Hi. I'm James Hicks. I'm with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.
I want to read for you something that was said by the Prime Minister:
...I will expect you [as Minister of Democratic Institutions] to...bring forward options to create an independent commissioner to organize political party leaders' debates during future federal election campaigns, with a mandate to improve Canadians' knowledge of the parties, their leaders, and their policy positions.
I bring that up because it's a huge issue for people with disabilities to even participate in the debates. We've spoken to a committee already once on this. I'll go through some of the reasons why that's difficult for folks and through some of the things that need to be done.
The Council of Canadians with Disabilities is a national human rights organization of people with various disabilities working for an accessible and inclusive Canada. CCD is delighted that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs is conducting a study about appointing an independent commissioner and getting information about televised leaders' debates during federal election campaigns. Leaders' debates are an important component of elections, as they provide the electorate an opportunity to observe the party leaders competing for the job of leading Canada's federal government.
Our interest in this issue is that for too long the electoral process has included barriers that have prevented the full participation of people with various disabilities. Since the 1980s, CCD has been advocating for the reform of the electoral process so that it is accessible to people with disabilities. For example, CCD was an interested party in the Hughes v. Elections Canada case in 2010, which led to Elections Canada's removing of barriers to the participation of people with disabilities in the electoral process. As well, CCD serves on Elections Canada's advisory group for disability issues.
What are the issues here? The bill includes a number of important improvements to the Canada Elections Act that will assist electors with various disabilities to participate more fully in the electoral process.
These include creating a financial incentive for political parties and candidates to accommodate electors with disabilities and facilitate their participation in the democratic process through reimbursement of expenses related to accommodation measures; increasing the reimbursement rate to 90% for expenses in the aforementioned categories and exempting them from campaign spending limits; allowing the Chief Electoral Officer to authorize the use of a voter information card as identification; permitting vouching as a means of identity and residence; making it easier for Canadians to apply for and obtain special ballot kits; reducing the wait times at regular and advance polls by streamlining intake procedures; and increasing the hours of advance polls to 12 hours a day.
They also include better serving remote, isolated, or low-density communities by expanding the use of mobile polls; expanding the option of at-home voting to persons with all types of disabilities; allowing electors with disabilities who are voting by special ballot at a returning office to rely on the same people for assistance as at the polling station, which is currently restricted to an elections officer at the returning office; making it easier for electors with disabilities to apply for a transfer certificate; establishing a register of future electors in which Canadian citizens from 14 to 17 years of age may consent to be included; removing limitations on public education and information activities conducted by the Chief Electoral Officer; and limiting election periods to a maximum of 50 days.
For Canadians with disabilities, leaders' debates have barriers to full and equal participation. That's not just in leaders' debates, but we're focusing on those. Any time that a group of politicians gets together publicly to talk together and put their ideas forward, there are rarely supports in order for people with disabilities to be able to participate.
A full range of disability-related accommodations is necessary to make leaders' debates fully accessible. So that the committee has a better understanding of what we are referring to, we provide some examples: ASL and LSQ interpretation so that deaf Canadians would be able to receive the information in their first language; audio narration of the debate's key visual elements so that persons with vision impairment are aware of the non-verbal communication that takes place during a debate; the use of plain language so that people with psychosocial disabilities can follow the discussion; and closed-captioning so that people who are hard of hearing have access to the debate's information.
Accessibility accommodations would be available in all locations and platforms to ensure participation of citizens with disabilities in the audience, and participation of potential candidates who may have disabilities.
During debates, disability would be addressed in a substantive manner. If questions are introduced in the House, the answer should include responses about persons with disabilities. For example, if questions on violence against women are included in the debate, answers would reference the concerns of women and girls with disabilities and deaf women and girls in a meaningful way.
I'll give you an idea. The rate of violence and sexual assault against women and girls who are deaf and who have disabilities is almost triple what it is for most women. We already know there is a problem in this country with issues around sexuality and women. I think it's important to highlight that it's that much worse for people with disabilities because they can be in a very vulnerable position.
If a question on housing is introduced, it would reference the use of universal design, ensuring that people with disabilities have the same access to these units as any other Canadian would. The best example is the newest information that's coming through with Minister Duclos' housing directives. They're going with the standard certain percentage of accessible units. However, what we know about universal design is that if you use universal design, it can be very quickly modified for any person who needs it. That means you don't have a list of people with disabilities waiting 10 or 15 years to get a unit, as opposed to just being available for the next unit that comes up if their name is at the top of the list.
There are a whole bunch of things we need to consider when we're looking at it. I think those things are just examples. You can then look at what would happen in debates if there is no one to guide and no idea of what is supposed to happen and how people are supposed to do it.
I presented to the all-party meeting about two years ago and it was very clear, when we had a discussion, that making every single debate and every single appearance accessible is not going to happen because politicians don't have the money for that. It then comes back to the government to ask if there is something it needs to do, to step in to make provisions whereby people could actually spend money and not have to claim that as a part of the pot if they're actually addressing accessibility issues.
I don't want to go into too much detail because I know you have other people there, but there are ways we can do that. CCD is more than happy to work with government in order to find ways to actually do that, and to work with the political parties to help them identify where they can get access to information on how to do this.
With regard to the standard that has been set, CCD reminds the committee that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been ratified by Canada, in article 29 calls for the political rights of people with disabilities to be upheld, including the promotion of an environment in which people with disabilities can participate fully in the conduct of public affairs. Article 29, on participation in political and public life, says that:
States Parties shall guarantee to persons with disabilities political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them on an equal basis with others, and shall undertake:
a) To ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote and be elected...
i. Ensuring that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible and easy to understand and use;
ii. Protecting the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot in elections and public referendums without intimidation, and to stand for elections, to effectively hold office and perform all public functions at all levels of government, facilitating the use of assistive and new technologies where appropriate;
iii. Guaranteeing the free expression of the will of persons with disabilities as electors and to this end, where necessary, at their request, allowing assistance in voting by a person of their own choice;
b) To promote actively an environment in which persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in the conduct of public affairs, without discrimination and on an equal basis with others, and encourage their participation in public affairs, including:
i. Participation in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country, and in the activities and administration of political parties;
ii. Forming and joining organizations of persons with disabilities to represent persons with disabilities at international, national, regional and local levels.