Mr. Speaker, I rise today to address Bill C-81, an act to ensure a barrier-free Canada, better known as the accessible Canada act. This is a subject near and dear to my heart. As we have heard from various members, we all want to ensure that those living with disabilities are treated as equals and remove the barriers they face every single day. I said this is near and dear to my heart, so I would like to start by providing some insight into some obstacles that I have encountered first-hand living with disabilities in Canada.
It was in 2006 that I had just been named minister of human resources and social development, with responsibility for the office for disabilities. Ironically, just a few weeks into the job, I was diagnosed with Grave's disease and Grave's eye disease. These are thyroid afflictions that, among other things, in me cause both extreme light sensitivity and extreme stabismus, resulting in my being legally blind for quite a period of time. More recently, I underwent complicated double hip replacement surgery, which unfortunately resulted in my need for mobility assistance tools around this place for many months.
It was during both of these periods that I learned just how inaccessible many things in my life were, including this particular workplace. They were simple things, such as moving between the Hill and my office, more than half a kilometre from the House, being unable to walk that distance, being unable to step up or down from the little white minibus. Challenges were also considerable in actually having to fight to get an accessible parking space here at Centre Block.
Mr. Speaker, as you will recall, even with the eventual direct intervention by the Speaker's office, it literally took months to fix what were supposed to be the accessibility doors at the rear of this building, doors which unfortunately malfunctioned more often than not. One of the main barriers to getting that particular job done was a clear lack of accountability for the issue. I will talk more about accountability later.
I also discovered how narrow certain parts of these buildings are for those who rely on wheelchairs or walkers, walkers that inhibit our ability to get around. With a disability, many of these seemingly small things all of a sudden can become very big obstacles, but it used to be a lot worse. In fact, under the previous Liberal government, the office for people with disabilities was actually two offices and neither one of them was accessible by those who were mobility challenged. That is right. People who use wheelchairs or walkers could not get into the building. They could not work there, could not consult, could not lobby, and they could not advocate for people with disabilities because they were not allowed in. I know this may sound a little farcical but unfortunately it is true.
Happily, the Conservative government fixed that scenario in short order and, in fact, combined the facilities. There was one office and it was billed as a showcase of how businesses and organizations could adapt to people with mobility, visibility, hearing or other challenges. In one place, businesses and other organizations could finally find the technologies, techniques, tips and tools that would help them accommodate people of all abilities so that these organizations could benefit from their skills to make those organizations even stronger. By the end, not only could people with disabilities enter this office to do business but they could actually work there. What a concept.
As the former minister for HRSD responsible for the disabilities file, I have to say that I was very proud to be part of a government that took leadership in removing many barriers for people with disabilities.
We created the registered disability savings plan in 2008, and we signed on to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The RDSP, as members have probably heard, was a breakthrough financial planning tool, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. To date, over 150,000 Canadians and their families have invested in this wonderful tool.
However, we did so much more for people with disabilities. We launched the opportunities fund that, so far, has helped over 20,000 people with disabilities develop the skills they need to actually get a job and, with that, the dignity and self-respect that come with having a job.
We partnered with the Canadian Association for Community Living on the ready, willing and able initiative to connect people with developmental disabilities with a job. We also invested in expanding vocational training programs for people with autism spectrum disorders.
Yes, we did more. We removed the GST-HST from eyewear that is specially designed to electronically enhance the vision of individuals with vision impairment, and also from special training to help individuals cope with the effects of a disorder or disability.
We invested hundreds of millions of dollars every year in the labour market agreements for persons with disabilities, to help the provinces and territories improve the employment of Canadians with disabilities.
We released a landmark third-party report, “Rethinking disability in the private sector.” This report spelled out, in very plain language, the many tangible benefits of hiring people with disabilities, including reduced absenteeism, reduced turnover, improved morale, and improved profitability.
I am, rightly, very proud that in 2007, our government created the enabling accessibility fund. This program was designed to provide direct funding to help community groups, municipalities and organizations improve accessibility for people with disabilities, where they work, live and play, such as community centres, town halls, churches, arenas, and so many more local spots.
Over 3,700 facilities were made more accessible through this program. In 2013, we recognized both the value and the success of this program, originally billed as a temporary one, by making the funding permanent. I have to say that when we launched that particular program over 10 years ago, I never expected that I would be so appreciative of the results of those investments 10 years later. I am surely glad they were there, as are thousands and thousands of Canadians who use them every day.
Among many other tax aids, we also created the home accessibility tax credit, for both seniors and those living with disabilities, to renovate and make their own homes more accessible, giving them not just a sense of independence but in fact real independence. We did this because we recognized the contributions that people with disabilities can and do make to our nation and our communities. We recognize the value that a person's independence brings to their dignity.
This is not to say that the accomplishments of our government solved every problem, but they were significant steps in the right direction. That said, I am sure that members would agree that we still have a lot of work to do.
Take for example the presentation of petitions right here in the House of Commons. Almost a year ago exactly, a petition from my constituents was rejected by the Clerk of the House because it was on 11 by 17 inch paper. It has been printed big enough to accommodate constituents who had visual challenges. The paper was deemed too big for the House of Commons, by this House of Commons.
