Mr. Speaker, I am happy to take this time in the House to speak on the rights of people living with disabilities and Canada's responsibility as a signatory to the UN convention on those rights. The NDP supports Bill C-81, an act to ensure a barrier-free Canada, as amended by the Senate.
I am proud to have been part of a larger movement of stakeholder groups and civil activists who put a great deal of effort into attempting to make this bill the best it can be. We have supported it from the beginning and offered numerous amendments that would have helped the bill realize its ambitions to create a barrier-free Canada.
New Democrats have long believed that any accessibility bill tabled by the government should essentially be enabling legislation for Canada's obligations to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Canada ratified this convention in 2010 but until now has done nothing to bring our laws into conformity with it.
I congratulate the minister and her team for their work on this bill and for her willingness to accede to the Senate's amendments. There are still numerous provisions within the bill that remain in need of fixing, and I would be remiss if I did not discuss them now in order to further our understanding on what is yet to be accomplished. This being a federal election year, I know our citizen activists are listening and gaining a better understanding of how they can effectively use a campaign season.
In its current form, Bill C-81 is inadequate to the expectation of fostering a society in which all our citizens can participate fully and equally. This cannot even begin to happen until all our institutions are open and completely accessible to everyone. This is truly what fostering a barrier-free Canada will look like. Unfortunately, Bill C-81 makes minimal movement in that direction.
We are not alone with our concerns. During Bill C-81's time in the House Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, or HUMA, the federal government received extensive feedback on the bill's many shortcomings from people living with disabilities across Canada, as well as from their organized networks of advocacy. For example, last October an open letter was sent to the federal government, signed by no less than 95 disability organizations. Many of these same organizations also testified before HUMA. Disability organizations repeatedly pressed for this bill to be strengthened.
Our esteemed friend, David Lepofsky, is chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance. He is an esteemed and respected mind, with legal expertise on accessibility rights. At the Senate committee, he stated:
Bill C-81, at its core and its heart, is driven by the commendable notion that the federal government will enact enforceable regulations called accessibility standards that will tell federally regulated organizations what they have got to do. But it doesn't require any federal accessibility standards to ever be enacted as enforceable regulations. People with disabilities need and deserve better.
Let me be clear: The regulations that the bill requires to be enacted within two years are on procedural things, not substantive accessibility standards. The federal government could meet that deadline merely by prescribing the forms that people with disabilities shall use if they want to give feedback to Air Canada or Bell Canada. People with disabilities need and deserve better than that.
The issues that Mr. Lepofsky cites in this quote remain unaddressed in the amended version of Bill C-81.
For New Democrats, this is a very serious issue. To understand why, let us look at the headlines. Last month, the Government of Ontario announced a multi-billion dollar plan for new subways in Toronto, but only if other levels of government, including the federal government, add billions to the allocation the province is committing to. That is not unusual. However, before it spends our money on a project like that, we need the federal government to be required to say that as a ground rule for getting federal money, certain federal accessibility requirements must be met. If money is requested from the federal government, here is what is required for accessibility. It seems very simple.
The minister has claimed she does not have the constitutional authority to impose accessibility requirements on provinces, but she does. She has what is known as federal spending power, and it is a power that is very substantial. We are all familiar with the Canada Health Act. The Canada Health Act says that if provinces get federal money for provincial health programs, they must meet federal accessibility requirements: not disability accessibility, but financial accessibility. If the federal government truly lacks this power, then the Canada Health Act has been unconstitutional for over three decades. If the federal government can attach strings to the CHA, then it can attach strings when it gives out money to local projects and not just federal buildings.
I commend the hard work that many stakeholder groups did during the Senate phase of Bill C-81. Our friends at the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, or AODA Alliance, along with the ARCH Disability Law Centre, among several others, lobbied senators with a shortened list of amendments covering the most important changes that need to happen to Bill C-81 if the bill is to become the kind of law that our people living with disabilities need.
In fact, we would like to thank all the disability organizations, numbering at least 71, that signed the open letter sent earlier this month to the House of Commons. They called on the House of Commons to ratify the Senate's amendments to Bill C-81. This open letter, which the Council of Canadians with Disabilities delivered to all MPs on behalf of its 28 signatories, all listed below, explains that these amendments improve the bill. The Senate formulated these amendments after holding public hearings at which disability organizations and advocates pointed out the need to strengthen a bill that the House of Commons originally passed last fall. The Senate got the message and formulated a short package of 11 amendments, which together fit on two pages.
I would also like to commend everyone who participated in the massive letter-writing campaign to the minister, the Prime Minister and all members of Parliament. It is always exciting to see concerned public action on any issue. It was not at all clear from the minister's Senate committee testimony that she would accept some of the amendments put forward, but I believe the campaign was a crucial component to making this happen.
Going into the Senate, prior to committee, major stakeholders proposed a distilled version of the changes they wanted to see in the bill before it became law. The amendments proposed for Bill C-81 before the Senate began debating it were a distilled version of the amendments they presented during the hearings before the House of Commons committee.
