Mr. Speaker, I find the reaction and heckles by some members of the government very surprising. We know they do not like listening to opposition perspectives. We have seen multiple efforts by them to shut down debate on different issues. Yes, I am criticizing their failure to respond properly to proposals put forward by Conservative members and agreed to by members of other parties to strengthen the legislation.
Government members do not want to hear that perspective. They want this to be a day when we all agree on every detail. I said right at the beginning, very clearly, that we agree on the principle and that moving this legislation forward would be an improvement on the status quo. However, part of the purpose of the parliamentary conversation is to identify aspects of legislation that need to be improved.
The members across the way may not want to hear these criticisms. They may not want to hear about the fact that this legislation provides a possible exception, whereby a company like SNC-Lavalin might lobby the government for an exception. However, we need to talk about those things. We need to talk about how we strengthen this legislation and about some of the missed opportunities.
Members can be assured that this legislation will pass this session. However, these are criticisms that the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader would benefit from listening to rather than heckling. In any event, it is an important part of the argument we are making. The fact that this legislation does not “require” the minister, but only “invites” the minister to take certain action, and the fact of the exceptions that exist are issues that need to be identified and discussed.
There is also the issue of the administrative complexity that I was talking about before the point of order was raised, and the rejection of an amendment that would have designated CASDO as the only body to develop accessibility standards, and the rejection of another amendment that would have designated the accessibility commissioner as the one body to handle compliance with accessibility standards and the adjudication of complaints. The fact that these amendments were rejected increases the relative complexity that people will face when they are engaging with these issues in the legislation.
Part of our job as the opposition is to reflect the feedback we have heard from stakeholders and to say, yes, the government needs to do better. It can do better. It should have done better. We support this legislation going forward, but we are asking for more for Canadians with disabilities, to facilitate the realization of a full vision of shared community, one in which we go beyond the minimum and do as much as possible together.
We proposed amendments, as well, to ensure that the process for making complaints and reviews by the accessibility commissioner would be fair. We proposed amendments specifically to clauses 117 and 142 to say that this would not allow organizations to be exempted from producing and publishing accessibility plans, feedback processes and progress reports. We proposed amendments to include stronger provisions for reviewing the accessible Canada act and monitoring the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As well, one amendment that was adopted and showed up in the Senate version eventually concerned sign language. It is important to note that we are glad to see this adopted through a Senate amendment, but it had been proposed at the House level as well.
One particular concern we raised about the coming into force of this legislation is that if clause 207 were left in, it would lead, according to the Statutes Repeal Act, to the act being automatically repealed within 10 years of receiving royal assent. That was perhaps a technicality, but one with important consequences that we sought to address.
In the course of proposing 60 amendments at committee, the government only adopted three, and they were not of the substantive variety we had hoped for. They supported two amendments to make reviews fair and accessible, which were improvements, and one amendment to the preamble that changed “Canadians” to “persons in Canada”. Essentially, it was a fairly technical linguistic change in the preamble, which was an important change in language, but the substantive concerns about the legislation we had highlighted were not fully addressed.
The Senate committee study provided some important perspective, and on the issue of the structure of this legislation, I want to read from testimony at the standing committee that studied this bill, in particular the testimony of David Lepofsky, the chair of Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance. He is a real champion on these issues. He has done extensive work representing and reflecting the concerns of the community. I want to identify what he said about this bill. He stated:
Bill C-81 is strong on good intentions, but palpably weak on implementation. It's called an act to ensure a barrier-free Canada, but it does not require a single barrier anywhere in Canada, ever, to be removed.
I will read that again as it is fundamental to the criticisms that I and others have made. He stated:
It's called an act to ensure a barrier-free Canada, but it does not require a single barrier anywhere in Canada, ever, to be removed. People with disabilities need and deserve better than that.
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.
This legislation splinters its enforcement and the setting of enforceable regulations among multiple federal agencies. From the minister's defence of her practice, she conceded that if she was starting from scratch, that isn't necessarily how she would do it. But her explanation of why she did it gives triumphant ascendancy to federal bureaucracy over disability equality.
Now the question is: What do we do about it? The question is not: Are you going to pass this bill, senators? You're going to pass this bill, so let's take that off the table. We all know it. We all understand it. That's the starting point.
That was the starting point for my remarks as well. I said that the Conservatives are supporting this bill, but that there are issues. There are issues the community has raised, and in terms of how we see the issue, and with the substantive aspects of the provisions of this legislation. Our support and the community's support to pass this legislation is clear, but there are big gaps.
