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Canada Disability Benefit Bill

Bill to Amend--Second Reading--Debate Adjourned

February 9, 2023

Hon. Brent Cotter [ + ]

Moved second reading of Bill C-22, An Act to reduce poverty and to support the financial security of persons with disabilities by establishing the Canada disability benefit and making a consequential amendment to the Income Tax Act.

He said: Honourable senators, last October, as Thanksgiving was approaching, I happened to be in my car listening to a radio phone-in show in Saskatoon. People had been asked to call and share what they were thankful for. One woman phoned in and, when asked, she said:

I am thankful because I have enough. Perhaps I could wish for more or have more, but I have enough to live a fulfilling life, and I am grateful for that. I have enough.

I pulled the car over to the curb, and I thought about how beautiful a thought that woman had just shared with me.

Most of us have enough, certainly financially. I don’t know about all of your circumstances, colleagues, but I expect that we all have enough. I do, and I am grateful.

Many in this wondrous, prosperous country do not. Today, as we begin consideration of this bill, I hope you will give thought to a part of our population who disproportionately do not — people with disabilities — and how this bill can help, a lot.

I rise today in support of Bill C-22, the Canada disability benefit act. This is the beginning of a very special journey for the Senate and for all of us in this chamber. As we work toward building an inclusive society in this country, the commitment to meaningful financial support for people with disabilities is a key component of that foundation — the commitment of a generation.

My favourite Gary Larson cartoon — you expected something like this — depicts a school playground. In that school playground is a children’s slide. At the top of the slide, there is a little boy about to slide down. At the bottom of the slide are two spiders who have spun a web across the bottom of the slide. Just as the little boy is about to slide down, one spider says to the other, “If we pull this off, we’ll eat like kings.”

Well, this project will not lead to people with disabilities eating like kings, but my guess is that for the last generation, or maybe even a few years ago, the hope of people with disabilities of an initiative like this probably felt about equal in prospect to those two spiders’.

My remarks today will be divided into five parts. First, I will speak about Bill C-22 as a pillar in the delivery of meaningful change in the lives of people with disabilities in this country. Second, I will speak briefly about what the disability benefit will provide in alleviating working-age poverty for people with disabilities. Third, I will discuss the content of the bill briefly, what it will achieve, time frames and the accountability measures in place to ensure that our government delivers on our collective commitment. The fourth part is a bit about the level of support for the bill, and the fifth is a somewhat personal conclusion.

First, the proposed Canada disability benefit is a cornerstone — perhaps the cornerstone — of Canada’s Disability Inclusion Action Plan. The action plan is a roadmap to create a more inclusive Canada. It has four pillars: employment, so that we can take action to address long-standing barriers in the labour market and workplace; second, accessible and inclusive communities, so we can address barriers that prevent people with disabilities from fully participating in their communities; third, a more modern approach to disability, so that we can address challenges, among other things, in accessing, for people with disabilities, federal programs and benefits; and, fourth, financial security, so that we can reduce poverty and improve financial security for hundreds of thousands of persons with disabilities.

This comprehensive approach — a four-legged stool, so to speak — seeks to address what has been decried by so many for so long: the marginalization of people with disabilities. Many have communicated this eloquently. The renowned actress Emma Thompson said it bluntly. “Being disabled,” she said, “should not mean being disqualified from having access to every aspect of life.”

A basic degree of financial security is not the answer to every aspect of access and inclusion, but without it, access to the basics of life and the chance to experience a fulfilling life is much, much diminished.

I’m sure that we all agree that no Canadian with a disability should be living in poverty. The values that guided past governments of every stripe to reduce poverty and create benefits for seniors and children are the same values that have been used to create the bill before us today. I am talking about equality, fairness and inclusion — Canadian values, values that guide us and define us as a country and bring out the best in us. These values guided the Government of Canada to create benefits for seniors and children, and those same values guide us today in the creation of the Canada disability benefit to help reduce poverty among low-income, working-age Canadians with disabilities.