I would like to run through these very quickly, as they are absolutely essential if Bill C-81 is to be effective.
First, impose clear duties and deadlines on the federal government when implementing this law.
Second, set a deadline for Canada to become accessible.
Third, enforcement should be solely in the hands of the accessibility commissioner, not splintered across various organizations, such as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and the Canadian Transportation Agency, which, as has been pointed out numerous times, have a sorry record of implementing the few accessibility obligations they already have, never mind new ones.
Fourth, we should ensure federal public money is never used to create or perpetuate disability barriers.
Fifth, we should ensure that the federal government will not be able to exempt itself from any of its accessibility obligations under the bill.
The Senate eventually accepted the following amendments to Bill C-81: first, setting 2040 as the end date for Canada to become accessible; second, ensuring that this 2040 timeline would not justify any delay in removing and preventing accessibility barriers as soon as reasonably possible; third, recognizing American sign language, Quebec sign language and indigenous sign languages as the primary languages for communication used by deaf people; fourth, making it a principle to govern the bill that multiple and intersectional forms of discrimination faced by persons with disabilities must be considered; fifth, ensuring that Bill C-81 and regulations made under it could not cut back on the human rights of people with disabilities guaranteed by the Canadian Human Rights Act; sixth, ensuring that the Canadian Transportation Agency could not reduce existing human rights protections for passengers with disabilities when the agency handled complaints about barriers in transportation; and, seventh, fixing problems the federal government identified between the bill’s employment provisions and legislation governing the RCMP.
As members can garner from comparing the proposed amendments with the ones the Senate approved, several crucial amendments did not make it into the bill. One of the more important of these dealt with the issue that Bill C-81 splintered enforcement and implementation in a confusing way over four different public agencies, rather than providing people with disabilities with the single-window service they needed.
As part of this, it leaves two public agencies, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and the Canadian Transportation Agency, to continue overseeing accessibility, despite their inadequate track record on this issue over many years and in the very recent past. The NDP understands that this is an urgent issue which needs to be addressed urgently.
When the bill was in committee, I tabled amendments that would have closed the many exemptions and powers allowing public officials to exempt any organization from key parts of Bill C-81. The NDP feels the bill fails to effectively ensure that the federal government will use all its levers of power to promote accessibility across Canada. For example, it does not require the federal government to ensure that federal money is never used by any recipient of those funds to create or perpetuate disability barriers, such as when federal money contributes to new or renovated infrastructure.
This is a significant point because the federal government can easily require all projects utilizing federal dollars to meet accessibility standards. Experience tells us that without this requirement, federal agencies will contract out important work to third parties to save money, thus bypassing federal accessibility specifications. Our NDP amendments would have addressed this issue directly.
For example, inaccessible public housing could potentially be built and there would be little anyone could do about it, despite the government's repeatedly stated commitment to accessibility and disability issues.
While we commend the government for accepting the timeline of 2040 as the time when Canada is to become accessible to five million people, Bill C-81 nevertheless lacks mandatory timelines for implementation. It allows, but does not require, the government to adopt accessibility standards, yet does not impose a time frame within which this is to happen. Without these, the implementation process, even the start-up process, could drag on for years.
An egregious provision the bill lacks is the requirement that all federal government laws, policies and programs be studied through a disability law lens. This seems a strange omission indeed, as this is the proverbial low-hanging fruit.
It is crucial that societies eliminate these forms of discrimination, not just because doing it is the right thing to do but because it enables a previously ignored and sizable section of our population that contributes its talents and abilities to the betterment of us all. Everyone wins when everyone can contribute.
When it comes to ensuring accessibility for five million Canadians with disabilities, Canada lags far behind the United States, which passed a landmark Americans with disabilities act 29 years ago. Canadians with disabilities still face far too many barriers in air travel, cable TV services, and when dealing with the federal government.
Now that Bill C-81 is back in the House, it only needs to hold one vote to ratify these amendments. No further public hearings or standing committee study of the bill are needed. Once the amendments are passed during that vote, Bill C-81 will have completed its journey through Canada's Parliament. It will be law. It will come into force when the federal government gives Bill C-81 royal assent.
Major stakeholders have recently written to leaders of the major parties asking that they commit to bringing a stronger national accessibility bill before Parliament after this fall's federal election. That is why, while we support the passage of Bill C-81 as amended today, the NDP also commits that when we become government in 2020, we will bring forward a much stronger version of the bill, one that will correct some of its more glaring shortcomings.
As others have noted, yes, the bill is an important first step. However, people living with disabilities have waited so long, too long, to live in a country that allows their flourishing as citizens with full human rights realized. For instance, our neighbours and family members should not be told that they must wait until 2040 until they can, say, use functioning, accessible subway elevators, or use their own wheelchairs on international flights or attend an accessible all-candidates debate and so on.
Unfortunately, the present government has left the task of making Canada fully accessible to future governments. I confidently say that New Democrats are up to this task and genuinely committed to it.