The helping hands keeping Calgary informed during the COVID-19 crisis

A Q and A with the ASL interpreters standing alongside Alberta’s top government officials

As we enter a new month, after seemingly what felt like the longest March on record, watching daily television news briefings have become part of the routine for many Canadian households.

We start each morning with the Prime Minister’s update outside his Rideau Cottage residence, usually followed by a mid-afternoon briefing with the Premier and Alberta’s top doc, then a local announcement featuring Mayor Nenshi and chief of Calgary’s Emergency Management Agency (CEMA), Tom Sampson.

Although these officials offer different, yet equally important messaging they share one commonality that we haven’t necessarily seen (or heard from) before – interpreters translating to American Sign Language (ASL).

Angela Flaman, Business Development Manager and interpreter for more than 20 years with Deaf and Hear Alberta (DHA) says the organization reached out to CEMA shortly after the 2013 Floods and 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire.

When flood waters raged during what was dubbed the largest natural disaster in Canadian history, and thousands of people were forced to evacuate as fire threatened their homes in oil country, Alberta’s deaf and hard of hearing communities didn’t always have real-time access to information in their first language ASL.

“Chief Sampson and his team have been working hard to ensure there’s access to critical information and real-time communication for the deaf and hard of hearing communities. The City of Calgary has been leaders in this and have set the bar for all levels of government. The deaf community is very happy to finally see interpreters on camera for all media announcements - this is a big step in accessibly and access for all,” adds Flaman.

Notably, DHA participated in a crisis training exercise with CEMA on Feb. 27, mere days before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and Flaman and her colleagues were called to translate as The City of Calgary announced a State of Local Emergency (SOLE) at 8:51 p.m. on March 15.

So who are these helping hands on CEMA’s stage? Here’s a little more from a virtual interview (the new-norm in maintaining physical distance), with a couple of the familiar faces connecting Calgary’s deaf and hard of hearing community through-out this crisis.

Q. You’re kind of a like a dynamic duo. Please explain how you connected and how long you’ve been working together providing translation/interpretive services?

Wanda Warkentin - I have worked as Deaf Interpreter for DHA since 2008 or 2009. Before that I was trained as a Deaf Interpreter in Winnipeg in 1990. I always enjoying learning every day with an amazing group of interpreters.

Angela Flaman – I have been interpreting for 20 years. Wanda and I have been working together since 2009 in a variety of settings; Workplaces, medical settings, legal, court and media broadcasts. It’s an honour to work with Wanda as a Deaf Interpreter. I’ve learned so much from her; we can talk opening about our work, give each other tips and feedback and the best part is we have fun working together. Lots and lots of laughs!

Q. Angela – you’re the hidden partner that that camera doesn’t see. Is this how all interpretive services work?

I’m the off camera, hearing interpreter, who listens to the speaker and interprets into ASL. I stand on the platform at the back of the media briefing room so Wanda can see me clearly with good lighting. Wanda, the deaf interpreter, interprets to a culturally appropriate native ASL or Natural ASL. As a hearing interpreter (HI), ASL is my second language and working with a deaf interpreter she makes sure that the facial expressions, non-manual signals and nuances are there, to convey the critical information. We co-create the interpretation to provide accurate information for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

Normally I work solo in a variety of settings; a business meeting, doctor’s appointment, or parent teacher interview, where I work directly with the deaf individual and the hearing individual to provide equal access to communication for both. Legal, court, some medical and media broadcast are teamed preferably with a Deaf Interpreter and a hearing interpreter team. There are not many deaf interpreters due to scheduling availability hearing interpreters often work in teams.

We are very fortunate that Deaf and Hear Alberta and The City of Calgary have partnered together and provided two onsite training opportunities this past fall and winter. Deaf and Hear Alberta also received funding to provide training to some of our roster interpreters for live emergency broadcasts. A key to the success is seen on the daily broadcasts happening through-out the province.

Q. Wanda – have you ever translated for live television audiences before? Do you ever feel nervous standing up on stage next to the Mayor or Chief Sampson?

I feel honoured to stand beside the Mayor and Chief Sampson, and thankful they allow me to do the interpreting to our deaf community. I’m not nervous and feel excited to stand beside them.

I have worked on many diverse stages; poetry, Lunchbox Theatre, conferences and many more. It was challenging to interpret the meaning of poetry and dialogue meaning, but I love it. Of course I was nervous at the beginning of my career, but practice and preparation have helped me get better every time.

Q. The amount of ever changing and mainly negative information seems overwhelming at times. How do you turn if off at the end of the day?

Wanda – Some situations, I will never forget and touched my heart. The messages from Dr. Hinshaw and Premier, Jason Kenney are very important and I’m very happy to give those messages to the deaf community in my first sign language. Sometimes it can be exhausting, but I love to puzzle and play board games with my children. I video chat with my 4 children and 6 grandsons. They are so precious and very important in my life. I love them so much.

Angela - As an interpreter, it is very important to stay on top of the information regarding the pandemic. Our team has been watching/listening to the Prime Minister, Dr. Hinshaw, Premier Kenney’s announcements and following Alberta Health Services’ updates.

We are lucky to work with an amazing team at the City of Calgary. The training with CEMA and Deaf and Hear Alberta has outlined a great process and working relationship to provide the Deaf and hard of hearing communities with full access to critical information during this pandemic

The negative information and seriousness of this pandemic is tough at times. I feel extremely lucky to work with a supportive team that I can reach out to, as they’re working in the same situation. My husband and daughter are an amazing support. We make sure that we go out for walks, work out at home, play games, be silly, and laugh. Their hugs are truly the best!

Q. Any notable moments or something interesting you’ve learned about The City of Calgary and how we manage crisis events?

Wanda – For the deaf community, it’s been a long time since we’ve had an interpreter on stage. In the past there wasn’t great access to immediate information. Closed captioning often has incorrect spelling or even words, and English is not our first language. Today, you (The City) made it happen. I thank you for that. Thank you for giving me preparation and for the opportunity to be part of mock training exercises with DHA and CEMA. I really enjoy working as a team with you.

Angela - I so grateful for the training opportunities offered by Deaf and Hear Alberta and CEMA prior to this pandemic. Chief Tom Sampson and his amazing team invited our team of interpreters to several mock tabletop exercises. This has helped me to develop strategies and skills when working with Wanda (and our team) to co-create and interpret the critical information to the deaf community, so they are informed and can keep themselves and their families safe.


Deaf and Hear Alberta (DHA) is a non-profit organization that provides services and programs for all Albertans. The organization strives to break down barriers and provide equal access for all deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

ASL Interpreters are educated, trained, professionals who adhere to a National Code of Ethics. ASL interpreters are a neutral party to convey the message with its original intent, meaning, tone, affect of all speakers.