and her own Innu community speaks French. 

“They allow us to communicate and it doesn't become a gulf between two nations,” she said in French.

“They are the ones who do the magic.”

Audette said she believes in hybrid Senate proceedings to make them accessible, but that the interpreters needed to make that happen must be well equipped.

“These are human beings,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2022.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version mistakenly referred to a headset lacking a microwave, instead of a microphone.

The Canadian Press
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