Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update
United for a Barrier-Free Society for All People with Disabilities
At the Senate, Federal Disability Minister Carla Qualtrough Answers Senators’ Questions on the Weak Bill C-81 (Proposed Accessible Canada Act) – Read the AODA Alliance’s Commentary on the Minister’s Key Answers
April 23, 2019
Here is a rare glimpse into how the Federal Government is thinking about the concerns that we and many others have expressed about the weak Bill C-81, the proposed Accessible Canada Act.
On April 3, 2019, the federal minister responsible for people with disabilities, Carla Qualtrough, appeared before the Senate’s Standing Committee on Social Affairs to kick off that committee’s study of Bill C-81, the proposed Accessible Canada Act. Minister Qualtrough made an opening statement to explain and defend Bill C-81. The Senators then took turns questioning her and her senior public service official, the Director General of the Office of Disability Issues James Van Raalte.
Many of the Senators’ questions sound like they were inspired in whole or in part by the AODA Alliance’s March 29, 2019 brief to the Senate and feedback from other disability organizations with similar concerns about the bill. We express our appreciation and gratitude for the Senators doing so.
Below we set out a series of 17 important excerpts from Minister Qualtrough’s presentation, with our comments on these statements. We will post her entire presentation to the Standing Committee on our website once it becomes available.
In our comments, set out below, we respectfully disagree with some of the minister’s statements, and explain why. In other cases, we identify key comments she has made which support the narrow package of amendments to Bill C-81 that we placed before the Senate last week, and asked for their adoption.
To watch the captioned video of AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky’s opening statement at the Senate Standing Committee on April 11, 2019 (10 minutes), visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FERCAljHbrw&feature=em-uploademail
To watch a captioned video of the portion of the Senate Standing Committee’s question-and-answer after that opening statement, where the AODA Alliance answers questions directed to us (26 minutes), visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dr0fCtB_cyw&feature=em-uploademail
You can read the specific amendments we asked the Senate to make to Bill C-81, and the short brief we submitted in support of those amendments. You can also visit the AODA Alliance website, Canada page to see in one place all our efforts over the past four years to campaign for the enactment of a strong and effective national accessibility law.`
Please help our campaign. Before May 2, 2019, please send the Senate Standing Committee a short email to express your support for the amendments to Bill C-81 that the AODA Alliance has requested. We are so appreciative of the individuals and organizations that have already done so. Email the Senate at: [email protected]
Excerpts from Federal Disabilities Minister Carla Qualtrough’s April 3, 2019 Presentation to the Senate’s Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Plus AODA Alliance Commentary on Those Remarks
Minister Qualtrough: Bill C-81 complements the Human Rights Framework in Canada. It does not take anything away from existing human rights obligations under the Canadian Human Rights Act or the duty to accommodate.
Our Comment: This is not correct. Section 172 of the bill re-enacts section 172 of the Canada Transportation Act. That provision provides that when the Canada Transportation Agency enacts an accessibility standard regulation, it in effect prevails over and can water down or cut back on the duty to accommodate passengers with disabilities.
If a CTA regulation says that Air Canada has an excessive five hours to help a passenger with a disability off an airplane when it arrives, that passenger cannot complain to the CTA that Air Canada could easily have accommodated them more quickly without undue hardship.
This is not a hypothetical fear. The Canadian Transportation Agency has proposed new accessibility regulations that, if passed, threaten to cut back on disability human rights. We explain this in detail in the AODA Alliance’s April 18, 2019 brief to the CTA.
We’ve been asking the Federal Government for months to remove s. 172 from the bill. The AODA Alliance’s proposed amendments to Bill C-81, now before the Senate, would remove s. 172 from that bill. That would help make the minister’s statement here become true. However the Federal Government has not yet publicly said that it would agree to a repeal of s. 172. Our 7th proposed amendment to Bill C-81, placed before the Senate, is as follows:
Subsection 172(2) of the bill should be removed from the bill. As well, the bill should repeal its counterpart, s. 172(2) of the Canada Transportation Act, which provides:
“in relation to a matter have been complied with or have not been contravened, the Agency shall determine that there is no undue obstacle to the mobility of persons with disabilities.”
Note: s. 172(2) of the bill uses the word “barrier “instead of the word “obstacle”, but is otherwise the same as s. 172(2) of the Canada Transportation Act.
As well, our 8th proposed amendment to Bill C-81 that we placed before the Senate provides as follows:
Section 6 should be amended to add the following to the principles set out in it:
“(2) For greater certainty, in the event of any inconsistency between the provisions of this Act and the provisions of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the provisions of that Act prevail to the extent of the inconsistency.”
