Moved third reading of Bill C-81, An Act to ensure a barrier-free Canada, as amended.
He said: Honourable senators, what a journey we have been on. What a journey all of us have been on.
Senators, as the sponsor of this bill, I’m pleased to speak tonight at the third reading of Bill C-81, An Act to ensure a barrier-free Canada, also known as the Accessible Canada Act. I am humbled and honoured to speak to a bill that will no doubt become a proud part of Canadian history.
Making history takes dedication, hard work and perseverance. So I want to acknowledge the work of many people who helped get this bill to this stage.
I want to thank the chair and deputy chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, Senators Petitclerc and Seidman, and all members who attended the committee meetings. Questions were engaging and led to an enlightening input from witnesses and to constructive amendments. This committee works so well together; I am honoured to be a member.
Thank you also to our clerk and administrator, Dan Charbonneau and Ericka Dupont, for arranging sign language, ASL, and CART services, Communication Access Real-time Translation, and the special room set-up, which helped to make the Senate committee meetings the most accessible to date. The Senate should be proud in this regard. We have shown leadership by example.
I also want to acknowledge the incredible work of the Minister of Public Services and Procurement and Accessibility, Carla Qualtrough. She and her team have shown great leadership on accessibility, and I can confidently say that Bill C-81 enjoys widespread support due to their efforts.
Most importantly, I want to recognize persons with disabilities, stakeholders, and organizations who all play a crucial role in accessibility in Canada. They have all invested tremendous work and energy into this historic bill, ensuring that it reflects the priorities of persons with disabilities. Their contributions have been instrumental in getting the bill in its amended form to this stage. Thank you for sharing your personal experiences and stories with us. I know it takes courage. We could not have done any of this without your involvement and expertise. Some of those folks are here in the Senate tonight.
Senators Petitclerc and Seidman gave excellent speeches at the report stage of the bill last week, summarizing the amendments that were adopted at committee. I will not go over the amendments and details again. However, I do want to highlight some important testimony.
Over the course of our committee hearings we heard repeatedly that the time for an accessible Canada act is now. Canadians facing barriers to fully participating in their workplaces and society told us and are still telling us to pass this bill into law. Here is what Bill Adair from Spinal Cord Injury Canada and with the Federal Accessibility Legislation Alliance, or FALA, told us at committee:
What people are telling us across the country who are participating with FALA is: We want the bill. Give us something to work with. Yes, push for the changes, but at the end of the day, before the election, we want the bill. That gives us structure and the framework so that we can get to work on removing barriers and we want it now. We’ve been waiting far too long and this is our day.
Senators, everyone is eager to see this bill become law. We must continue our essential work in order to take it over the finish line. This community has waited long enough for this recognition and respect.
Another significant and positive change is that Bill C-81 will shift the responsibility on to the system and away from the individuals facing barriers in their daily lives. Diane Bergeron from CNIB said during her testimony:
Having a disability is exhausting, and I do not say that lightly. But when you have to deal with discrimination, rights violations, different pieces of legislation, criticisms, people not thinking that you have value, it makes it worse. The current system is unfair and unacceptable.
Colleagues, we know the history. It is one of institutionalization, sterilization and social isolation. Canada had a system that took children away from their families and power away from our citizens. Persons with disabilities were seen as burdens and treated as if they were broken. Our country simply cannot continue to place the burden of advancing human rights on individuals. We can do better, and we must do better. In fact, with this bill we will do better.
In addition to this necessary shift in responsibility, the accessible Canada act, when passed, will set best practices and a framework that the provinces and the private sector can mirror. Most importantly, this bill will start to shift culture, perception and understanding of what inclusion in our society should really look like. I cannot come up with a better analogy that encompasses my hope for what this legislation will achieve than that of Minister Qualtrough. You have to be a sports fan to get this. I couldn’t agree more when she said at committee:
I think we will look back on this as a “TSN Turning Point” on disability rights and the way we talk about disability in this country.
The words of the minister.
Honourable senators, in 2017, approximately 6.2 million people, or about 22 per cent of Canadians aged 15 years and older, reported being limited in their daily activities due to a disability. This percentage is expected to increase in the coming years due to Canada’s aging population, since the prevalence of disability increases with age. This is why the government consulted with over 6,000 individuals from across the country with lived experience over the course of this bill’s development. They have continued to be consulted and included as witnesses and experts at committee so that we can use their knowledge and their experiences to help drive the change needed for a better tomorrow.