Under the current Standing Orders, petitioners can only petition the House of Commons if the petition is printed on paper described as the “usual size”, meaning letter or legal size only. I had to seek unanimous consent from the House to table this particular petition. Thanks to my colleagues on all sides, unanimous consent was granted and I was allowed to table the petition. However, quite frankly, there is so much text required to be included on a petition now that the font used has to be pretty small if it is going to fit on 8 ½" by 11" piece of paper. That is not fair. It is not fair to our constituents. In fact, it is such a backward a policy to limit the size of paper if all of the required information is there. Personally, I believe that every Canadian should be able to submit a petition on larger paper if it means they can read what they are signing. I do not think that is an unreasonable thing to require.
As someone who was once legally blind, and as the former minister responsible for the disabilities office, I regularly encouraged many institutions and organizations to adopt more accessible friendly policies. It is very disappointing to me that the House is not taking the same approach, at least not so far. Not only does this guideline fail to provide accessibility to Canadians who are visually impaired, but it is also a barrier to their being able to access and fully participate in their government with the same level of engagement as those without visibility challenges.
I am grateful to the House for granting me unanimous consent to table the petition. Frankly, I was hopeful that having this issue brought before the procedure and House affairs committee, or as we know it better, PROC, would lead to positive and permanent change. Sadly, I am now hearing that government members of PROC, the same people introducing Bill C-81, for some strange reason are now withholding their support for this change, a change they once seemed to support. Frankly, I do not understand it. If the government were truly serious about addressing the issues facing Canadians with disabilities, it would have addressed the Standing Order by now. Instead, here we are almost a year later, and Standing Order 36(1.1)(c) still has not been updated. Unfortunately, I wish I could say this was just an oversight. Sadly, it does not seem to be.
During the 2015 election, the Liberals campaigned on a promise to make life more accessible for Canadians with disabilities. For each cabinet shuffle, it has been part of the minister's mandate letter to consult and introduce legislation on this subject as quickly as possible. Here we are three years later and are getting a bill from a minister that is said to have been the result of extreme consultations across Canada. I have no doubt the minister and her staff did extensive consultations across the country on this matter. That is what they claim; it must be true. However, one would normally have expected something of deeper value and more tangible change to have been proposed as a result. Instead, all this piece of legislation does is propose the creation of yet another agency, at a cost of $290 million to taxpayers.
Here is the sad part. None of the money would actually be spent on helping Canadians who face accessibility issues on a day-to-day basis. Instead, it would go to hiring more bureaucrats and paying auditors to audit all government buildings and buildings that fall under federal jurisdiction, such as banks, and for more consultations on what the standard regulations for accessibility should be. In my humble opinion, this would be a waste of money. We do not need more consultations to develop regulations. We have those already. As a matter of fact, during our time in government, we spent many millions of dollars making hundreds of federal buildings more accessible. When we put that in the budget, the Liberals voted against it. We were able to do all of these updates and set regulations without the need for yet another multi-million dollar agency to develop another report.
The proposed legislation says that the regulations, after being developed over the next six years, would apply to the Parliament buildings, among other places.
I have a few questions for the minister. As members of Parliament, we all have at least two offices: one in Ottawa and one, although often more, in the riding. Would auditors be auditing our constituency offices to ensure that they comply with these new regulations? If our offices do not comply, who would be responsible for paying for the upgrades?
I know from my own experience that it was extremely difficult to find office space that was both accessible and affordable in many small towns. Our member office budgets would not cover the cost to make an office accessible because of the high dollar amount involved. Simply building a ramp and altering the front door of my office would have cost three years' rent. The landlord could not reasonably be expected to pay for that, and house management would not pay for it.
In addition to our constituency offices, our Parliament buildings were not designed to be disability-friendly. While we as a government have made great strides in fixing that, these buildings were not designed with accessibility issues in mind.
With Centre Block shutting down in a few months for a much-needed 10-plus years' renovation, has the minister made plans to ensure that when this building reopens it will be disability-friendly for not only Canadians when they visit the Parliament buildings, but also the MPs, senators and thousands of people who support this institution? For example, will rounded doorknobs be changed over to lever knobs? What about the bathroom sink faucets and the toilet flushers? What about the many ramps that need to be built? Will they be built to the appropriate 1-to-10 ratio? How about a distinguishable baseboard that would allow someone with a visual impairment to see where the wall and floor meet? Will there be visual and audible warnings for people in the event of emergencies? Right now in my Confederation Building office the fire alarm is an audio-only alarm. That works for me and my staff, but what if I have guests or what about cleaners who cannot hear? What is planned for wheelchair access to the hill? Perhaps more importantly, what plans exist for true emergency evacuation by wheelchair or walker?
I know that while I was the Minister of Public Works, I took all of these things into consideration and required that they be incorporated into the Parliament Hill renovation design plans. Are those features still included? I know that many of those plans have been changed.
Will the minister ensure that Centre Block and the other Parliament buildings will be accessibility-friendly after these once-in-a-century renovations?
As I mentioned earlier, I am also concerned about the jurisdiction under which this bill is being placed. As the bill currently stands, the Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities will be responsible for implementing this bill, yet much of the work will require execution by Public Services and Procurement. I am concerned that as a result of this, the minister will be unable to adequately assess and address the issues as they arise.
While I do support sending this legislation to committee and I do support its intended goal, I have some serious concerns about the need to create a new agency, the amount of funding requested, and how the division of responsibility, authority, and accountability for its implementation will be addressed. I am also concerned that all that this legislation does is essentially reiterate the minister's mandate letter. She has already consulted with Canadians, so instead we should be discussing the regulations, not the creation of another agency.
I look forward to hearing what other members have to say, so that together we can develop legislation that will truly address the very real concerns facing very real Canadians with very real disabilities.