Mr. Chair, as chairman of the Subcommittee on the Status of Persons with Disabilities, I am pleased to preface my question to the minister with a few brief remarks.
A defining feature of our nation is our commitment to equality for all. Canadian citizenship is firmly anchored in the principle that every man, woman and child in Canada has a right to expect dignity, justice and fairness in every respect of their everyday lives. We believe everyone has the right to live, learn, work and play an active part in the community and enjoy the responsibilities and benefits of belonging.
The Government of Canada believes profoundly that all individuals should be able to participate in and contribute to society. That is why we work hard to equip Canadians with the tools, resources and opportunities they need to achieve their potential. It is why we make special efforts to ensure no one is left behind.
The people of my riding of Thunder Bay--Rainy River are extremely supportive of these goals. Our track record in advancing the inclusion of Canadians with disabilities reinforces that commitment. Canada was one of the first countries in the world to enshrine the rights of persons with disabilities in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In the last 25 years the Government of Canada has taken significant steps, particularly in the areas of employment, income and taxation to help Canadians with disabilities overcome many barriers to inclusion. Direct program spending, tax measures, regulations, community support and of course the Canada pension plan disability program mark Canada as a global leader in supporting citizens with a disability, as well as their families.
More than one in five Canadians is affected by a disability. Some 3.6 million Canadians have a disability, while another 2.8 million act as caregivers to family members and friends with a disability or a long term health condition. As our population ages, these numbers will grow significantly since the incidence of disabilities increases in later life. Ensuring the full inclusion of Canadians with disabilities and their families is not only a socially laudable goal but increasingly an economic imperative.
Recognizing this, the Government of Canada has worked in unison with provincial and territorial governments, the voluntary and private sectors, and individual Canadians to build a comprehensive, long term strategy to fully include Canadians with disabilities in all facets of society. Strong federal-provincial-territorial relations have been the pillars of this progress, particularly in increasing employment, income and disability supports for persons with disabilities.
Canada's ministers responsible for social services continue to focus on disability as a collective priority. For its part, the Government of Canada is taking steps to ensure the full participation of people with disabilities within the federal public service. There are government-wide policies in place to create inclusive barrier-free environments.
Our goals are and have been strongly supported by the work of parliamentarians who have played a key role in enhancing the government's understanding of disability issues and informing next steps. Parliamentarians are the front line contacts and liaison between the government and the disabled communities. They are the vital advocates bringing forward the difficulties that their constituents experience. Through the work of committees, members of Parliament also help to identify solutions to these problems and work to overcome obstacles that limit the contributions of Canadians with disabilities to their communities.
In particular, the efforts and research of the Subcommittee on the Status of Persons with Disabilities have provided a venue that enables members of disabled communities and stakeholders to tell government what is working, what is not, and how things can be improved. This role is crucial to developing strong policies and programs.
It is largely due to past recommendations of the Subcommittee on the Status of Persons With Disabilities that the government is actively engaged in such initiatives as simplifying the application process for the Canada pension plan disability benefit; implementing automatic reinstatement whereby CPP disability beneficiaries who leave benefits to return to work can request to have their benefits restarted if they are unable to continue working due to a recurrence of their disability within two years; and improving the income tax benefits and applications processes for persons with disabilities.
Previous work and recommendations dating from 1996 by the federal task force on disability issues have also been pivotal in guiding Government of Canada actions, with the majority of its recommendations adopted in areas such as employment and community supports. Past task force advice has been vital to furthering advancements on disability issues, including the development of the pivotal federal, provincial and territorial policy framework outlined in the text “In unison” in 1998, on which we continue to base our policy approaches.
New funds and new programs resulting from these efforts have meant new opportunities for Canadians with disabilities. Individuals and their families, students, entrepreneurs, athletes and disability organizations have all benefited from these new opportunities over the past few years. These gains show tremendous progress and the great many things that parliamentarians, the Government of Canada, disability organizations and most important, persons with disabilities can achieve when we work collaboratively to improve life opportunities.
While we are making headway, there is still a long way to go to ensuring the full inclusion and equality of people with disabilities.
People of my riding of Thunder Bay--Rainy River and indeed all Canadians realize that in order to achieve full inclusion and equality, we need to remove the remaining barriers that prevent persons with disabilities from enjoying realities others take for granted. We need to ensure that the gains we have made do not make us complacent.
There are many issues remaining to be addressed. Individuals with disabilities remain among the poorest members of society. Far too many continue to face transportation, accommodation, education, employment and attitudinal barriers that prevent them from achieving their full potential. That is unacceptable to the Government of Canada and indeed to all Canadians. We certainly can and must do better.
This is not something the federal government can achieve alone, nor would it be a wise approach. No single sector has all the right answers, nor does it have the necessary resources. We need the input and support of a broad range of partners, provinces and territories, disability organizations, municipalities, communities and the voluntary and corporate sectors to move this agenda forward.
Meeting this collective challenge is essential, not only because it is the right thing to do but also because it is key to addressing many other social and economic issues. Success in addressing poverty, homelessness, economic growth, livable cities, quality health care, violence and crime, child care, strengthening aboriginal communities and seniors issues all require to a great extent the inclusion of people with disabilities.
In an aging society, renewed and concerted action on disabilities is crucial to Canada's future well-being. What is required is a policy and program approach that is citizen centred, flexible, inclusive and clearly set within a social development framework. All federal government agencies and all orders of government need to incorporate disability issues into their policy and program planning. We cannot just look at what we do under a disability banner, but rather, how we bring disability issues into all the files dominating the public agenda. This is the key to inclusion.
Action in this area must not only be a government-wide but a nation-wide priority. Revitalizing our initiatives targeted to Canadians with disabilities will require building public momentum and doing a better job of reaching out to all potential partners so that we can move simultaneously on several parallel fronts.
To do this the Government of Canada, working in partnership with the provinces and territories and the disabled community, has embarked on a process to develop a 10 year plan of action. Work is under way to refocus our efforts to foster stronger linkages with other policy priorities and to develop more effective policy and program responses that will increase the inclusion of Canadians with disabilities within the decade. This work is far from complete. We are seeking ideas and innovations from all quarters as we take on this vitally important task.
I congratulate the minister on his personal commitment to making the issues of the disabled front of mind in his department and in cabinet. Given the significance of this issue to economic growth and social cohesion, I would ask the minister to outline some of the steps he believes need to be taken to continue advancing this agenda.