Minister Qualtrough: I’m extremely proud to say that the proposed accessible Canada act enjoys widespread endorsement and support from so many in the disabilities community.
Our Comment: The Federal Government has received widespread feedback from Canada’s disability community that Bill C-81 is too weak and needs to be strengthened. For example, see the Open Letter to the Federal Government which fully 95 disability organizations co-signed, and which was sent last October. See also the extensive feedback on Bill C-81 which disability organizations presented to the House of Commons’ Standing Committee. Disability organizations there repeatedly pressed for this bill to be strengthened.
Minister Qualtrough: As part of our whole-of-government approach, Bill C-81 builds upon the existing work done by regulators and, if passed, will strengthen their mandates to ensure accessibility in their sectors. This was demonstrated at the recent CTA announcement I attended, where the publication of draft accessibility regulations was announced, with the intention of making Canada’s transportation system the most accessible in the world.
Our Comment: It may at first sound good that the Canadian Transportation Agency wants to make Canada’s transportation system the most accessible one in the world. However, after a closer look, it falls far short of what people with disabilities in Canada need and deserve.
What people with disabilities deserve and are entitled to is an accessible transportation system. Bill C-81 is entitled an Act to ensure a barrier-free Canada. The CTA’s much more diluted objective would be fulfilled if Canada’s transportation system were to become slightly more accessible than all others – no matter how inaccessible all others are. In other words, by the CTA’s impoverished approach to accessibility, people with disabilities in Canada could end up having to put up with many accessibility barriers in transportation forever.
As well, we noted earlier that the CTA has proposed new transportation accessibility regulations that threaten to reduce the human rights of passengers with disabilities, a very troubling development to which the AODA Alliance’s April 18, 2019 brief to the CTA objects.
Minister Qualtrough: This approach ensures that accessibility is everyone’s responsibility and that we can’t waste any time once the bill receives Royal Assent.
Our Comment: Regrettably, Bill C-81 does not ensure that we don’t waste any time once this bill receives Royal Assent. To ensure this, a series of mandatory time lines must be added to the bill.
Minister Qualtrough: Finally, the development of regulations has begun, with the CTA posting their first draft of accessibility regulations, and the consultation process has started for the development of the multi-year accessibility plan regulations.
Our Comment: This may seem a bit technical, but the regulations that the Canadian Transportation Agency are now finalizing are not being created under Bill C-81. They are being developed under the existing national transportation legislation that has been on the books for years. It is our understanding that these regulations have been under development for the past three years, well before Bill C-81 was introduced into the House of Commons in June 2018 for First Reading.
The Canadian Transportation Agency has had the power to make such regulations for many years. We anticipate that it was the fact that the Federal Government promised national accessibility legislation in the 2015 federal election that helped motivate the Canadian Transportation Agency to finally take a serious look at using its decades-old power to make comprehensive accessibility regulations in the transportation field.
Moreover, the CTA’s posting of those draft regulations is a matter of concern, as noted earlier, since they threaten to reduce human rights protections for passengers with disabilities, as the AODA Alliance’s April 22, 2019 brief to the CTA demonstrates.
Minister Qualtrough: The Canadian Human Rights Act absolutely imposes a duty to accommodate. Nothing in this act changes that obligation on employers, on service providers and on program deliverers within the federal jurisdiction. There was confusion in provincial jurisdictions that had enacted accessibility legislation, and we’ve made every effort to avoid such confusion. Whatever standard is created by CASDO will not necessarily create any kind of defence for an employer, service provider or program deliverer in terms of their individual duty to accommodate a specific individual.
I have to emphasize that as a former human rights law practitioner, it is very important to me, and it has been, to preserve the duty to accommodate.
Our Comment: We repeat our comments for Excerpt 1, above, where we disagree with the minister’s similar earlier statement.
We also respectfully disagree with the minister’s statement that “…we’ve made every effort to avoid such confusion” When this bill was before the House of Commons last fall, we asked the Federal Government to amend Bill C-81 to include language akin to the strong language on point in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. The Federal Government did not do so. Unlike this bill, section 38 of the AODA provides:
” 38. If a provision of this Act, of an accessibility standard or of any other regulation conflicts with a provision of any other Act or regulation, the provision that provides the highest level of accessibility for persons with disabilities with respect to goods, services, facilities, employment, accommodation, buildings, structures or premises shall prevail.”
We are troubled by the minister’s equivocal statement as follows:
“Whatever standard is created by CASDO will not necessarily create any kind of defence for an employer, service provider or program deliverer in terms of their individual duty to accommodate a specific individual.”
Compliance with a voluntary, non-binding standard recommended by the proposed new Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization should simply not be a defence to a human rights complaint. Here the minister more equivocally said it is not “necessarily” a defence. That means that it could be a defence, in some situations.
It may be that the minister simply inadvertently misspoke here. However, her statement can contribute to the very confusion about the duty to accommodate that she wants to avoid.
Senator Munson: As you well know, the Senate is a chamber of sober second thought and we take looking at these bills very seriously. I am sure there will be an appetite for amendments by the time we are done our hearings.
On this particular sign language and other aspects of the bill, there are people in the community who feel it doesn’t go far enough. Yes, we’ll have it for the first time, and yes, it’s history in the making and that sort of thing, but it just doesn’t go far enough. Would you be open to amendments?
Minister Qualtrough: I would certainly defer to your process and recommendations, but yes, I want to make this bill, this eventual law, the best it can possibly be.
Our Comment: This is a very helpful, positive and important statement by the minister. The minister herself is open to the Senate making amendments to Bill C-81 to make it the best law it can possibly be. This should lay to rest any fear that by making such amendments, the Senate would thereby jeopardize the bill’s passage.
This is further reinforced by the statement by Senator Munson (the bill’s sponsor in the Senate) during the Committee’s April 10, 2019 hearings:
“We’re here for a reason. There are going to be amendments…”
Senator Forest-Niesing: With respect to deadlines, provinces with an Accessibility Act, their own Accessibility Act, have an implementation deadline, especially for total accessibility. What was the reasoning in not having a deadline in Bill C-81?
Minister Qualtrough: To be honest, this is one of the more difficult differences of opinion as we have had as a disability community in this law and in this whole process. This is because there is a very honest and staunch belief within the community that we need a deadline, that we need to make a statement saying Canada will be barrier free by X or Canada will be accessible by X. And there is an equally passionate group of individuals who believe that setting a timeline in the distant future will give people excuse to wait to take action and also believe that because accessibility is always changing and evolving as a concept, and as technology changes and as we grow in our understanding and evolve around accessibility, we won’t know what a barrier-free Canada looks like.
If we decided in this law to say by 2030 Canada will be barrier-free, first of all, I’m not sure we could achieve that, quite frankly. Second, we don’t know what barrier-free will mean and look like then.
I heard everyone, and we took back that feedback, and there are still some us of who are agreeing to disagree on this one. While we don’t disagree that we need to work towards a barrier-free Canada, we don’t agree about the need for that deadline.
Instead, we’ve chosen to focus on getting things started. Let’s get the first regulation made within two years. Let’s do a review of the act within five years of the first regulation. Let’s put the board of CASDO in place this summer. Let’s have the space for CASDO. Let’s get things going.
That seemed to be the broader consensus. It certainly ended up being where we landed as a government.
Quite frankly, it’s not necessary legislative practice to create these kinds of statements. We don’t have a criminal code that says we will be crime free by X date. We don’t have a Human Rights Act that says we will be discrimination free by this date. I’m not sure other jurisdictions have found it to be beneficial to have these timelines.
Every regulation that is established will have a timeline, so as soon as we have a standard, the regulation will say employers have to have this standard in place by X.
There will be built-in timelines. Some will be quick because we’re adopting an existing standard. Some will take longer because it’s a more complex issue.
At the end of the day, after listening to everyone, the decision was not to put that deadline in place. You will hear from stakeholders opinions that disagree with me and our government, but I assure you it has been thought out and considered. I respect their opinion, and this is where we landed.
Our Comment: We respectfully disagree with the minister. Our responses to her remarks are largely found in the April 11, 2019 presentation to the Standing Committee by AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky. We add a few points here.
Yes, new kinds of barriers will no doubt crop up in the future. That is a marginal factor. We nevertheless need this legislation to set an end date to reach full accessibility. A resilient flexible law can be designed to identify and adapt to address those new kinds of barriers as they come up.
The Federal Government’s repeatedly referring to accessibility as some sort of amorphous moving target is unhelpful. Overwhelmingly, we know what accessibility is and what is needed. Obligated organizations don’t need any further reasons to be reluctant to act in this area.
Contrary to the minister’s statement, there is substantial support among people with disabilities for including in this legislation an end date for reaching full accessibility. This is not a matter of a dispute among people with disabilities at the grassroots. Rather there is a dispute between the disability community on the one hand, and the Federal Government on the other.
The minister here repeated the Federal Government’s weak reasons for rejecting this request last fall when the bill was before the House of Commons. She again stated at the Senate:
“We don’t have a criminal code that says we will be crime free by X date.”
Sadly, we know that there will always be crime. The Criminal Code is there to help reduce it, and to protect the public when it occurs. That is no comparison to disability barriers. Were it so, then the Government that is sponsoring a bill “to ensure a barrier-free Canada” is conceding before we even begin that we in reality will never achieve a barrier-free Canada. We believe Canada can do better than that.
The minister said that instead of including an end date in the bill for reaching full accessibility, they decided to focus on getting the bill’s machinery up and running over the next weeks and months. She said:
“Instead, we’ve chosen to focus on getting things started. Let’s get the first regulation made within two years. Let’s do a review of the act within five years of the first regulation. Let’s put the board of CASDO in place this summer. Let’s have the space for CASDO. Let’s get things going.”
This creates the incorrect idea that we have a false choice that we must make. We must either decide to add an end date to the bill for achieving full accessibility, or we must instead choose to work on getting the bill’s machinery up and running quickly now.
The Federal Government did not have to choose one or the other, to include an end date for reaching full accessibility in the bill, or instead, to get started right away on getting the bill’s implementation up and running. The Federal Government can do both.
It is very commendable that the minister is so eager, active and enthusiastic about getting the bill’s implementation up and running so quickly. We caution that in 2005, her Ontario counterpart was just as energetic and enthusiastic just as the AODA was being enacted. A few years later, things started to dramatically slow down in Ontario. We have never gotten it sped up again. We need this bill to include strong time lines, tied to an end date, to prevent that from recurring at the federal level.
We have provided the Senate with a complete solution to the minister’s concern that the addition of an end date for full accessibility to this bill might lead obligated organizations to delay taking action on accessibility. We have recommended that the Senate add the following to the bill:
5.2. Nothing in this Act, including in its purpose of the realization of a Canada without barriers on or before January 1, 2040, should be construed as authorizing or requiring any delay in the removal or prevention of barriers as soon as reasonably possible.”
Minister Qualtrough: Employment is definitely one of the seven areas recognized as an area of priority in the bill, and the bill applies to all areas of federal jurisdiction. It doesn’t apply to areas of provincial jurisdiction. Other provinces do have accessibility legislation. I’m encouraged by the fact that a number of provinces have basically put on hold their intention to create provincial legislation that parallels ours, waiting to see ours and then wanting to create something that’s seamless in terms of the experience for the everyday Canadian.
Our Comment: We would consider it a backwards step for people with disabilities if any provincial government put on hold its consideration of developing a provincial accessibility law pending the passage of Bill C-81. We need provinces to speed up action in this area, not slow it down. We know the since-defeated BC Liberal Government had used the development of Bill C-81 as its excuse for continuing to dodge the development of a BC Disabilities Act.
If any provincial government has its planning efforts on hold, we would urge them to get right back to work now on developing provincial accessibility legislation.
Senator Moodie: Thank you, Minister Qualtrough, for your presentation today. As a physician and a Canadian, I’m proud that we’re leaders in this space and that this bill is going to take us to the fore in continuing to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Canadians understand the needs of people with disabilities.
My question, though, challenges the bill a bit. The concerns I’m hearing are around the notion that the federal government and various federal agencies will have, with this bill, the sweeping power to exempt organizations from a number of these important accessibility obligations. The government can even exempt itself; is that correct?
Can you speak to the extent to which the federal government and federal agencies can exempt organizations from accessibility obligations, and can you explain why you felt it necessary to exempt organizations from the obligations that are stated in Bill C-81?
Minister Qualtrough: Thank you for the question, senator. Again, this is not the first time I have heard this concern.
In this legislation, we had to balance wanting to encourage innovation — so organizations that are already doing things very, very well — with holding to account organizations that aren’t doing so well. Creating the opportunity for an exemption allows organizations that already have innovative and comparable accessibility practices to what we may create as a standard to get an exemption, because they’re already doing something that effectively has the same end results. At the same time, an organization that may need a little more time to get up to that standard is allowed the opportunity to be granted an exemption for a period of time.
This is not kind of an exclusion or a get-out-of-jail-free card. The reasons for granting the exemption have to be published publicly. It is not as though we are going to exempt you from ever having to be accessible. It is a recognition that, one, your practices are already akin to what is contained in a given standard, or two, you need a little bit more time to get up to the standard that has been established for a justifiable reason that will be made public and reviewed three years.
Senator Moodie: So I’m hearing you say that in three years, even if I get an exemption the first go-around, I will be reviewed again.
Minister Qualtrough: Absolutely. The reason is technical.
Mr. Van Raalte: You’d actually have to reapply. It’s not just a review. You have to initiate the fact that —
Minister Qualtrough: It expires.
Mr. Van Raalte: It expires, and you would have to reapply, justify and demonstrate that you still require an exemption, from your perspective. Then there’s still an approval process.
Our Comment: We disagree with the minister’s justification for the bill’s current exemptions powers. An exemption from this legislation’s requirements is not needed to encourage innovation.
If an organization is already meeting or exceeding the requirements of an accessibility standard, they have no need for an exemption. If they are close, but need a bit more time, that is typically and easily dealt with through the flexibility in the enforcement process.
Moreover, the minister spelled out the specific situations when exemptions are to be granted. Yet the bill does not limit the Government to only granting exemptions in those situations. For example, the Government could exempt itself for any reason it wishes, not just for the reasons that the minister gave (i.e. they need a little more time or are already in substantive compliance with the results that the standard seeks to achieve).
Senator Omidvar: You’ve described the bill as a first or an incremental step. There are critics who say it is unnecessarily timid. I’m going to read a portion of an email that I got that deals with splintering — with a multitude of agencies being responsible for enforcement, regulation-making and overseeing complaints.
So the concern is that the bill’s implementation and enforcement are therefore less effective, it is more confusing, it’s more complicated, it’s more costly, and there is a variability of decision-making and possibly of standards. I hear this when the advocates say that this will make it much harder for people with disabilities to navigate the system, to find out what rights they have and to get violations fixed.
So I understand the no-wrong-door approach, but I also understand that too much of a GPS with variability will make it completely confusing. Will you respond to this criticism?
Minister Qualtrough: I will. I, too, have received email — maybe that same email and maybe more than once.
Senator Omidvar: We all did.
Minister Qualtrough: If I had a blank piece of paper, and I could design the system of my liking and choosing, it might not look like this. However, we didn’t start out with a blank piece of paper; we started out with a fully functioning, complicated system of federal government that included regulators that were already doing this work — regulators that, to be honest, we didn’t always hear good things about and regulators whose powers we have beefed up.
But it became very clear very quickly as the design of the system started to take hold that we were in a position of having to either pull out from the CTA and CRTC. There are three at play here: the CTA, the CRTC and then the Canadian Human Rights Commission does everything else. In terms of the number of regulators, we’ve got the CTA doing transportation, the CRTC doing telecommunications and broadcasting; and then the Human Rights Commission doing everything else. Taking it out of the CTA or the CRTC would be costly. In some ways, at the end of the day, it wouldn’t recognize the expertise they had built up and that they absolutely can and will improve upon.
But we heard very concretely — and I’m sure you’ll hear yourselves from the kind of more technically minded regulators that are the CTA and the CRTC — that when you’re designing and responsible for safety — CTA airplane seat design comes to mind. The CTA is responsible to design an airplane seat, and the first consideration is safety, of course, and what has to be built into that seat design.
For an outside regulator to come in and say, “Yes, you have to design a seat, but you have to take into consideration all of these accessibility needs,” it was deemed better for the CTA to be the one to include and incorporate accessibility considerations into the design of that seat.
To be very clear, the non-technical aspects of the business of the transportation sector in Canada will be under the purview of the CHRC. So if there’s a customer service standard, an employment standard, built environment standard — those are all going to be imposed on the VIA Rails, the Air Canadas, et cetera. It’s the more technical sides of those sectors that will be the purview of those specific regulators.
It was a compromise, because I recognize it makes the system more complicated for the complainant and the end user. That’s why we’ve taken the efforts we have even now. There are committees. The heads of the CTA, the CHRC and the CRTC are already meeting to figure out how they’re going to work together to make sure that from the complainant’s point of view it is seamless, but we know it’s more complicated. It was a sectoral approach that we chose as a compromise, recognizing we weren’t starting from scratch and recognizing the complicated technical nature of the business in which these two established regulators are in.
I’m confident that there will be bumps along this road, but we will get to a place where whenever someone files a complaint, it will end up where it needs to be, and the chief accessibility officer and the chief accessibility commissioner will make sure of that.
Our Comment: Contrary to the minister’s suggestion, the Canadian Transportation Agency and the CRTC do not have demonstrated expertise in disability accessibility. Their insufficient performance in this area for many years suggests much the opposite.
We have warned that this splintering of the bill’s implementation and enforcement among different federal agencies is very confusing. It is hard to figure out from the bill who does what, as between the Accessibility Commissioner, the Canadian Transportation Agency and the CRTC.
The minister’s presentation reinforced this concern. She incorrectly described the division of responsibility between these agencies. She stated:
“To be very clear, the non-technical aspects of the business of the transportation sector in Canada will be under the purview of the CHRC. So if there’s a customer service standard, an employment standard, built environment standard – those are all going to be imposed on the VIA Rails, the Air Canadas, et cetera. It’s the more technical sides of those sectors that will be the purview of those specific regulators.”
The minister here is saying that the Canadian Transportation Agency will be responsible for technical issues regarding transportation, but not things like the built environment. In fact, under Bill C-81, the Canadian Transportation Agency and not the Canadian Human Rights Commission is responsible for setting standards for the built environment in places like airports and train stations. Section 120 of the bill provides in part:
“120 The only regulations made under subsection 117(1) that apply in respect of a regulated entity that is required to comply with any provision of regulations made under subsection 170(1) of the Canada Transportation Act are those that relate to the identification and removal of barriers, and the prevention of new barriers, in the following areas: …
…(b) the built environment, other than a passenger aircraft, passenger train, passenger bus, passenger vessel, aerodrome passenger terminal, railway passenger station, bus passenger station or marine passenger terminal;”
We sympathize with the minister’s confusion. This bill is itself very confusing and difficult to understand, even for those with extensive expertise in this area.
The minister said the Government is splintering the bill because of the costs of not splintering the bill. To our knowledge, this is the first time that the Federal Government has claimed that it would be more costly to have this bill’s accessibility regime all enforced by one federal agency, the new ,Accessibility Commissioner , rather than splintering it among four agencies. It is the first time the Government has claimed it would be more costly to have all regulations made by the Federal Cabinet, rather than splintering this responsibility among three agencies, the Cabinet, the Canadian Transportation Agency and the CRTC.
The Government offered no specifics on what these supposed added costs would be. It did not offset these against the greater costs under this bill, as written, to the Government, to people with disabilities and to obligated organizations of having this bill’s implementation and enforcement so splintered. For example, under the bill as now written, it will cost the airlines more to produce two separate accessibility plans and to deal with two different regulatory agencies, the Accessibility Commissioner and the Canadian Transportation Agency, than if they only had to prepare one plan and file it with one federal agency.
Senator Poirier: On Bill C-81, it does not include a deadline for achieving full accessibility, compared to the different provincial accessibility legislation, like the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. This act has clear deadlines for achieving the full accessibility for Ontarians on or before January 1, 2025.
Can you explain to us why you have not put a deadline established in Bill C-81?
Minister Qualtrough: Absolutely, senator. As I said, that was a topic of rigorous debate and discussion, and sometimes disagreement, over the course of going through this whole journey with respect to this legislation. Where we landed, as I said, was focusing on getting things started, not imposing a deadline that in any way would disincentivize organizations to get going on this. It was about recognizing that what we consider accessible today will not be good enough 10 years from now and knowing, quite frankly, that we’re a long way off from being accessible or barrier-free.
We concluded that it just wasn’t the best way to get going on this. I don’t know if I could elaborate further. At the end of the day, we figured putting in place the requirement that regulations and standards be put in place within two years by each of the regulators and that a review of the law happen within five years of the first regulation coming into force — taking the steps in parallel now to get this thing off the ground and going was the better course of action.
Our Comment: We repeat our comments under Excerpt 8, above.
Senator Dasko : I guess another thing that I’ve heard from some people who think this bill should go farther than it does has to do with the federal government’s lack of intention here to take a stronger role when it comes to direct federal spending on infrastructure projects or spending in many areas where the federal government funds projects and creates projects and so on, the critique being that it doesn’t go far enough in insisting that barriers are not there when these projects are undertaken. So just at the beginning, I suppose, before federal money is given to these projects, not enough is being done in this bill to ensure that those projects are barrier-free. It’s a critique I’ve heard, and I’d like to hear what you might have to say about it.
(Procedural discussion omitted)
Minister Qualtrough: At the end of the day, what I would say is we’ve pushed the language in the law as far as we can go while still respecting federal jurisdiction. James is probably better to answer the technical side as to how far we can go, but this will apply to federal policies and federal programs. It won’t apply to financial transfers like the health transfer because that’s effectively a provincial jurisdiction that we’re helping to fund, but it doesn’t give us authority, as I understand it, to actually impose that condition down that far. Maybe I’m not explaining it right. I apologize. It’s jurisdictional.
To be very clear, though, this will transformatively change the Government of Canada in terms of every department and agency will have to have an accessibility plan. We have already established in my office, for example, a centre for accessible procurement, meaning we will be having policies and processes. We won’t procure things that aren’t accessible.
The Prime Minister has appointed a deputy minister responsible for an accessible public service, whose job it is every day to figure out how we are going to have to be ready and how we will be ready in our government with its employees to adhere to this law.
Can you talk to more about how far we can go down, please? Because I can’t remember the language in the law.
Mr. Van Raalte: I think you’ve covered it, minister. Departments will have to be able to report on their programs, policies and services. They will have to do that reporting in consultation with people with disabilities. They are at the table for that. So that will actually give both the government and the public forward-looking perspective on the plans of those organizations, such as planned spending and program priorities in a forward-looking way that will allow us to have those discussions. You want to be thinking about the accessibility measures included in those investments.
Ms. Qualtrough: Having said that, in terms of what’s in the law, we’ve taken a number of steps in parallel to embed accessibility into our new programs and our new processes. I’ll give you an example. With the National Housing Strategy or our infrastructure program, accessibility is baked into these initiatives.
A fun example I like to give is around our infrastructure. Transit is a priority for our government. Historically, for whatever reason, whether it be oversight or intention, upgrades with respect to making buses more accessible have not been included as eligible expenses for communities to claim and use infrastructure dollars for. We literally added a box on a piece of paper three years ago where we told communities that they could use this money to make their community buses more accessible. In that one year, $810 million was spent on accessible transit. We didn’t advertise it. We didn’t highlight it anywhere. We changed the form, and communities recognized the values of accessible transit and invested in their communities.
I could give you so many examples, as we’ve pursued this law, of the things that we’ve done in terms of government policy, programs and initiatives to make the way we govern a more accessible experience, both for the people who work in government and the people we serve.
Our Comment: As the AODA Alliance presentation to the Senate’s Standing Committee on April 11, 2019 shows, we respectfully disagree with the minister’s claims that the Federal Government cannot do more here. The minister’s statements make it sound like the Federal Government is powerless to attach accessibility strings when it gives federal public money to a local or provincial government to help build a hospital, subway station, or university building.
This is incorrect. The Federal Government has a significant “spending power” which lets it attach federal conditions to federal money that it gives out. If a provincial government or other local organization doesn’t want to comply with those strings, it is free to simply refuse to accept the federal money.
For over three decades, the Canada Health Act, a federal law, has attached federal strings to federal money that is given to provinces to help finance their health care systems. One of those legal requirements is the accessibility of health care services (not in the disability sense of accessibility) If the minister is correct – that the Federal Government has no power to attach strings to federal money that is spent in provincial areas of responsibility – then she is admitting that the Canada Health Act is unconstitutional. That would be a surprising thing for a federal cabinet minister to claim.
We believe that the Federal Government could include in Bill C-81 a requirement that no federal cabinet minister or department may agree to give federal public money to any organization, federal or provincial, to contribute to the building or renovating of infrastructure, unless the recipient agrees to meet federal accessibility requirements. If the minister were correct, then the Federal Government is simply powerless here. It can give money to help fund the construction of a local subway station, but is powerless to say that the subway station must have elevators, and not just stairs, to reach the subway. We disagree.
This too is not a hypothetical issue. The AODA Alliance has produced a widely-viewed online video that shows serious accessibility problems at new Toronto subway stations, recently opened, that were built in part with federal money.
The minister gave examples of commendable new policies that the Federal Government has adopted to promote the procurement by the Government of accessible goods, services and facilities. We applaud these. However, they are merely policies, not legal requirements. A subsequent minister or Government could abolish or disregard them with the stroke of a pen, without requiring any public debate. That is why we want such requirements embedded in the bill.
Senator Kutcher: Thank you, minister, for your very clear and well considered answers to these questions. Our task is to try to assist in making the bill the best it can be. You mentioned one area that I think you suggested we could dive a little bit deeper on and that was the sign language domain. So my question is: Are there any other areas that you or your team —
Minister Qualtrough: Boy, am I allowed to answer this question?
