Inclusive Languages

An awesome thing happened this past Saturday night, for the first time in history an NHL game was broadcast in an aboriginal language. The National Hockey League teamed up with aboriginal broadcaster APTN to deliver both play-by-play and colour commentary in Plains Cree. While I am a male of European heritage, I live in Treaty Four territory in Canada, one of the traditional homes of Cree First Nations.

While I was excited to see an act of reconciliation and inclusion being lived out, it got me thinking about how we go about including traditional and indigenous languages in our Emergency Management work. Here in Canada, we have both French and English as our national official languages. On top of that, we have no less than twenty-six aboriginal languages, six sign languages, and then the following languages with more than 250,000 speakers:

  • Mandarin
  • Cantonese
  • Punjabi
  • Tagalog (Filipino)
  • Arabic
  • German
  • Italian
  • Hindustani (Hindi and Urdu)

Now, I know that a quarter-million speakers may not seem like a lot, but when you add those eight languages together, all of a sudden you have approximately 11% of the population of the country. Now, many of these people will have some level of English or French fluency, but those are not the people we should be concerning ourselves with.

Plan, Structure, and Design for the Few

When we design Emergency Management programs, policies, and processes, we should be designing them to meet the needs of the most marginalized and challenging group we can think of. When we plan, structure, and design our Emergency Management programs for the few, we are also meeting the needs of the many.

An evacuation and sheltering plan that is deliberately inclusive of people with Disabilities, Access and Functional Needs (DAFN) will meet the needs of non-DAFN people. In the same way, a communications plan that is deliberately inclusive of non-English speakers will meet the needs of people for whom English is a first language. All that’s needed is the will to make it happen.

Many people who speak English as a second language, particularly if they are new to the area and without significant social networks, will struggle with information and alerts that are only issued in English. Many times, their virtual networks (social media, websites, etc…) won’t be the channels on which our notifications are shared. They may require specific printed material to be posted at community centres, churches, mosques, schools, and other gathering places. When this information is shared in a multi-lingual format, this material will also capture English-speaking members of our jurisdiction(s), giving another outlet through which we can share information.

What Would it Take?

Here’s the main question I want you to consider: What would it take to be deliberately inclusive of other languages in your emergency planning? The truth is that it wouldn’t really take much.

1) Determine the languages spoken in your area.

2) Establish relationships with people who are fluent in those languages.

3) Invite them to translate your messages into their language to share with their community.

That’s it. Three simple steps. It means some big changes for Emergency Managers though. We have to trust that the people we invite to share our messages in their mother tongue will do so without changing the content of the message. We have to give up control of our message, which is next to impossible for us to do for a multitude of reasons. But, taking those three steps means that we are meeting our mandate to care equally for everybody in our jurisdiction. By being deliberately inclusive, we are doing our job to the best of our ability.

At the end of the day, if we aren’t including the needs of everyone in our jurisdiction, then we aren’t meeting the needs of our jurisdiction. If we can prevent even one death because we took the time to translate our messaging into the languages that people use and understand on a daily basis, then it is worth it.


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