Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to rise on this debate. This is not a debate that is inappropriate, quite the contrary. I will give two reasons why. The discussions and debates we will be having this evening, tomorrow and so on throughout the week are so vitally important.
First, the issue of disability rights in this country has been a marginalized discussion, certainly for as long as I have been in Parliament. We have not had full evenings of debate. We have members of the deaf community here this evening, and they are watching, to see what it is that we bring up about Bill C-81 and how we can improve it.
Second, as the parliamentary secretary said earlier, the issue of regulations and how to improve the bill are extraordinarily important.
The reality is the discussions and the debates that we have on this issue, far from shoving it under the carpet, are vitally important to getting the kind of bill that actually makes Canada more accessible. The government is patting itself on the back tonight, saying that we have bill, and it is weak but the Senate did improve it. The point is exactly thus, the fact that the bill was so weak to begin with that the Senate has already managed to improve it means that if we worked hard and assiduously over the next few weeks, we could make this bill better still. We could actually make it accessible.
The problem for anyone who is aware of the situation for people with disabilities in our country, the appalling situation that people with disabilities live under and the lack of accessibility, means that we have a duty to get this right, not just shove it under the carpet and move on to something else, saying that it is a weak bill that needs more improvement. The reality is we have a responsibility.
I hope that the government takes that responsibility seriously over the next few days as we sit until midnight to actually make those improvements. The government rejected over 100 amendments from the opposition. There was no willingness to improve the bill, despite the fact that there were so many witnesses who came forward and suggested, in very concrete terms, how this bill could be improved.
Fortunately, we have some Senate amendments that add, very appropriately and very importantly, the recognition of American sign language and la langue des signes du Québec as languages that are used by the deaf community. It is very important communication. I know only rudimentary American sign language, but the beauty of the language, when someone is fluent, is quite extraordinary to watch. It is something I deeply appreciate.
As other members of Parliament are sharing their experiences, I would like to share my experiences, coming in as the executive director for the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and working over the years to try to improve accessibility for the services that we offered across the mainland of British Columbia.
As members know, the situation of people with disabilities in this country is dire. Half of the homeless, and the growing number of homeless that we see in our country, are people with disabilities. Half of the people who have to go to the ever-increasing lineups around food banks in this country, just to make ends meet, are people with disabilities. The absence of services means that in many parts of this country, people with disabilities have to hold bake sales to try to fundraise, to get the accessible tools, essential tools, such as a wheelchair.
In Canada, we are far behind the rest of the world in terms of accessibility issues, and Canadians with disabilities pay a terrible price. When I was executive director for the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, I would often drive up early in the morning to get to work. Sometimes, as I came to that building on the west side of Vancouver, there would be a woman or man from the deaf community who had spent the night under the awning at the back of the building, because they had no place to live. They had no place to go, so they went to the one place where they knew services would be provided.
We would try to sort out their situation, to help them, to provide the services they were not getting from a federal government and, at the time, the B.C. Liberal provincial government that simply did not seem to care about housing as a human right.
That is my experience of the disability community, people who are incredibly resilient, but have received very little of the supports that they should be getting as Canadians with rights.
We talk about the billions of dollars given to the corporate community, overseas tax havens and $4 billion for a pipeline. The government seems willing to unleash the faucet as far as resources go, but people with disabilities have been starved of resources for decades and it is time that it changed.
When I was at WIDHH, we worked with other organizations, the Coast Mental Health, the B.C. Paraplegic Association and the CNIB. We created the first province-wide employment program for people with disabilities, the B.C. Employment Network. We established that because we knew that people with disabilities have so much to contribute, but so often doors were shut in their face for employment because there was no bridge, no way for those people with disabilities to get in to see a potential employer, to go through an interview, to learn the job and then to contribute to that business.
When we started the B.C. disability employment network, we started creating those bridges. That meant for a deaf British Columbian when they went to a job interview, there was a sign language interpreter. We have many talented sign language interpreters in this country and they could assure that there was a contact and communication with the employer and then training to make sure that the person learned the job.
For people in wheelchairs, the B.C. Paraplegic Association was a pioneer in this respect. Often it would mean nothing more than simple ramps and accessible doors that allowed people with disabilities to enter and leave the workplace. We provided that bridge, those supports.
For a wide range of other disabilities, we provided those supports to make sure that there was a contact made with the employer. The employers may not have been ready initially to provide those resources. The fact that they were provided for them allowed them to get to know those Canadians with disabilities in a new and meaningful way. What happened? Time after time those employers hired the people with disabilities. Once those people with disabilities learned the job, they stayed longer in employment, so it was a win-win situation by establishing that bridge and making sure that those people with disabilities had access to employment and access to that workplace so they could contribute for many years.
That is my experience in terms of people with disabilities, but let me talk about my experience in another country and that was the first time I went to the United States with a better understanding, thanks to people in the deaf community, of what it meant to have disabilities.
My first trip to Seattle really opened my eyes in terms of how far ahead the United States is in terms of where Canada is. I did not have that much money, we were working at WIDHH, but went to a conference in Seattle and I stayed at a very low-end motel called the Jet Motel. It is the far end of the strip at the Seatac International Airport. It was far away from the airport, a very cheap and low-grade motel. In the room the shower was completely wheelchair accessible. I asked at the front desk about a TTY to communicate and was told there was TTY and a whole range of other accessibility supports. I said, “This is a low-end motel, why do you have all this?” They told me it is because it is the law. It is the law to have accessibility for Americans everywhere in the United States.
