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In a landmark ruling, the Federal Court of Canada has ordered the federal government to make professional sign language interpretation services available on request when providing services to people who are deaf or affected by hearing loss.

I applaud this ruling as a major step in the right direction,” said National President Paul Moist. “It sets a precedent and sends a strong message, not just to the federal government, but to all levels of government and to society in general. This is about access and equality for everyone.”

As Canadians, deaf persons are entitled to be full participants in the democratic process and functioning of government, Justice Richard Mosley wrote in his decision. “It is fundamental to an inclusive society that those with disabilities be accommodated when interacting with the institutions of government.”

Among other things, Justice Mosley’s decision states that “professional sign language interpretation services are to be provided and paid for by the government of Canada, upon request, where a deaf or hard of hearing person receives services from or participates in programs administered by the government of Canada and the nature of communication between the government and the person requires such services.”

Justice Mosely also ordered the federal government to provide visual interpretation services whenever it “engages in public or private consultations with non-governmental organizations in the development of policy and programs in which the deaf and hard of hearing Canadians have identifiable interests and the nature of communications requires such services.”

This is definitely an improvement over the Eldridge ruling,” said Sheryl Burns, a member of CUPE’s national people with disabilities working group who is hard of hearing. Burns was referring to a 1998 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that stated that deaf or hard of hearing persons must be provided with the services of an interpreter when seeking medical treatment.

The interesting thing is that in 1997-98, the federal government spent $108,000 on sign language translation and visual interpretation,” Burns noted. “That was their peak spending year, and it’s peanuts. They’ve cut back since then. They probably spent more in court than they have in providing these services.”

The Canadian Association of the Deaf (CAD) filed the case on behalf of James Roots, Gary Malkowski, Barbara Lagrange and Mary Lou Cassie. Lawyers argued that the four individuals were denied the services of sign language interpreters during the policy development process. They also lost opportunities to secure contracts with the federal government and were unable to participate in the Statistics Canada labour force survey, the court was told.

CAD, which represents 300,000 deaf people across the country, hailed the decision as a major breakthrough.

For the full decision, see: