Senate’s Standing Committee Passes Amendments to Strengthen the Weak Bill C-81, the Proposed Accessible Canada Act – Now It’s Time for the Full Senate and House of Commons to Pass All Those Amendments

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update

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

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Senate’s Standing Committee Passes Amendments to Strengthen the Weak Bill C-81, the Proposed Accessible Canada Act – Now It’s Time for the Full Senate and House of Commons to Pass All Those Amendments

May 2, 2019

          SUMMARY

Today the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs passed a short list of amendments to Bill C-81, with the aim of strengthening it. The Senate must next vote to pass Bill C-81 on Third Reading, and then send the amended bill back to the House of Commons.

The House of Commons then gets to decide if it will approve these amendments. We call on the Senate to quickly pass the amended bill on Third Reading. We then call on the House of Commons to quickly schedule a vote and approve these amendments. We will comment more fully on the amendments after we get their exact wording and can study them. From what we observed during the web-streamed Committee discussion, the amendments are helpful improvements, but do not cover all the concerns with the bill that we raised with the Senate.

          MORE DETAILS

During a 2.5-hour meeting on the morning of May 2, 2019 that was streamed live on the internet and that the AODA Alliance live-tweeted, the Senate’s Standing Committee on Social Affairs passed a short list of amendments to the weak Bill C-81, the proposed Accessible Canada Act. The bill now goes back to the full Senate for Third Reading debate and vote. We understand the Senate is set to hold its final vote on the bill on or before May 16, 2019.

We don’t yet have the precise wording of the Standing Committee’s amendments to study. We therefore cannot comment fully on them. We have written the Clerk of the Standing Committee to ask for the text of the amendments. We know that the Committee passed only some of the short list of amendments that we requested.

From what we could glean from observing the Committee debates, the amendments have improved the bill to some extent by addressing some of the serious concerns that we and many others have raised. Any improvement is welcomed.

We know that the Senate passed a helpful series of amendments to the bill that sets a 2040 deadline for Canada to become accessible to five million people with disabilities, and that this deadline does not and cannot justify any delay in working on achieving this goal. This is an important and welcome improvement to the bill. Before these amendments, the bill set no end date or time line for achieving accessibility. Many witnesses before the Senate’s Standing Committee this spring, and before the House of Commons Standing Committee last fall, pointed out that a deadline like this is vital. The specific 2040 deadline was proposed by the AODA Alliance. It was strongly endorsed during the hearings last night by former Ontario Lieutenant Governor David Onley. He invoked his experience conducting the most recent mandatory Independent Review of the implementation and enforcement of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

Speaking for the Federal Government, Disabilities Minister Carla Qualtrough earlier had strongly resisted setting any such deadline in this bill. The Senate’s Standing Committee heard her on this issue, carefully questioned her, explored this issue with many witnesses, and formed its own judgment. The Senate is the place where such issues are supposed to get “sober second thought.” That is exactly what happened here.

We also know that the Standing Committee passed an amendment that, at least to some extent, weakened the harmful and unjustified power of the Canadian Transportation Agency to pass regulations that cut back on the human rights of passengers with disabilities. We cannot fully assess that amendment until we get its exact wording. The Standing Committee amended the harmful s. 172 of the bill. We had wanted s. 172 to be completely repealed.

We were heartened that Senator Donna Dasko, among others, was set to propose an amendment that would have repealed s. 172. However, before she could, the Government’s sponsor of the bill, Senator Jim Munson, brought forward an amendment that would retain but weaken s. 172. Clearly, the Federal Government had crafted the wording that he presented. Once we can study its wording, we can and will say more about it. When he advanced this amendment, he said he was doing so in response to concerns raised by the AODA Alliance and the ARCH Disability Law Centre.

In addition to awaiting the text of all amendments that were passed, we also await the text of the “observations” that the Standing Committee will attach to the bill. A Senate Standing Committee can attach editorial comments or suggestions to a bill outside the text of the bill itself. These can, for example, call on the Federal Government to take certain actions or to report back to the Senate within a specific time line, on a matter that the Committee spells out.

It is important for the Senate to very quickly pass this bill as amended and to send it back to the House of Commons. We will now launch a strong campaign to get all parties in the House of Commons to quickly schedule a vote on these amendments and to pass them all. Our focus is especially on the federal Liberals, who had resisted amendments like these last fall. On the eve of a federal election, they won’t want to find themselves in the unpalatable position of voting against the rights of people with disabilities.

We also will now focus attention on the opposition parties in the House of Commons. It is good that they supported amendments to strengthen this bill last fall (at the request of the AODA Alliance and numerous other disability organizations), even when the Federal Government was not on side. We want those opposition parties to support the Senate Standing Committee’s amendments now. We also want the opposition parties to agree to an early debate and vote on Bill C-81 once it returns to the House. We know that with an election looming, the parties at times get into scheduling squabbles regarding bills. We don’t want Bill C-81 to get caught up in or impeded by that process.

The federal Disabilities Minister often said that this bill was meant to embody the principle: “Nothing about us without us.” Senator Chantal Petitclerc, Chair of the Standing Committee, concluded the committee’s debates by noting that these amendments are the embodiment of that principle, because they are the result of feedback that the Standing Committee received from disability organizations and advocates. We call on the Federal Government to adhere to the principle of “Nothing about us without us,” by agreeing now that it will pass all the amendments that the Senate Standing Committee passed today.

Today’s events show that tenacity by people with disabilities and their advocates pays off. Anything that strengthens accessibility legislation helps us along that journey. For us, this is just one important step along our long journey. We’re ready for what lies ahead.

We are indebted to the Senators and their staff members who invested so much time in their review of this bill. This was our first experience with the Senate. Our Senators have to plow through bills on many complex topics, along short time lines, without the full policy resources that the Government and the political parties have at their disposal. We thank all the Senators who took time to take our phone calls, answer our emails, review our written submissions, listen to our April 11, 2019 evidence, and support amendments as a result.

As always, we welcome your feedback. Email us at: aodafeedback@gmail.com

To watch the captioned video of AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky’s opening statement at the Senate Standing Committee on April 11, 2019 (10 minutes), visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FERCAljHbrw&feature=em-uploademail

To watch a captioned video of the portion of the Senate Standing Committee’s question-and-answer after that opening statement, where the AODA Alliance answers questions directed to us (26 minutes), visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dr0fCtB_cyw&feature=em-uploademail

You can read the specific amendments we asked the Senate to make to Bill C-81, and the short brief we submitted in support of those amendments, and our most recent (and even shorter) supplemental brief. You can also visit the AODA Alliance website, Canada page to see in one place all our efforts over the past four years to campaign for the enactment of a strong and effective national accessibility law.