Canada’s Senate To Debate Bill C-81, the proposed Accessible Canada Act – Here’s Our Strategy to Strengthen this Weak Bill

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update

United for a Barrier-Free Society for All People with Disabilities Twitter: @aodaalliance


Canada’s Senate To Debate Bill C-81, the proposed Accessible Canada Act – Here’s Our Strategy to Strengthen this Weak Bill


February 6, 2019




Last fall, Canada’s House of Commons passed Bill C-81, the proposed Accessible Canada Act. It is now headed for debate in Canada’s Senate. We want to bring you up to date on what’s going on, and what to expect in the weeks ahead.


We and many in the disability community were very excited when the Federal Government commendably committed to bring forward national accessibility legislation, and have worked extensively with the Federal Government in an effort to ensure that it is a good law.


However, we are now disappointed that Bill C-81, while well-intentioned, is so weak. It says that it aims to achieve an accessible and barrier-free Canada for people with disabilities. Yet as now written, this bill does not require that a single disability barrier ever be removed or prevented. Good intentions don’t transform a weak law into a strong and effective law.


What does the AODA Alliance plan to do about this? This Update tells you about our strategy and offers you tips on how you can help. Further Updates over the next weeks will fill in more details as events unfold. We’ve been hard at work with a number of organizations in the disability community across Canada, to share our experience and to work towards a coordinated strategy.


In this Update we let you know:


* Why we need the Senate to strengthen Bill C-81.


* What our strategy is at the Senate, and how a bill proceeds at this stage.


* What improvements to Bill C-81 we are seeking.


* Why it would be strategically wrong and would hurt our cause to just settle for Bill C-81 as it now is written, without acting to get the bill improved.


* How we are continuing to work with the Federal Government to try to get Bill C-81 strengthened.


* What you can do to help.


As a good illustration of grassroots feelings about this bill that we have heard time and again, we set out the December 19, 2018 article by Michelle McQuigge of the Canadian Press that ran in the National Post about Bill C-81.


To learn more about the background and history of efforts in this area, visit


As always, send us your feedback. Email us at



          MORE DETAILS


Why Do We Need the Senate to Strengthen Bill C-81?


Bill C-81 that the House of Commons passed last fall and sent to Canada’s Senate is full of good intentions, but is very weak. Here are some of the reasons why:


  1. It’s great that the bill says it aims to achieve an accessible and barrier-free Canada for people with disabilities. However the bill does not require any disability barriers to ever be removed. It doesn’t ensure that any new barriers will be prevented.


  1. It is good that this bill lets the Federal Government pass new enforceable accessibility standards as regulations. These regulations can spell out specific measures that must be taken by organizations that the Federal Government can regulate (like ViaRail, Air Canada or Bell Canada). However, the bill doesn’t require the Federal Government to ever enact any accessibility standards as regulations. If any are passed, the bill doesn’t require these regulations to be strong.


  1. Do you think the Federal Government should allow public money to be used to create new disability barriers? Nothing in the bill ensures that this won’t happen. For example, nothing in the bill ensures that the Federal Government won’t give public money to a hospital, university or public transit system to build new buildings that are replete with disability barriers.


  1. Under this bill, the Government can give itself or other organizations sweeping exemptions from having to obey key parts of the bill.


Last fall, an October 30, 2018 open letter was sent to the Federal Government, calling for 9 amendments to be made to Bill C-81. Fully 95 disability organizations, including the AODA Alliance, have now co-signed that letter so far. The improvements to Bill C-81 that the open letter seeks were supported by many of the disability organizations that made presentations to the House of Commons’ public hearings on Bill C-81 last fall. The reforms to the bill which the open letter requested were not made in the House of Commons.


What Is Our Strategy At the Senate?


We will call on the Senate to make the 9 amendments to Bill C-81 that the open letter requested. As a non-partisan coalition, we are ready to work with all political parties. We will coordinate our efforts with others in the disability community.


To become a law, a bill must be passed in the same wording by both houses of Parliament, the House of Commons and the Senate. For more details on this, check out the AODA Alliance’s introductory guide on how a law gets passed by Canada’s Parliament.


After the House of Commons passes a bill like Bill C-81, it then goes to the Senate. The Senate can approve the bill “as is”, or reject the bill, or amend the bill. The Senate can pass amendments to the bill if it wishes. If it does, then the bill goes back to the House of Commons. It won’t become a law unless the House of Commons approves the Senate’s amendments. If the House of Commons rejects the Senate’s amendments, the bill goes back once again to the Senate. In that case, we understand that the Senate would pass the bill as is, in the terms that the House of Commons passed it.