One of those witnesses was Steven Estey from Nova Scotia, from the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. This organization helped facilitate some of these consultations. Mr. Estey gave us a good summary of what that meant. He said:
. . . to talk to Canadians with disabilities about what they wanted in this legislation. We had a chance to talk to over a thousand people across the country. We had 22 separate consultations in towns and cities across the country. We had telephone consultations. We had Internet consultations. We really spent a lot of time trying to figure out what people wanted to see in this legislation. It’s an important thing for us to be involved with. We have really appreciated the opportunity and the support that we have had to be able to do that.
This is what inclusion looks like, honourable senators. Consultation, collaboration, cooperation and real input from real life experience. I know that the finer points of the bill have been outlined to you many times, including by myself, but I do want to talk again about the Canadian accessibility standards development organization. The landmark importance of the CASDO board membership aligning with the community’s mantra of “nothing about us without us.” Think about it. Because it’s the board membership who will be responsible, with their own lived experience, in making standards.
I’ve always said this, that you need to be in the room when it comes to communications. It is just as important in policy making; you need to be in the room to make a difference and to influence change. In this case, CASDO will set regulations that will lead to better results for people in this country. I hope it reoccurs in other areas of policy development. Applying a disability lens is crucial in moving forward.
Barbara Collier, Executive Director of Communication Disabilities Access Canada explained in her testimony at committee what that organization represents. Her list included people with or affected by cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, Down’s syndrome, learning disability, fetal alcohol syndrome, cognitive and intellectual disability, acquired brain injury, aphasia after a stroke, dementia, head and neck cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
Senators, these are common conditions. It made me realize again that we will all face barriers to fully participating in society at some point in our lives. This is legislation that will affect us all in a positive way.
We learned at committee that many wheels are already in motion in anticipation of the bill coming into force. Job postings are already online for the chief accessibility officer and the CEO and board of the Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization, or CASDO. In fact, CASDO is expected to open its doors this summer. We know that the organizations responsible for accessibility have taken advanced steps towards planning regulations. In fact, the Canadian Transportation Agency, or CTA, has already released the first draft of its accessibility regulations.
Committee members gave the bill and its adopted amendments a deserved thorough study and consideration despite time constraints. I know that many of these amendments came right from the community, witnesses and organizations; I think we should pass the bill with these changes and let the other place do its job and reflect on our amendments. This is the process of our democracy and of our Parliament. We all need to move swiftly.
I will say it again: An accessible Canada act is a long-overdue recognition for human rights equality for 6.2 million — or one in five — Canadians. The 2017 disability survey also indicated that of the approximately 1.5 million Canadians with a disability aged 15 to 64 who are unemployed, approximately 654,000 are potential candidates for work in an inclusive, discrimination-free and accommodating labour market.
Yes, senators, there is a business case for inclusion. There is a huge untapped talent pool that could help improve Canada’s shrinking labour market.
As I mentioned, the spirit of collaboration on this bill has been and continues to be exceptional. I’m always an optimist, so over the course of study and consultations it became obvious that the removal of barriers is universal in scope and understanding. Together, our society is ready to take this step, the first of many towards a fair and equal-opportunity society. The momentum is with us.
Colleagues, I am proud of Bill C-81. I am proud of the amendments made at committee. We need to send the amended bill to the other place this week so that we can receive it back in time to do what Canadians have been asking us to do through testimony, letters, emails and phone calls: Give Canada a framework toward being barrier-free and accessible for all.
This is the time, colleagues. This is their time. It’s our opportunity to help make this happen and to be on the right side of history.
I will close tonight with some words from the great Jean Vanier, the master of inclusion. As you know, he passed away last week at the age of 90. At a 1998 Massey Lecture entitled Becoming Human, he said:
As we become more conscious of the uniqueness of others, we become aware of our common humanity. We are all fundamentally the same, no matter what our age, gender, race, culture, religion, limits or handicaps may be.
Honourable senators, as I said at the beginning of my speech, we are on a shared journey. What we have discovered on this journey is a new path of inclusion, a path where, as they say in the disability community:
Nothing About Us Without Us.
I recognize we haven’t satisfied everyone. That’s the way it is when you’re building something we have never had before: a Canada without barriers.
But we have done our job. We have discovered more about each other. We have captured the meaning of empathy. We have amended the bill. We recognize there will always be next steps. This is a step toward a more inclusive society.
Thank you very much.