19 Jun Meanwhile, in Canada…
Much ink has been spilled of late on the issue of court-interpreter pay. Here in Ontario, we’ve had our own bout with the Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG) in Ontario. Much like your states, our provinces each have their own distinct court system with its own set of rules and laws.
The lowest pay in North America
There had been no change in court-interpreter compensation in Ontario since 2011. Our group – Professional Court Interpreters of Ontario, PCIO, initially about 60-70 court interpreters coalescing around a series of language groups – carried out a market study and found that we had the lowest pay rate of any subnational jurisdiction in North America (officially, around 25 to 30 dollars per hour). Rural Saskatchewan’s pay rate was much better, and the difference in cost of living between those two provinces is astounding!
We came to realize that, as independent contractors, we could set our own rates and charge accordingly; we didn’t have to be bound by any of these things. Then we asked ourselves: what is a trained, accredited court interpreter worth? We compared our jurisdiction with others in the U.S. and Canada and decided to start by asking what amounted to doubling our pay.
We had to be strategic in our approach and start with languages of interest (Punjabi, Urdu, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and one or two others). We essentially applied labor strategies, and it worked.
In December of 2021, we sent a note to MAG: “As court interpreters, we are independent contractors, and we set our own rates. Going forward, starting Jan. 1, 2022, this is what the going rate will be.”
We received no reply nor acknowledgement of receipt. We provided our statement to the judiciary, the media, the Law Society of Ontario, and essentially all stakeholders. MAG had an advantage: it was unknown just how many court interpreters there are in the province. It was their best-kept secret. It was difficult for us to know if our statement was coming from 10%, 20%, 50%, or 80% of the court-interpreter body. But we had an idea and ran with it.
Then some PCIO members asked: should we give advance notice to interpreter coordinators regarding our upcoming assignments, out of courtesy? The idea was to let the coordinators know about our new rates for all our confirmed assignments up until then.
But this would not work! Any interpreter applying this method on an individual basis would see all their matters cancelled. This would merely be a very good way for a court interpreter to be a very hungry court interpreter. So, another option was proposed: the cancellation period for assignments at the time was forty-eight hours. We’d give courts as much respect as they were giving us, and so forty-nine hours before an assignment, we would tell them: I will be applying the PCIO rates that the Ministry has been informed of. Please confirm my rates and terms.
This tactic turned out to be hugely effective. Of course, forty-eight hours before a trial was not enough time to secure a new interpreter. The alternative would have been inordinately difficult for coordinators, and so one courthouse after another caved to the new fees. All this was in January of 2022.
Already by mid-year of 2022, there were 10-15 courts accepting the new fee schedule, no questions asked. Luckily for us, in Ontario there is a registry system available to interpreter coordinators throughout the province, and so the courts do not go through agencies. That meant one less middleman from the equation to facilitate negotiation. At the same time, we had to be cognizant of risks: if we pushed too hard, we might end up like public-service/court interpreters in the U.K.: there, the courts ended up saying, “Hey, know what? Let’s just punt this whole business over to agencies.” The result? Court-interpreter pay was cut by HALF rather than increased. So, we had to be diplomatic. Diplomatic and courteous, but intentional.
We came together as a group. Quite simply, PCIO said, “These are our rates in 2022 going forward,” and they let the cards play out.
Now for phase two: French court interpreters, seeing the success of all these measures, realized: “Hold on, the market rates in French are much higher.” We had gone from $180/day to $360/day. But market rates in Canada for a qualified French interpreter are in excess of $700/day. If we were working in parliament or at a conference, we’d be making more. So come November 2022, the PCIO-F division was founded, applying these rates and conditions, and banking on the heavy demand for French services and low supply of French interpreters.
Hourly amounts in French were upped successfully to $125/hour. But then, we decided to simplify things by charging half days and full days. If an interpretation goes past a half day, it’s a full day.
Come 2023, phase 3 went into gear: the PCIO non-French interpreters went from $60 to $70 per hour, and the PCIO French group went from $700 to $750/day.
Not only rates were changed but also terms and conditions. Previously, the cancellation period had been forty-eight hours, and this was increased to five days. Additionally, travel-time payments were updated. Before, it was much more advantageous to interpret out of town than to interpret locally. Now, changes have been made to make it worthwhile to work as interpreters and not just travel. Before, you had to travel at least 80 km one way to get paid for your travel time. But now travel time is charged from the moment you leave home to when you get to court, even if it’s very close by.
There is a cost to underestimating the value of a service
MAG had viewed interpreters as highly trained bilingual monkeys. What do you give monkeys? Peanuts. But this attitude led to poor interpretation performance, mistrials, and miscarriage of justice. One needs only remember Regina vs. Singh, in which MAG was sued for $13M on account of bad interpreting.
There is a cost to thinking that your interpreter is just a glorified bilingual. One could say: pay now, pay your interpreter something that reflects market realities… or pay later. The later payment will be much higher.
MAG has not yet given any official response. They have declined invitations to meetings. Essentially, they have pushed the decision down to individual courthouses; it’s up to the courthouse how much or how little they want to fight. But I would say that now it’s basically: “Tell us what your rate is, and we’ll have it approved.” It’s a case-by-case type of thing, but generally they approve.
If someone asks you, “Could you let us know what your rates are?”, that’s a carte blanche! Why not raise yourself up? The Ministry now knows what leg to stand on; they just haven’t made an official pronouncement yet.
Nicholas Ferreira, C.Crt.Int., MCI, originally from Toronto, joined the profession because he had heard about mistrials and incompetence leading to bad results. For the last fifteen years he has successfully navigated a variety of areas in the interpreting profession, including judiciary. When he’s not interpreting, you might find him on a road trip with his family or spending quality time with his friends. Contact: email@example.com
Main photo taken from “Le Groupe de travail sur les femmes et les DESC participe à la CSW59/Beijing+20” at Réseau-DESC, under the CC BY-NC 4.0 license. First body photo taken from “Come telefonare con numero privato” at Arrangiamoci, under the CC BY-NC 4.0 license. Second body photo taken from “Singe hurleur” at Wikimini, under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.