The Senate will begin debating Bill C-81 on or after February 19, 2019. We understand that the Senate will hold public hearings on the bill, likely in March or April.


We will ask to make a presentation to the Senate hearings, in order to call for amendments that the open letter seeks. Back on October 25, 2018, we made a presentation at the House of Commons public hearings, requesting improvements to the bill along similar lines (though the open letter wasn’t yet written)


A number of other disability organizations also plan to ask to appear before the Senate’s Bill C-81 public hearings, to ask for amendments, including those the open letter identifies. The more individuals and disability organizations that support this effort, the better is our chance of getting the bill strengthened. We have been working hard with other disability organizations to jointly coordinate our collective efforts. An organization that sits this one out would miss this important opportunity to help improve this bill.


What happens next if the Senate makes amendments to Bill C-81? Bill C-81 then goes back to the House of Commons. The House of Commons then has a chance to approve those amendments. We know that most if not all of the opposition parties should support at least some if not all amendments we seek. This is because the federal Conservatives, NDP and Greens all supported some or all of them in the House of Commons last fall. All pressed the Justin Trudeau Government to strengthen Bill C-81.


If the Senate makes the amendments we seek, and sends the bill back to the House of Commons, will the Justin Trudeau Liberals support those amendments when they come back to the House of Commons? Up to now, the federal Liberals didn’t support them. However, if an amended bill returns to the House of Commons later this spring, with a federal election just months away, we and others will try to get the Liberals to support these amendments. The Liberals will not want to go into the fall federal election as the only federal party that refused to strengthen Bill C-81.


No matter what we do, the Senate may not finish with Bill C-81 before Parliament breaks for the fall federal election. Even if the Senate finishes with Bill C-81, it is possible that before Parliament rises for the fall election, the House of Commons might not finish considering any amendments to Bill C-81 that the Senate made.


We have a plan of action in case any of this happens. Our plan is to head into the fall federal election with a non-partisan campaign, building on the disability community’s efforts during the 2015 federal election. We’d ask each federal party to make an election pledge that they would bring back a bill before Parliament after the election — one that includes the ingredients in Bill C-81 and the amendments that the open letter seeks. This is because of the fact that if a bill does not get passed before an election, it must be re-introduced into Parliament after the election, if it is to be considered.


There’s good reason to expect that all parties would be willing to commit in the fall election to bring back Bill C-81 before Parliament after the election, if it has not passed by then. Bill C-81 passed unanimously in the House of Commons just over eight weeks ago. Each national party spoke about the need for national accessibility legislation.


What Core Improvements Are We Asking the Senate to Make to Bill C-81?


Bill C-81 must be strong enough to stand the test of time and effectively serve people with disabilities for many years, as ministers get shuffled into different posts, and as governments change. It is good that the Federal Government made some amendments to the bill last fall when it was before the House of Commons. However, these didn’t eliminate several serious problems with the bill that make it weak.


When we ask the Senate to make all the improvements to Bill C-81 that the Open Letter requests, we will summarize some key points as follows:


  1. It is good that Bill C-81 gives the Federal Government and certain federal agencies powers to take action, make regulations and impose orders to advance the cause of accessibility in Canada. However, with few and limited exceptions, the bill does not impose duties on the Federal Government or those federal agencies to take the needed action, nor does it impose timelines for their having to do so. Therefore, the bill may not result in any accessibility improvements at all, or may only bring about change at a painfully slow pace. It will be hard to hold anyone accountable.


Bill C-81 needs to be amended to set a deadline by when Canada must become accessible to people with disabilities. It needs to impose duties on federal implementation agencies to deploy the key powers Bill C-81 gives them, and to set timelines for the deployment of those powers.


  1. Bill C-81 now splinters the power to make regulations, including mandatory accessibility standards regulations, and the power to enforce this law among up to four federal agencies. This risks confusion, unnecessary complexity, and excessive cost. It will slow and weaken the bill’s implementation and enforcement. We need Bill C-81 amended so that there is “one-stop-shopping.” This splintering should be removed from the bill. People with disabilities should be able to go to one federal agency, the new Accessibility Commissioner, for all enforcement of the bill. All regulations to be made under the bill, including enforceable accessibility standards, should be made by the federal Cabinet.


  1. Bill C-81 now allows federal public money to continue to be used to create or perpetuate disability accessibility barriers. Bill C-81 needs to be amended to ensure that when the Federal Government spends public money, it can never be used to create or perpetuate disability barriers. For example, the bill should require federal accessibility strings to be attached when the Federal Government spends or transfers public money for infrastructure projects, when it procures (purchases or rents) goods or services, or when it grants or lends public money to other public or private organizations e.g. for business development projects.