I will go back to the testimony, which states:
The question before this committee is: Are you going to amend it first? What we say is that you must. The reality is this bill needs a lot of amendments not to make it perfect, that's a red herring, but to get this bill from the status of weak to one that is closer to what people with disabilities need and deserve.
In the House, there were a couple hundred pages of amendments. Hard work over the past weekend has led us to distill it down to a series of amendments before you that we proposed and you have received e-mails from some witnesses who support them, which fill a grand total of 3.5 pages and cover a few core themes.
I am only going to address a couple of them, but let me be clear, there is time to do this. You are going to vote in committee on May 2. I understand you will do third reading by May 16. We are working and approaching the federal parties to urge that, once amendments are passed if they are that the house consider them quickly, so the issue of swift passage of this bill, whether amended or not, is now, procedurally, not a bar to your being able to do what we need you to do.
Again, we will see this legislation pass, but there are issues that we need to address.
The testimony continues:
So what should you do?
Well, let me just focus on a couple, but I invite questions on all of what we proposed. Lets just turn to the headlines. Yesterday, 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. Thats not unusual. But we need the federal government to be required, before it spends our money on a project like that, to say a ground rule of getting our federal money is you have to meet certain federal accessibility requirements.
Now, the minister came before you a week ago and said, We cant do that. We dont have constitutional authority to do that. Respectfully, the minister is wrong. Its called the federal spending power. Have you heard of 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 their financial accessibility.
If what the minister told you is right, then the Canada Health Act has been unconstitutional for over three decades since it was enacted. I would be staggered to believe that is the position of the current federal government. If they can do it there, they can at least attach strings when they give money, if they agree to, to local projects and not just federal buildings. You might look at me and say, Oh, come on, in 2019 we wouldnt use public money to build inaccessible public transit. Senators, go to YouTube, search on AODA Alliance and public transit. You will see a video we released during last springs provincial election that has thousands of views and media coverage where we document serious accessibility problems in brand new subway stations in Toronto that just opened within the past year-and-a-half.
This isnt about perfect, folks. This is about basic equality, so we ask for an amendment that would at least require federal ministers or their ministries, if they are agreeing to give our federal money to a province, a municipality, a college or university for a project like that, to put, as a term of the agreement, an enforceable term, just like the Canada Health Act, that accessibility requirements are required. Why should the federal government ever allow federal money to be used to create new barriers or perpetuate existing ones?
I will note, just as an aside, that this specific issue that he spoke about here, the issue of federal money funding infrastructure that may not meet a certain accessible standard, is one that the Senate flagged for our consideration, but it is not reflected in the amended provisions of this legislation. This is an area that requires, I think, more discussion and exploration by government on how we should ensure that the accessibility standards we expect are met, especially in new construction and infrastructure, so that we have taken the basic steps required to ensure that it is accessible to people. That is something that should be fairly obvious. However, if we do not put in place processes and mechanisms to ensure that the obvious happens, sometimes it does not.
According to Mr. Lepofsky, in fact, there was a claim made that it would somehow be unconstitutional to put these conditions in place. It is interesting, because we see a federal government that, in general, in so many different areas, is very heavy handed with what it tries to impose on the provinces, even trying to use federal spending to compel them to implement particular policies in provincial areas of jurisdiction. It is interesting how that separation is selectively invoked in some cases but not in others, which seems to be an excuse for inaction in this case.
The testimony continues:
Let me give you one other core amendment. My colleague from the CNIB said the minister last week had agreed to amend the bill to ensure that it does not curtail in any way the human rights code and the duty to accommodate. I hope the minister does that, but I dont hear her as having said that. I hear her as having said that she, as a former human rights lawyer, has ensured that this bill doesnt interfere with the duty to accommodate. But senators, it threatens to.
Clause 172 of the bill perpetuates a provision in the Canada transportation legislation that would let the CTA enact a regulation, and once it does so, to set standards for accessible transit, no matter how low that standard may be and no matter how deficient from a human rights standard it may be. As a traveller with a disability or others in my coalition or anyone in Canada, we are barred from asking anymore under the legislation's guarantee against undue barriers.
With that provision in the act, our position is: Please don't ever enact any standards under the CTA because they threaten to take away our rights. A simple amendment would repeal that provision from the act.
I will note that, in this case, this testimony led to an amendment. Of course, we are pleased to see that the amendment was made on that provision. That was one issue from this testimony that was, in fact, addressed, which is why we were pleased to see that change in the Senate amendments. The version of this bill that was originally proposed, and that the government appeared, initially at committee in the House, not to see any problem with, was, in fact, a version whereby the CTA could enact regulations that would be below the human rights standards and that would have the potential impact of lowering the standards that are in place for the protection of the rights of Canadians with disabilities. This indicates the importance of the Senate amendment process and the benefit of the fact that in this case, the government, although not responsive as much to House amendments, did come around in response to proposals on the Senate side.
