A Disability Perspective on the Enduring Legacy of the Late Premier Bill Davis

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update

United for a Barrier-Free Society for All People with Disabilities

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A Disability Perspective on the Enduring Legacy of the Late Premier Bill Davis

August 9, 2021

Ontario collectively mourns the death yesterday of former Ontario Premier William Davis. The politicians and pundits properly recite his many accomplishments over his many years in public life. Among those lasting achievements, it is important to list what he did for Ontarians with disabilities.

Four decades ago, it was entirely lawful to discriminate against people with disabilities in Ontario. It was also constitutional for Canada’s Parliament or a provincial legislature to pass a law or operate a program or policy that discriminated against people with disabilities. The pivotal year when that all changed was 1982, forty years ago next spring.

In 1982, the Ontario Legislature amended the Ontario Human Rights Code to make it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in access to jobs, goods, services, facilities or a place to live. The Ontario Human Rights Commission, a public law enforcement agency, was given both the power and the duty to investigate, mediate and where appropriate, prosecute disability discrimination complaints.

As well, in the spring of 1982, Canada’s Constitution was amended to add the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to it. As a result of disability advocates’ efforts, the Charter of Rights includes a constitutional guarantee of equality to people with disabilities in section 15.

It was Premier Davis’ Government that agreed to add disability protection to the Ontario Human Rights Code. It did so despite a strong backlash along the way from some media outlets and writers, who condemned the entire package of amendments to the Ontario Human Rights Code, of which disability protection was but one part.

Since the Davis Government’s 1982 amendments to the Ontario Human Rights Code, disability claims have been the largest group of any category of human rights claims in Ontario. We went from being totally excluded to being the most numerous of claimants.

The 1982 patriation of the Canadian Constitution replete with a new Charter of Rights was spearheaded by the Federal Government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Critical to that being adopted was the support from the outset from Premier Bill Davis. While many other provincial premiers opposed Trudeau, Davis crossed partisan political barriers to support him on this issue. Without Premier Davis’s support, there very likely would have been no patriated Canadian Constitution with a Charter of Rights.

The guarantees of equality to people with disabilities in the Charter of Rights and the Ontario Human Rights Code are the firm bedrock underpinning the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the grassroots movement that campaigned for its enactment. They also underpin our campaign to get the AODA effectively implemented and enforced.

Did Bill Davis know about his decisive role in laying the foundation for disability accessibility rights in the 21st century in Ontario? We doubt that most of the politicians and pundits that today eulogize Premier Davis know of it. We don’t know if Mr. Davis was himself fully aware of it.

The day-to-day work to get disability added to the Ontario Human Rights Code was undertaken by Davis’s Labour Minister, the late Dr. Robert Elgie. However, Dr. Elgie, whose accomplishments for people with disabilities are honoured in the April 7, 2013 AODA Alliance Update, could not have succeeded without Premier Davis and then-Attorney General Roy McMurtry tirelessly backing him.

Similarly, the battle to get disability into the Charter of Rights, detailed in a captioned online lecture by AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky, was waged in Ottawa at the federal level, not in Toronto at Queen’s Park. It was then-MP and later Senator David Smith who was pressing in the federal back rooms to get the Pierre Trudeau Government to eventually agree to pass the disability amendment to the Charter of Rights. The March 3, 2020 Toronto Star guest column by AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky commemorates David Smith’s contribution to disability rights. His important contribution to our rights, like Dr. Elgie’s, would not have been realized had it not been for Premier Davis, supporting the patriation of Canada’s Constitution with its new Charter of Rights.

Time and again, those who have achieved so much for people with disabilities may not themselves be fully aware of what they have accomplished. As well, the public too often knows far less about this than should be the case.

It is our hope that the picture of Premier Davis’ lasting legacy for Ontarians will be a complete one – one that shows that our ongoing battle for full inclusion in society would be an even harder one had it not been for the leadership that Bill Davis provided. May he rest in peace.