Why Not Just Settle for Bill C-81 As It Is?


Why shouldn’t we just accept Bill C-81 as it is? No law is perfect. Why shouldn’t we just get it enacted and then try to work with it? Isn’t it better than nothing? Are we risking losing everything by trying to get this bill improved? Isn’t it hopeless to try to get the Federal Government to agree to improve this bill now?


That is not our strategy, for very good, time-tested  reasons that are based on many years of experience in the trenches, advocating for laws in this area. We have learned that the best way to ensure that we don’t make any further progress is to give up trying. Until a bill gets the last vote it needs to become a law, there is always an opportunity to get it improved. Our tenacity is our strength.


We have been told time and again that this or that goal is impossible, or is hopelessly uphill. That has never stopped us. Our track record of winning new laws , and of winning improvements to existing laws and policies, has proven our approach to be correct.


We have extensive real-world experience working with weak legislation that does not require any disability barriers to be removed and that does not require any enforceable accessibility standards to be enacted.  We have lots of experience with Governments that make encouraging and ambitious promises about what that law will achieve. We have seen how such laws remain weak after they are enacted. If a Government won’t offer stronger concrete provisions before a law is enacted, it is typically unwilling to do any more than that after the law is enacted.


We have little if anything meaningful to lose by our strategy, and everything to gain. Bill C-81 is so weak, that any improvement to it can only help. The best time to press for improvements like this is when a federal election is only months away. That is when politicians feel most compelled to listen.


Some others may choose to sit this round out. That of course, is their right. It is, however, important not to take action that would undermine the efforts by so many of us to now try to get this bill strengthened before it is passed. To simply accept and applaud this bill as it is would impede the efforts of so many who are working to strengthen it.


Are We Working with the Federal Government On Bill C-81?


When it comes to issues like Bill C-81, we don’t just criticize or go to the media. In our usual non-partisan spirit, we also work hard on coming up with constructive solutions. We have worked extensively with the Federal Government and the opposition parties on the proposed Accessible Canada Act. This has included:


* working to secure election commitments in 2015 from the federal parties.


* After the 2015 federal election, advising the Federal Government on how to conduct an inclusive and accessible public consultation on the proposed Accessible Canada Act.


* Well before Bill C-81 was introduced in Parliament, providing an extensive presentation to senior Government officials on what is needed in the Accessible Canada Act.


* In 2016, circulating a detailed (over 30 pages) Discussion Paper on what the promised Accessible Canada Act should include, after getting feedback on it from the grassroots.


* Giving senior federal officials numerous briefings on what is needed in the Accessible Canada Act, and once Bill C-81 was introduced, briefings on our concerns with the bill.


* Providing direct briefings to the successive federal ministers that have been responsible for the Accessible Canada Act over the past four years, and for their policy staff assigned to this issue.


* Developing a detailed brief (over 100) pages for the House of Commons on the amendments needed to Bill C-81. We were delighted that so many from the disability community endorsed our brief.


* On October 25, 2018, giving a detailed presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities on amendments needed to Bill C-81.


* Briefing a number of individual Members of Parliament and Senators and their staff on key problems with Bill C-81 that require amendments.


* Working with a wide range of different voices in the disability community to focus all our efforts on key amendments to Bill C-81.


*  We have told the Federal Government that we are open to discussing the possibility of arriving at a package of amendments to Bill C-81 for the Senate that the Federal Government could support, and that could speed up the Parliamentary process while making the bill stronger than it now is.


What You Can Do to Help


We urge one and all to contact any Senators. Point them to the open letter on Bill C-81, and urge them to support amendments that the Open Letter seeks.


Please ask to appear before the Senate committee when it holds public hearings on Bill C-81. We will let you know which committee that will be, once we hear.


We urge you to contact any community disability organizations and organizations that serve people with disabilities in your community. Urge them to support the effort to get the Senate to strengthen Bill C-81.


National Post December 19, 2018


Originally posted at Advocates say Accessible Canada Act is too weak to be effective


Steve Estey, the Human Rights Officer for Disabled Peoples International, an international NGO, based in Canada which focuses on the human rights of people with disabilities, poses for a photo in Halifax on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018.Andrew Vaughan / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canadian Press

Michelle McQuigge


The cautious optimism that prevailed in Canada’s disabled community when the federal government tabled historic accessibility legislation earlier this year has given way to widespread concern that the law won’t lead to meaningful change.


