Elizabeth May on Bill C-81

Elizabeth May, Member of Parliament for Saanich—Gulf Islands:

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise in this place to speak to Bill C-81.

I think this bill is a good first step, but we should do more to make Canada a truly barrier-free nation.

The bill is a good first step. I do not think there is any disability group across Canada or any people concerned with the rights of all Canadians to full access of all the benefits of citizenship that would disagree that no one should be denied access to benefits based on physical limitations. That is clear. Canada has long since signed and ratified in 2006, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but we still need to do much more.

As I said, I do not think any group has seen this legislation and condemned it. No group has said anything other than that this is welcome. Groups welcome the efforts of the current government to bring in legislation that would lead us to a country that is barrier-free.

I particularly want to commend the member for Haldimand—Norfolk for her observations on a situation that occurred to me as well, and that is what it is like to have physical limitations and how it opens our eyes. In both her case and mine, they were temporary.

I waited a long time for a hip replacement on two occasions. I became much more aware of the number of times I went into a building and realized there was no elevator. I did not think I could get myself up those stairs because it hurt too much. The awareness of what it was like to get over curbs, to get up staircases. These moments of awareness need to be carried through by us.

I feel blessed that the hip replacements worked, so my physical limitations were temporary. However, it really woke me up to how many barriers existed in our society that were invisible to those who had full sight, hearing and the physical ability to handle staircases and curbs. The limitations are severe and they need to be removed.

We know a number of provinces have passed legislation to ensure real accessibility, but only Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, so obviously not across the country. We know this federal legislation will apply to places within federal jurisdictions, federal buildings, federal sphere of activities. However, there are criticisms and I want to go over them briefly.

We have heard a number of them through debate since Bill C-81 came to the House. I should make it clear that I will vote for the bill at this stage. I want it to get to committee where I hope we can make significant changes.

This is the first thing that needs to be said, and I raised this already in questions. As I went through the legislation, I was surprised at the language of the goal in the purpose of the act, section 5. It states:

The purpose of this Act is to benefit all persons, especially persons with disabilities, through the progressive realization, within the purview of matters coming within the legislative authority of Parliament, of a Canada without barriers…

We find the same language in the mandate of the the Canadian accessibility standards organization, to contribute to the progressive realization of a Canada without barriers. We can go through and find the accessibility commissioners are also working toward progressive realization.

I was so interested in the language. As someone who studied legislative interpretation at law school, I have read every bill that has gone through this place since I became an MP seven years ago. I have never seen any bill where the goal is progressive realization of something. I double-checked by searching the legislative record, which we can now do much more easily than reading every bill. This is the first time any piece of legislation in Canada has set a goal of “progressive realization” of anything.

We usually, in legislation, set goals that are limited by timelines, within x number of years of the bill coming into force, that sort of thing. Progressive realization speaks to the underlying framework of this legislation, which is that it does not demand that Canada achieve a time without barriers by a specific time, even within the federal purview, and that is clearly a weakness.

It is discretionary at many other points. I mentioned earlier today in debate that the Governor in Council, which, for those watching who might not recognize the term, means cabinet, at section 4 of this act “may, by order, designate a member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada as the Minister for the purposes of this Act.” I cannot imagine, having created an act that is discretionary and says we are going to have a timeline into the future where we are working in progressive realization of our goal, why on earth it is not required that cabinet appoint a minister to be in charge. Other speakers have already noted that the minister who tabled this legislation is not the minister who worked on the legislation, and so on. We really should, in committee, be able to address some of the discretionary elements and ensure that cabinet must appoint a minister from within the existing cabinet to have responsibility for carriage of this legislation. It is nonsensical to leave that part discretionary.

A number of the groups dealing with this issue of accessibility and looking at this legislation have made note of some other things, and certainly the discretionary nature and the lack of timelines has been repeated by many. In looking at the legislation, I thought as well that it is much better, in looking at a goal for all of government, that there be accountability with one agency. In this legislation, for instance, the rights of accessibility to transport are handled through the Canadian Transportation Agency, whereas the rights to access to telecommunications, radio and TV is left with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

I want to read a quote into the record by disability advocate and lawyer David Lepofsky. I certainly leaned on his advice and will be doing so as I am preparing amendments for Bill C-81. He said, “That kind of splintered approach”, by which I just referred to different agencies having responsibility, “to implementation and enforcement is a formula for confusion, delay, duplication and ineffectiveness. We would rather have it all under one roof.” So would I. It would be much more effective if it were all under one roof, with one agency being accountable.

There is another element that has come up for discussion since the bill was tabled, and that is access to languages, particularly sign languages, the right to recognize that sign languages are languages and, in the national context, must be protected as official languages. Recently, there was a demonstration in Ottawa about the concerns that sign language in English and French as well as indigenous sign languages, be recognized as languages, as part of a national language. This is a concern that was expressed by a nationwide rally that occurred not that long ago and it is one that I share. I want to go on the record as supporting that American sign language, langue des signes du Québec and indigenous sign languages be understood to be official languages. One cannot have full accessibility if one cannot read, find and hear the information due to physical limitations.

Our embracing of the United Nations declaration on the rights of people with disabilities must be at least as strong. Of course, there are other United Nations declarations, such as on the rights of indigenous persons, on which we have the same concern. We can endorse these United Nations declarations, but when it comes home to implementation in Canada, we must be serious about ensuring that our goals are not in the far distance. Therefore, progressive realization is not language I want to see in this legislation at royal assent. What I hope we will all see, and we can negotiate it, is that within four years, five years, six years of royal assent given to this legislation a barrier-free Canada must exist and all peoples of Canada must be able to access, as citizens, all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.
Linda Lapointe, Member of Parliament for Rivière-des-Mille-Îles:

Mr. Speaker, it was a pleasure to listen to my colleague’s speech on this bill.

Our government is working to improve accessibility in all areas under federal jurisdiction so that all Canadians, regardless of their abilities and disabilities, can participate in Canadian society.

I would like to know if my colleague plans to support the bill.
Elizabeth May, Member of Parliament for Saanich—Gulf Islands:

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for her question.

I clearly stated that I would vote in favour of sending the bill to committee, where I very much hope improvements can be made to the timelines and discretionary matters that need clarification.

At first reading, this bill seems rather anemic, but I know the government is trying, and I thank it for that.
John Brassard, Member of Parliament for Barrie—Innisfil:

Mr. Speaker, one of the issues we hear is that of the timeline on this piece of legislation. If there is nothing mandated, it effectively pushes the timeline down the road. There is no consistency. There is certainly no time frame within which many of the proposals in the legislation are to be implemented. The hope is that we can get this to committee and work among the committee to try to narrow that down. I wonder if that is a concern of the hon. member as well.

Elizabeth May, Member of Parliament for Saanich—Gulf Islands:

Mr. Speaker, I could not agree more. There has been a strong degree of non-partisan concern from all members of this place in the debates on Bill C-81, whether Conservative, Liberal, New Democrat or Green. There is a hope that we will see the legislation improved in committee, and it is with that spirit that I will vote for the legislation at second reading and hope that we can see more precision.

As I said, I know the language “progressive realization” is found in some United Nations language, but I submit to this House that progressive realization of a goal is not a terminology that belongs in Canadian law. If they are serious about doing something, they give it timelines, they state goals, and they create accountability. Otherwise, it becomes a legislative effort in empty promises and dreamy hope but without the kind of rigour that brings change through legislation.
Sheri Benson, Member of Parliament for Saskatoon West:

Mr. Speaker, I have learned a lot today from members on all sides of the House. I want to concur with my hon. colleague’s statement that there appears to be a lot of consensus that this bill is important, but also a lot of consensus that this bill needs to be open to amendments at committee.

There is one thing I want to put forward for my colleague, just to hear her thoughts. I do not pretend to know all the ins and outs of the legislation, but could we not, inside Bill C-81, include some type of timeline for Canada to actually bring in line our laws and policies with the declaration for the rights of persons with disabilities that we signed so many years ago? It has come to my attention that this could be one thing we could put in the bill to work toward.

Elizabeth May, Member of Parliament for Saanich—Gulf Islands:

Mr. Speaker, clearly, timelines make sense in this legislation, and we do not have them now. To quote again the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, it pointed out that to meet this goal of progressive realization within the purview of matters coming under the legislative authority of Parliament, one new ramp per year somewhere in Canada would entirely fulfill that insufficient goal.

I do not think the government nor the minister who brought this legislation forward would be satisfied with such an insufficient outcome. I can almost imagine in the legislative drafting someone saying, “It will cost too much if we actually mean what we say; let’s make it really fuzzy”. I think the minister carrying the file does not want fuzzy hope. She wants to really deliver for people who have physical challenges, as she does. She is a remarkable tribute to overcoming physical limitations to do all that she has done.

The way to ensure the legislation delivers is to put in timelines, such as: all federal buildings must be fully accessible by day x, or as the member for Haldimand—Norfolk brought up, we should ensure that all riding offices of members of Parliament are fully accessible. We can put timelines on these things, and we can break them apart so that one agency does not feel that it is going to be bankrupted by the effort. Surely, we can do better than progressive realization of a goal that could recede into 2150 without breaking a single clause.

John Aldag, Member of Parliament for Cloverdale—Langley City:

Mr. Speaker, I was in the House last week when the minister responsible for Bill C-81 introduced the legislation. As someone who has spent my career in the federal public service, I was really pleased to see that the legislation called for the federal workforce to become more representative of the Canadian population by including persons with disabilities, and different abilities, within the workforce.

I was also really pleased to hear about the funding that would be available to make improvements for accessibility across federal assets. I know the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands has a place within her riding very near and dear to me, the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Perhaps the member could speak to some of the great benefits we would see at Gulf Islands National Park Reserve arising from Bill C-81, because I think it would help workforce and visitors to that area to have inclusive experiences. I would like to hear the member’s thoughts on how this legislation might benefit her own backyard.

Elizabeth May, Member of Parliament for Saanich—Gulf Islands:

Mr. Speaker, I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate my friend from Cloverdale—Langley City on his election as chair of the environment committee. This is something I hope for, and maybe I am premature. In any case, there will be change in the chairmanship of that committee.

My own backyard is a spectacular backyard. I live in one of the most beautiful parts of Canada. The Gulf Islands National Park is a challenge for accessibility, even for those who are fully physically able, with all our abilities to walk, and yet much of the Gulf Islands National Park requires being on a boat. When we consider physical limitations, we want to make sure every Canadian has access to experiences, such as being able to watch whales from shore. One of the best places for watch whaling, as the hon. member knows, is on Saturna Island, where one does not have to be in a boat, at risk of harassing the whales. They more or less come to us and we can experience them very close up. Fortunately, BC Ferries has accessibility in mind. Many of the ferry routes are accessible. There are many ways in which Gulf Islands National Park and all national parks could improve accessibility, given the goals of Bill C-81.

I agree with him. There is tremendous potential here. I would love to see it realized with timelines.