Mr. Speaker, more than 5.3 million Canadians, almost 16% of the population of this country, are living with some form of disability that affects their freedom, independence or quality of life. Of that number, over 200,000 are children and youth.
One in five Canadian women live with disabilities. Women with disabilities are poorer than their male counterparts. They are three times more likely to rely on government programs than women without disabilities and more likely than men with disabilities. They are also particularly susceptible to domestic violence. The rates of violence against women living with disabilities is particularly high. They disproportionately call on women's shelters, face homelessness and are victims of violence. The rate of head injuries associated with women who are victims of domestic violence or intimate partner violence is particularly high. I really commend DAWN Canada for doing groundbreaking work in this area. We were very reliant on its advice and testimony at the status of women committee.
Here we are today hearing about Bill C-81, which is intended to help and support persons living with disabilities. The need is tremendous. Persons living with disabilities within Canada have waited over two years for this bill to be tabled. In particular, I want to mention my constituent Jack Ferrero, who has been most insistent that this legislation be tabled and come as soon as possible to this House. It is regretful that we are three years into this term and are only debating it now.
Canada ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities back in 2010. That convention elaborated a human rights framework for addressing the exclusion and the lack of access persons with disabilities have encountered in Canada. This is both physical access to buildings and access to services. It was intended to establish a society where “persons with disabilities are viewed as full citizens with exactly the same rights and responsibilities as other citizens of Canada.”
Only three provinces in Canada have accessibility laws, and federally, Canada does not. I have heard in great detail from constituents that the need is dire. The following is part of a letter from a man in my riding, Terry Wiens. I am pretty sure that he is a Nanaimo resident. This is a long and heartbreaking letter, which I will read in part. He had polio and is facing extraordinary costs associated with his disability. He writes:
“I recently had to buy a new RoHo Hybrid cushion for my wheelchair ($820) as well as a hospital bed ($1800 mattress not included) so decided to make a one-time withdrawal of $10,000 from my RIF. What I didn't realize was the ripple effect of that decision. That raised my annual income enough to eliminate me from the Guaranteed Income Supplement (all $18/month worth). I have no doubt that next year I will qualify again, but in the meantime, we are penalized for our independence. You can't really compare the income of an individual that is facing costs that the average person never sees. To add insult to injury, losing that GIS also cost me my Premium Medical Services subsidy, another $420 a year, my opportunity for a subsidized assisted living apartment, because GIS qualification is required for the subsidized program, and a cutback to my rental subsidy and doubling (from $450 to $900 yearly) of my Pharmacare deductible. It is not the $18/month payment but the status of qualifying for GIS that is important.”
It is a terrible example of government services not supporting the people who are working the hardest and have the most barriers in front of them.
I have another letter from a person in my riding, who asked to keep her name confidential. She writes:
“It is with great dismay that I write to you about a problem with the pension plans. I am 69 years old, I have some disabilities and my only income is from the government pensions and some money that was awarded to me from a divorce. My total income is under $20,000 per year. I have recently been informed that because I receive $250.00 per month from my divorce judgment that I am losing $1,000.00 per year on my pension. This is a clawback if I have ever seen one. How can the government do this to the very people that for 50 or more years of working and being the back bone of the country do this to their seniors? In B.C., the previous provincial government did this to welfare recipients until they complained, and now it can't claw back those monies.”
“I have personally seen local seniors going through garbage cans looking for cans and bottles just to make ends meet.”
“I take exception to the government saying that we have a class system in our country and they will do everything for the “middle” class and nothing for seniors. To be politically correct, we have low income, medium income and high income. Since when did Canada decide that we have a class system? I have worked all my life, served in the Armed Forces and this is how I get treated. I applied for the disability tax credit, and although I had three things that were on their list to qualify, I was refused and even told that if I went any further with my claim that I might be responsible for legal fees.”
I have a dozen letters like this that describe the people who the social safety net in Canada is meant to be supporting, the people who are meant to be getting help from these government programs and are thwarted again and again.
I am going to read a summary from my fantastic caseworker, Hilary Eastmure, who helps a lot of people out at our front desk. She says:
“Canadians accustomed to getting reliable service are becoming quickly disillusioned with our system, which is getting increasingly difficult to navigate. The shift to online platforms is also a major stumbling block for Canadians of all ages, including those who don't have regular access to a computer or printer or those who are not computer literate. Being told to access or submit a form online is a major source of frustration for people with disabilities, seniors and low-income Canadians, the very people who often require the most support from government agencies.”
We have in front of us Bill C-81, which is meant to remove those barriers. However, I have to emphasize the design of the civil service, the design of the interface between the people the system is meant to serve and their ability to access these programs.
Bill C-81 would empower the government to create accessibility standards or regulations, but it would not require the government to do that. We like the idea of an accessibility commissioner in charge of enforcement.
New Democrats are going to support this proposed legislation at first reading so we can get it to committee and make as many constructive amendments as we can to serve the people with disabilities who need this to work well, but we could not support it if it were to come back in this form.
The bill would not bring us into conformity with our obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The text on civil rights legislation for persons with disabilities is really the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is dated 1990. We have a good model out there. Canadians should be at least meeting the standard set by the Americans.
My New Democrat fellow MP for New Westminster—Burnaby in 2007 tabled proposed legislation in the House. My fellow MP in this Parliament, the MP for Windsor—Tecumseh, has been very strong as our critic for the NDP on this bill, saying that any accessibility bill tabled has to be seen as enabling legislation for Canada's commitments to the United Nations. Therefore, we will be pushing in committee for mandatory timelines for implementation. Without those, the implementation process, and even a start-up process, could drag on for years.
We will be pushing to require that all federal government laws, policies and programs be studied through a disability law lens. We will be asking that the bill not continue its error right now of giving several public agencies or officials much too much power to grant partial or blanket exemptions from important parts of the bill. The bill right now would separate enforcement and implementation in a confusing way over four different public agencies. In committee the NDP will argue instead that Bill C-81 should provide people with disabilities with a single service location or one-stop shopping so that they can access the services with dignity and the support they need.
Mr. Speaker, I am splitting my time, but I have no indication of who it is with. I have finished my speech, though.