Major disability organizations, grassroots advocacy groups and disabled individuals said they’ve raised numerous concerns about the power and scope of the Accessible Canada Act, which the Liberal government first introduced in June.


They said the government has largely ignored those concerns as the bill worked its way through debate in the House of Commons and are now calling on the Senate to introduce amendments that they say would make the bill more effective.


One the main concerns they raise is the fact that Bill C 81 does not contain timelines to ensure accessibility, contrary to similar provincial legislation on the books in three provinces.


They also criticize the bill for allowing the government to create accessibility measures without requiring it to actually enact them, spreading enforcement over numerous government agencies and failing to recognize sign language as an official language of deaf people.


Gabrielle Peters, a wheelchair user in Vancouver, said the surge of hope she felt when the bill first came before Parliament has morphed into disappointment and worry based largely on the document’s vague language.


“They want to be able to say that they have an accessible act, but they don’t really want to play an active role in creating an accessible country,” Peters said.


The Accessible Canada Act states that its goal is to “identify, remove and prevent” accessibility barriers in areas that fall under federal jurisdiction. These include built environments, federally run programs and services, banking, telecommunications and transportation that crosses provincial lines.


The government pledged $290 million over six years towards implementing the act, which will see Ottawa appoint an accessibility commissioner and create an organization tasked with developing accessibility standards for relevant areas.


When the bill was tabled, Peters said she hoped the government could change the conversation around disability issues by signalling that they form a national priority. The government’s choice of language throughout the legislation, however, has played a major role in sowing doubts.


The bill repeatedly uses “may” rather than “shall” when describing government actions, meaning the government is empowered to take actions but never required to follow through on them. The bill also gives the government broad powers to exempt organizations, including itself, from accessibility measures that are put in place.


Peters’ concerns are echoed in an open letter penned by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and signed by an additional 92 advocates from coast to coast. Signatories range from local service providers and self-advocacy groups to national organizations such as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, National Network for Mental Health and March of Dimes Canada.


The letter highlights a total of nine issues that it called on the government to address.


Chief among them was the absence of overarching timelines in the act. Comparable provincial legislation in Ontario indicates the province must achieve full accessibility by 2025. Legislators in Nova Scotia initially left timelines out of the provincial accessibility bill but eventually included them after lobbying from the province’s disabled community.


Timelines are no guarantee of progress, said Steve Estey of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, but they provide key accountability measures.


“While there’s ample evidence that these deadlines are challenges, and there are challenges attached to meeting them, those challenges are the embodiment of accessibility legislation,” said Estey, who was deafened later in life. “To simply set aside these timelines really is problematic.”


Estey also critiqued the government’s broad exemption powers, citing an example from parliamentary hearings in which airport operators argued small facilities should not be forced to comply with new accessibility standards.


Such exemptions, Estey said, would undercut the purpose of the bill.


“If one can only fly to and from large airports, how is this creating the culture of access that the bill envisions,” he said.


The letter also urges the government to designate both American and Quebec Sign Language as official languages for the deaf.


Failing to do so actively bars deaf people from basic civic and social interactions, said Frank Folino, president of the Canadian Association of the Deaf.


Lack of sign language prevents him from fully taking in political debates, reading government communications in emergency situations, or having equal access to airport staff when travelling within Canada or abroad, he said.


Granting official language status, he said, would address those barriers while also allowing deaf people equal access to the court system.


“Deaf Canadians are entitled to the same rights as any other Canadians,” he said in a written interview.


Carla Qualtrough, the federal accessibility minister, said adding sign language to Canada’s official languages would require complex amendments to the Constitution that are beyond the scope of the Accessible Canada Act.


She said timelines were left out because accessibility standards are continually evolving, adding the focus was on starting immediate conversations around accessibility rather than mandating when they may come to an end.


Qualtrough described the bill as “enabling legislation” which requires “permissive language” in order to be most flexible. She said 74 amendments proposed during parliamentary hearings were eventually adopted.


Advocates, however, said primary concerns they voiced went largely unaddressed despite having support from all three opposition parties.


They said they’re looking to the Senate to strengthen the bill, but Qualtrough said the legislation in its current form already represents significant progress.


“Everybody recognizes that this is a massive step forward,” she said. “People have views on how much further we should have taken it, and they’re entitled to those, but I am holding my head up high around what great law this will be and how fundamentally this is a game-changer for the disability community.”


The very flexibility Qualtrough touts as an asset strikes Peters as its greatest weakness.


“We exclude people in this country,” she said. “We exclude people by design, we exclude people by our policies, and this legislation is failing to prevent that.”