Sharing Best Practices
This year, the members of the Hansard Association of Canada (HAC) were able to meet in person for the first time since 2019. This delay was an unfortunate situation for this year’s hosts, the Hansard office of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, since they were originally scheduled to organise the conference in 2020 and, once again, last year, when the event was cancelled because of public health restrictions. However, the conference organisers excelled themselves and offered an engaging and dynamic programme of speakers, events, and networking opportunities for members and their guests.
The association rotates hosting duties among the federal (two Houses), three territorial and 10 provincial jurisdictions. Standing invitations are extended to colleagues in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. This year, the meetings were enriched by international attendees from the House of Lords, House of Commons (UK), the Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament), the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the Oireachtas (Republic of Ireland).
The theme of this year’s conference was “Sharing Best Practices”. Given that the production of the official debates, or Hansard, is a highly specialised field, there are few opportunities to discuss mutual concerns, technical advances, successes, projects, or aspirations.
Setting the Tone
On the first day of meetings, following a tour of the legislature and the Hansard offices, we met in the main chamber of the legislature for all jurisdictions to introduce their teams and to present their challenges, achievements and departmental goals. There were many recurring themes that included recruitment and retention concerns; different approaches to maintain contact, morale and culture in a more heavily remote work environment; technological advancement, particularly with automatic speech recognition (ASR) advances; and a general sense of how those who had been to the conference before missed the opportunity to be with and learn from colleagues.
The first learning session was given by Nadine Coderre, Senior Editor from Saskatchewan Hansard, who spoke to training and performance management. Ms. Coderre provided a report on the virtual Commonwealth Hansard Editors Association conference that had been held earlier in the year and the specific portion that focused on performance management. Nadine shared Saskatchewan’s approach for training new recruits and how they provide pre-session training for existing employees after an extended break period. The pandemic allowed their office to realign their training practices, with a focus on targeted smaller group training, with an emphasis on the practical rather than theoretical. New recruitment training was restructured to align with adult learning styles and the recognition that learning is ongoing, shortening the initial training period and targeting training to upcoming significant parliamentary events. In this method, less time was required for the initial training period, and the supervisors reported that the learning trajectory and results were similar to the previous training method. This change in training approach was also positive for existing employees, who reported greater confidence in approaching their work, and supervisors reported an overall improvement in editorial quality.
In preparing for the conference, organisers identified a significant interest in ASR and designed a panel discussion of members from various jurisdictions with ASR experience for attendees to learn more about the benefits, drawbacks and general application of the technology. Panellists included representatives from Alberta, British Columbia, the House of Commons (UK and Canada), Ontario and Quebec. ASR is generally being used as an editorial tool and proving to be fairly useful in that regard, certainly in terms of reducing repetitive strain injuries for editors and advancing the production process. For jurisdictions that use human-generated closed captioning to allow editors to have a head start on their work, that experience is often one of inserting missing text or correcting mis-translated words when the rate of speech becomes too rapid for the captionist. Conversely, ASR tends to require the editor to remove and correct ASR-generated text, but the overall impression is favourable. ASR is not perfect, and the editor must remain vigilant, but ASR has made demonstrable strides in the last 10 years and is proving to be a significant asset to Hansard editors.
Doctoral candidate in Linguistics and Transcriber-Proofreader from Manitoba Hansard, Alice Coates, presented on human speech perception – how language sounds are heard, interpreted, and understood. Ms. Coates’ research has analysed how speech is dependent on hearing, phonology, right/left brain function, phonetics and social attitudes. Phonology is the foundation for understanding sound and is developed between zero and two years of age. How someone hears sound is refined as grammatical structure becomes better understood. However, there are gaps in understanding where the sound passage may be incomplete or imperfect, and the brain will often fill in these gaps to try to understand meaning. Editors who transcribe the spoken word often face the difficulty of reliably filling in the gaps in someone’s speech, working around made-up words or mis-used terminology. Ms. Coates’ presentation clearly demonstrated that a skilled editor must be mindful of the brain’s attempts to add context, to reflect on perceptions and judgment, to achieve understanding.
There has been an ongoing interest among association members to create a cross-jurisdictional XML schema for official debates, or Hansard. Janet Schwegel, Director of Parliamentary Programs, Alberta, presented on Alberta’s experience and the XML fundamentals of preservation, accessibility, openness and mobility. Richard Gartner, School of Advanced Study, University of London, presented on the LIPARM project, or Linking Parliamentary Records through Metadata. Dr. Gartner outlined that the problems of searching or analysing large amounts of data coherently will persist without a unified approach to classifying information in a coherent and consistent manner. The more this data is integrated across jurisdictions, using controlled vocabularies, the deeper and more reliable will be the information and analysis.
Marionne Cronin, Assistant Manager at Manitoba Hansard, and Glenn Wigmore, Editorial Team Leader at British Columbia Hansard, presented on production manuals and style guides. Ms. Cronin had undertaken an environmental scan of Canadian jurisdictions to compare various approaches to style guides with a focus on format, organisation, usability, maintenance, approval process, and managing resources in more than one language while attempting to achieve a consistent approach for users. Different offices used a variety of formats, from Word, PDF, Excel, HTML and multiple formats, and the decision to use one of these was specific to the jurisdiction and was often based on internal capacity, bandwidth, and available support. Mr. Wigmore presented on British Columbia’s style guide, which was migrated to OneNote following an in-depth discernment and analysis process. OneNote was chosen for its flexibility and usability. Existing information was easy to transfer and took up much less space. Updating the guide is streamlined and responsive to unexpected changes or procedural events. For training new or existing staff, the OneNote style guide has become an invaluable tool that allows modules to be easily accessed and understood.
Caroline Corneau, Director of Parliamentary Translation, Government of Canada’s Translation Bureau, presented on the bureau’s experience with Neuronal Machine Translation (NMT). The federal Government of Canada must produce its official documents in English and French in a manner that delivers similar tone, structure and content. The Translation Bureau is the Government’s centre for governmental linguistic services. The bureau has been investigating machine translation since 1977 but has observed that the quality and technical capacity of NMT has grown significantly in the last decade, both in terms of quality and speed. A primary objective of the bureau is to deliver a secure and solid foundation for easily accessible information. Like ASR, NMT provides a robust tool that allows translators to work more quickly and provides more time for overview and revision.
Acknowledging the Past toward an Informed Future
The final working session was delivered by John Vice, Editor of Debates, House of Lords, who provided a humorous review of hybrid contributions of parliamentarians from various locations in the Commonwealth during the pandemic. Mr. Vice described the challenges that some members had in adapting to managing their webcams and audio sources, their backgrounds, their children and spouses, and in some instances their commitment to staying fully clothed. Though most of the issues occurred early in the hybrid sitting undertaking, there was no shortage of examples for the presentation. The practical element for attendees was how to reflect these unusual situations in the transcript, and it allowed for a dynamic discussion of how that would be managed in various jurisdictions.
The closing keynote address was delivered by Niigaan Sinclair, Faculty of Arts Professor of Indigenous Knowledge and Aesthetics and Head of the Department of Indigenous Studies, University of Manitoba. Mr. Sinclair spoke to the attendees about the truth and reconciliation process, micro and macro aggressions, and the ongoing barriers to full inclusion of Indigenous people in Canadian society.
Passing of the Flag
As the Winnipeg conference organisers passed the Hansard Association of Canada flag to the next hosts from the Territory of Nunavut, there was a strong and unified sentiment that this was a conference well worth the wait.
D’Arcy McPherson is the Director of Hansard Services at the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia and the Secretary-Treasurer of the Hansard Association of Canada.