The testimony from Mr. Lepofsky states:
Let me conclude by inviting questions on the other areas that we've raised. I'm telling you that we are not just about saying what's wrong. We are about proposing constructive suggestions for what's right, and the amendments we've placed before you are designed for a Senate that has a limited time frame to act, a commitment to respect policy decisions made in the House of Commons and an eagerness to ensure that these amendments can be considered by the house quickly and easily, with a realistic chance of them being taken seriously. They are designed to be tailored both to our needs and to what the minister said to you last week. So we ask you to take them all seriously. They are all substantive, and they all bear on the needs of all people with disabilities.
I conclude by saying this: I'm speaking for my coalition, but as an individual, I first came before Parliament 39 years ago as a much younger individual—my wife said I had hair back then when she saw the video—to appear before the standing committee considering the Charter of Rights. At that time, the Charter proposed to guarantee equality but not to people with disabilities. I and a number of other folks argued and succeeded in getting the Charter amended to include that right.
I leave you with two thoughts. First, the amendments we seek are aimed at making that right become a reality, not just as a matter of good intention but as effective implementation.
The government members who do not like hearing arguments against their bill may be encouraged by the fact that I am now coming to the conclusion of my remarks.
These were all important points to make. Here is a brief summary of the key elements I have highlighted in this bill.
The bill is about requiring regulated entities to make accessibility plans. It is a positive step, but it would not have the force and the pressure on the government in terms of compelling government action that many people within the disability community want to see. We tried to reflect those concerns in the context of a debate that happened here in the House the first time around and at committee. Unfortunately, all the more substantive changes were rejected in the House. The Senate put forward a number of amendments that were positive, but they would not fix the bill in every respect, certainly from the perspective of our caucus and those in the community.
Therefore, while we are pleased to support these amendments and this legislation, we will continue to call on the government to do better and to give reality to the promise that “better is possible”. That is what we are asking in the context of this legislation. The Senate amendments make improvements, but they do not go all the way in terms of the improvements people are asking for.
I talked a bit about who this legislation is for. It is important to recognize that the steps we take to facilitate an accessible, barrier-free society benefit people with disabilities, but they benefit all of us, because they give all of us an opportunity to live together in meaningful community and to learn from each other.
There are things that are not in the bill. In some cases, they are things that could not be addressed by a bill, and in some cases, they are things the government should have addressed but did not.
Legislation can ultimately only go so far toward addressing people's attitudes and culture. Building a barrier-free Canada is not just a political decision; it has to be a social commitment. It has to be something we all commit to leading on and acting on together as parliamentarians and as citizens. We call on business leaders and people from all walks of life to see what they can do to build and facilitate meaningful commitment, goodwill, friendship and love among people, regardless of ability or disability.
Those kinds of social and cultural changes are important. Legislation without that kind of social commitment is not enough to create a truly barrier-free Canada.
I want to again say that the work done by my colleague, the member for Carleton, on trying to ensure that disabled Canadians are able to access paid work, was very important. It was disappointing to see that bill voted down by the government. I hope that in a subsequent Parliament, we will be able to see progress on the initiative he put forward.
Not everyone is able to work, but there are many people who have a disability who are ready, willing and able to participate in paid work. They benefit our economy by doing so, but they also benefit from the community associated with work. They benefit from a sense of purpose and meaning that comes to many people from being able to go to work every day.
More needs to be done to support the kinds of initiatives we saw in that private member's bill. Maybe it will come back in a future Parliament. Maybe we will see other kinds of action that will seek to specifically address the issue of barriers that exist for disabled Canadians seeking employment.
With that, I will conclude my remarks. I am supportive of the bill. I am supportive of the amendments. I am hopeful that we will be able to see more action, and in the future, that we will be able to challenge the government. Rather than rejecting amendments in the House and sending them to the Senate and then accepting them at that point, maybe a novel idea would be to have some of these amendments adopted in the House in the first instance, which would skip the step of bringing the bill back to the House afterward.
There are some areas that could be better, but there are positive steps here. People can be assured that we will support the bill and support these actions. Going forward, we will continue to hold the government's feet to the fire. In the areas where it says it may regulate, we will apply the pressure necessary. We were not able to get from “may” to “must” in the legislation, but we will work to create a political imperative so that the government does not fail to act.
Those in the community who are following us today can be assured of our commitment to always hold the government accountable on these issues and to ensure, with the high-minded discussion around Bill C-81, that the objectives that were laid out are fully realized.