Senator Kutcher: — would like to highlight as something we could have a more intensive focus on as we study the bill?
Minister Qualtrough: I think some sort of recognition, as you say, of sign languages as being the first language of Canadians who are Deaf is certainly what we have all heard and you will hear.
Senator Munson asked a question about the duty to accommodate, and perhaps to avoid confusion that could be explicit. I know it is at law and I would suggest case law has already clarified that point but I think it might be worth . . . nobody usually asks me that question.
Yes, I mean, if there are things that you think can be improved, certainly please explore that. My concern is getting it passed. I think it’s a really good piece of law and I wouldn’t want anything to get in the way of that. Sorry to be so direct. The community has done such good work and I feel a real heightened obligation to deliver this for them. This is once in a generation and people have fought for a long time before me to have this conversation nationally. This is a genie we are not putting back in the bottle. It’s pretty exciting. Sorry I don’t have further feedback for you but those two would be at the top of my mind.
Our Comment: The minister here again indicates that she is open to amendments to the bill. That is helpful.
As areas that the Senators might focus on as part of their study of the bill, the minister referred to possible recognition that Sign Language is the first language of people who are deaf, and something explicit about the duty to accommodate. She said that those two items are at the top of her mind. She did not specifically commit to passage of amendments to that end. She commendably invited the Senate to explore things in the bill that “can be improved.”
Minister Qualtrough: May I add something on the duty to accommodate piece because it’s really important and kind of something I’m obsessed with. We need to make it very clear to Canadians that this is a really important legally enshrined tenet of human rights law in this country and nothing we are doing here takes away any organization’s obligation to accommodate individuals. In some cases, a small business who has complied with the standard might say, “We have complied,” and that might meet their duty to accommodate but the Government of Canada it might not. We need to be very clear and I need it on the record from me so I can sleep tonight that this in no way, in any way negates any organization’s obligation to accommodate individuals on the grounds of disability.
Our Comment: We repeat our comments under Excerpts 1 and 6 above.
Senator Eaton: Minister, is there another country who does this better than we are going to do it? Is there another country that is an example to us?
Minister Qualtrough: Our neighbour to the south has the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has an anti-discrimination component which would be covered off in our country by the human rights legislation and an accessibility standards component. So we have spent a lot of time looking at their model. It’s obviously a different kind of structured country, federal, state, but what I’m hoping, because I’m at heart a competitive athlete, is that this becomes the international standard that has built upon what other countries have been doing. The States has been doing it for 30 years, but I would like to believe ours will be better.
Our Comment: We commend the minister for wanting Canada’s new accessibility legislation to be better than the American legislation, and better than other laws around the world. However, as now written, Bill C-81 regrettably falls well short of that goal. It is also in some key ways weaker than Ontario’s AODA, which itself has run into significant implementation and enforcement problems over the past 14 years.
Senator Omidvar: Very quickly, you have talked about the fact that there is a timeline, that within two years agencies have to enact one regulation. However, what is the quality of that regulation? Is there a concern that it could be an inconsequential one, a minor procedural matter without actually embracing the spirit of what you are trying to propose?
Minister Qualtrough: I don’t think the law provides the safeguard that you are asking about. What I do think, though, is that CASDO is that safeguard. So having CASDO created with a board of directors with a majority of individuals with lived experience, and they get to decide which regulations take priority and what comes first and what comes second and who does what and what the priorities are. That group of individuals will be tasked with making sure there are substantive regulations in place as quickly as possible based on their agreed upon priorities.
Our Comment: We respectfully disagree with parts of the minister’s description of this legislation. The minister correctly stated that the bill does not ensure that the regulation that must be enacted within two years is something more than an inconsequential procedural regulation.
However, she is incorrect in stating that the new Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization is a safeguard to ensure that substantive regulations are enacted as soon as possible. CASDO has no such power under this bill. CASDO has no authority to enact any regulations whatsoever. It can only give advice. It can recommend what should be included in accessibility standard regulations. The Federal Government, the CRTC and the Canadian Transportation Agency need never listen to CASDO’s advice, and need never give a reason for refusing to act on CASDO’s advice.
As for the regulation that must be enacted within two years, that regulation is NOT an accessibility standard regulation. As the Senator’s question mentions, it is a procedural regulation that the Government must enact in the first two years. CASDO has no control over those procedural regulations. Contrary to the minister’s suggestion, CASDO is therefore not an effective safeguard to ensure that those regulations are meaningful.