Olivier Blais, a French Quebec Sign Language (QSL) interpreter, is the intermediary between deaf or hard-of-hearing students and the subject matters—whether accounting, drama or physics—they learn in school. A profession he means to promote, and defend, by getting involved with his union.

Already interested in languages, he discovered QSL while working in a restaurant as a student. “Some of our customers were deaf and I wanted to communicate with them,” he remembers. “So I hopped on the Internet and taught myself a few food-related signs.” It was love at first sight!

Olivier Blais decided to take the plunge during an optional course as he worked toward his bachelor’s degree in sexology. He registered to CEGEP du Vieux Montréal’s Programme communication et études sourdes (Communication and Deaf Studies Program) to earn an attestation of college studies (AEC). And that’s where he discovered both a fascinating world and a vivid language.

“Many of our teachers were deaf and had French QSL interpreters with them. It was when I saw them work that things really clicked into place,” he says. 

A jack of all trades

The interpreter took on that same role at the Centre collégial de soutien à l’intégration de l’ouest du Québec in 2016. Even though this service is affiliated to CEGEP du Vieux Montréal, he can support college and university deaf or hard-of-hearing students who need a helping hand.

Olivier Blais is in the classroom with the student. He places himself in front of their desk and interprets the subject matter simultaneously, as well as any student questions or videos without subtitles. For CEGEP or university courses, interpreters work in teams, and in turn, given the demanding subject matters.

During the pandemic, Olivier Blais worked online. He would meet up with the student on Zoom or Teams, and then the course in QSL appeared on the latter’s screen. For asynchronous content, he also makes recordings that he then transfers to the student.

Interpreting seems to be tailor-made for this young man that is keenly interested in a great many things. Not only is he passionate about languages, he is also a classically trained singer and a musician in his spare time. He can be called on to interpret arts, sciences or history during any given day. And each instance involves a lexical field and concepts in need of clarification. Quite a challenge. You can’t simply walk into a chemistry course without a basic understanding of the fundamentals!

“A certain portion of our schedule is set aside to make sure we’re well-prepared. To have a better understanding of the subject, we ask the teacher to provide us with relevant information, like study material, books or links to videos or films shown in class,” explains Olivier Blais. He can even be called on for foreign language courses, such as Korean, where he partners up with a note taker who has a thorough knowledge of that language.

Interpreter and executive counselor

In December 2019, Olivier Blais was appointed executive counselor to the Syndicat des interprètes professionnels (SIP-CSQ), a Fédération du personnel de soutien de l’enseignement supérieur (FPSES-CSQ) affiliate.

“My role is to provide advice to our members. I am free to choose different topics and teach myself certain specific subjects so workers can come to me if they have questions or are facing certain challenges.”

For the time being, Olivier Blais would like to make the most of his knowledge in sexology and specialize in matters related to sexual harassment or diversity in the workplace. This endeavour proceeded at a slower pace during the pandemic. “I don’t have a specific role yet because I am still in training,” he explains.

That being said, he is as motivated as ever.

“Before I took this job, I hadn’t realized that there were people supporting us and defending our rights, that nothing was a given. But now, I know that without our union, I wouldn’t have the same working conditions.”

By getting involved, he will be able to raise awareness about his profession and work toward getting interpreting recognized, adds Olivier Blais. “And it’s with our union that this can happen.” He can’t wait to kick things off!