Even in some of the highest-end hotels in Canada, we do not achieve that degree of accessibility because it has been built on a volunteer system. We have not built the kinds of accessibility that are so vital to ensure inclusion and to ensure that people with disabilities everywhere in this country can contribute to their full potential. That is what makes me so sad about Bill C-81.
The Liberals are applauding and patting themselves on the back for what is such a small first step. It would not even have been as good as it is without the incredible pressure, thankfully, from people with disabilities who were saying that it was not good enough and applying more pressure to ensure that things improved. Instead of seeing it as something inclusive that all members of Parliament could participate in and accepting the over 100 important amendments and improvements offered by the opposition parties, the amendments were systematically rejected and the potential for an improved bill was lost.
We had something that could have moved us so far along, closer to the model in the United States, where there is an obligation, a duty, to ensure accessibility, and where there is transportation and accommodation right along the line, with an insistence and obligation to open doors for people with disabilities. We could have had that. All of us would have been overjoyed in the House to adopt such legislation. However, the involvement of the opposition parties was stymied. The many amendments that came forward often very thoughtful, extremely well researched and well crafted. They were simply rejected out of hand.
When it comes to Bill C-81, we have a bill that had tremendous potential. That potential has been lost so far because of some government intransigence. People with disabilities in this country deserve better. We have heard some remarkable stories tonight of people who have family members and close friends with disabilities and who have been in the workplace. We have members of Parliament who have disabilities and understand them first-hand. We have far fewer members of Parliament with disabilities than we should have. If this Parliament actually reflected the real division of the population and the number of people with disabilities across this country, we would be talking about having dozens of people with disabilities in the House of Commons.
I see in the gallery members of the deaf community who are extraordinarily eloquent. I hope one day some of them will be on the floor of this House of Commons contributing to its work and making sure that we do build that inclusive society, because that is what would make such a fundamental difference.
We had the bill brought forward by the government. We had some debates initially. As a number of my colleagues have pointed out, everyone supported the principle of greater accessibility. There is not a single member of the House of Commons who said that in principle they disagree with accessibility. Every single member from every single party and every single independent member stood together to say, “Yes, on principle let us pass this, because we all support the principle of accessibility. Let us get it to committee, let us hear from witnesses, let us hear from people with disabilities and let us make a difference there.”
That is when it really came off the rails. It was at that point that many amendments were offered. There were nearly 120 from four of the opposition parties. Those amendments, which were brought forward in a thoughtful and honest way, were turned down.
The bill came back to the House. A number of us, including the member for Windsor—Tecumseh, raised those issues. When witnesses were speaking to the importance of ensuring that this be an obligation, and not just something the government can pick and choose and give exemptions to whole ministries, why not ensure there is a framework and some standardization? A number of my colleagues have spoken to that as well.
When those questions were asked, the government's response was that it was just going to pass the bill through. Then it went to the Senate, and fortunately the Senate started setting some clear objectives. Its members talked about recognizing American sign language, Quebec sign language and indigenous sign languages. Those were all important components.
In the debate we are now faced with, members of the opposition are recognizing that we have made some progress and want to make some more. They want to make the bill even better. They want the bill to put us close to the standards we see in places like the United States. Let us make the bill such that when travellers with disabilities check into a motel, even if it is a low-end motel at the far end of an airport strip in an international airport area, or take any type of transport or deal with a government ministry, they will feel they are a part of those things and not see barriers that stop them from actively accessing and being part of society.
The figures are grim. It is a fact that in our land, where we are seeing increasing concentration of wealth, more and more Canadians are struggling. As I have mentioned before in the House, Canadian families are now struggling with not only the worst debt load in our history, but the worst debt load in the history of any industrialized country. That is the legacy of the last four years.
When we are dealing with this situation, it would seem important that we take a more dramatic step to bring the bill forward and improve it, as it impacts people with disabilities above all others. The lineups at the food banks across this country are getting longer, tragically, yet it is estimated that half of the people in those lineups are people with disabilities.
Is the bill enough? Well, it is only a start. We need to make it even better. We have a number of weeks in which we can to do that. When I think about the growing number of homeless people in our country, half of whom are people with disabilities, I remember, as I mentioned, the tragic cases that I would see on occasion when I walked into the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in the morning. Some people simply did not have a place to stay and went to the institute because they knew they would be helped.
We have to ask ourselves if we are doing enough in Bill C-81, with the Senate improvements, to actually make a difference in their lives. That is the real question we have to ask ourselves honestly, as parliamentarians. This is not a time for any of us to rest on our laurels and simply say there are some good things in the bill and that it is sufficient. Given the dire situation of people with disabilities in this country and what they mandate us to do as members of Parliament, we have a responsibility to go much further.
Earlier tonight, a Liberal speaker talked about regulations, and a number of members of Parliament have raised the notion of having very strong and robust regulations. We also have the ability and opportunity to improve the bill. We have a responsibility to about 15% of the Canadian population. These are people with disabilities who are not, in any number, represented in the House, but who came to committee, offered suggestions and asked for improvements, and who found that the government was not willing to listen.
Here, as parliamentarians, we have the responsibility to listen. We have the responsibility to speak out. We have a responsibility to question the government about why it it did not accept amendments and did not make the bill stronger. Even with the passage of the bill, why are we still so far behind what the Americans with Disabilities Act offers to Americans with disabilities?
Canadians with disabilities deserve better. It is true that we will be voting in favour of the bill, but it is a lost opportunity if we do not take the time that remains in debate to make the bill better, to make the regulations stronger and to make the bill more reflective of what Canadians with disabilities truly need.