I note with some pride, as a Canadian, that the bill before us committing the government to a meaningful disability benefit was adopted unanimously in the other place.

One of the great things about this country is that, though we may have our disagreements, even profound ones, about how the country should be governed and by what principles, we come together, as we so often do, to address the circumstances of our most vulnerable citizens. This is such a time.

Honourable senators, another remarkable aspect of this benefit is that it has never been done before. As I understand it, Canada will be the first nation to establish a meaningful income supplement for working-age Canadians with disabilities.

Second, briefly, I will speak about the living circumstances of people with disabilities — the case, essentially, for Bill C-22. Working-age Canadians with disabilities are among the most financially vulnerable of our citizens: 23% live in poverty and, in some cases, severe poverty. This is more than twice the poverty rate for people of that age group. For people with severe disabilities, the poverty rate is 31%. This is, quite frankly, unbelievable and, I think you would agree, unacceptable in a country such as ours. And that was before the COVID pandemic when financial vulnerabilities for so many Canadians became even more acute. According to a Statistics Canada survey last year, two thirds of respondents with disabilities said that they were having trouble making ends meet, and one third of respondents with disabilities said their incomes had dropped because of the pandemic.

Overall, with the implementation of this bill, we will be able to dramatically reduce the number of working-age Canadians living in poverty.

The third part of my speech is about the legislation itself. The bill will create the process by which the Canada disability benefit will be established and implemented. The proposed legislation will provide a legal framework for the benefit and authorize the Governor-in-Council to implement the bill’s benefit designs through regulation. Though brief, the bill has been subject to intense scrutiny by representatives of the disability community and — this is a long title — the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities. That is a mouthful, to be sure; it’s known as HUMA, for short.

In the spirit of “Nothing about us without us,” the disability community has provided extensive advice and commentary to the minister and her department and to the HUMA committee. HUMA held six meetings on the bill, heard from 36 witnesses and received 153 briefs.

I have read all of the testimony at these meetings, and I would say that the discussion was universally spirited and constructive, confirming the strong all-party commitment to this bill.

This scrutiny led to nine amendments, each of which I think strengthened the bill. All were adopted by the other place in its unanimous support for Bill C-22. I want to mention the key themes of the bill and will highlight a number of house amendments as I do.

First, in its preamble, the bill makes a powerful commitment to address the financial circumstances of people with disabilities. Let me read 3 of the 10 paragraphs of the preamble:

Whereas working-age persons with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty than working-age persons without disabilities, because of economic and social exclusion;

Whereas persons with disabilities often face barriers to employment, including work disincentives such as the loss of income and other benefits as a result of becoming employed;

Whereas Canada aspires to be a world leader in the eradication of poverty, and Parliament, with a view to this objective, enacted the Poverty Reduction Act . . . .

You can see the sense of the bill. The bill is then structured, mainly around section 11, to enable the minister to develop regulations to implement the benefit. There is admittedly a limited amount of detail here. The bill identifies the key requirements for these regulations. These are some highlights: the development of eligibility criteria for the benefit; the conditions to be met to receive the benefit; the amount of the benefit; requiring benefits to be indexed to inflation — this was a provision introduced as an amendment at the HUMA committee and adopted unanimously; developing an application process that is without barriers; and a system of reconsiderations, reviews and appeals.

A second amendment to the bill adopted in the other place, and before us as a part of the bill, is the tightening of the focus on the adequacy of the benefit. This amendment added section 11(1.1) to the bill. The provision now reads:

In making regulations under paragraph (1)(c) respecting the amount of a benefit, the Governor in Council must take into consideration the Official Poverty Line as defined in section 2 of the Poverty Reduction Act.

While the legislation could have been more prescriptive and detailed on some of these issues, there is something to be said for doing this work through regulations. It provides a greater degree of flexibility and contributes to the ability to get the disability benefits into the hands of recipients sooner.

Two additional aspects of this issue commend themselves to me, and I hope to you.

First, the bill commits the minister to a timely and highly inclusive process involving the disability community in the development of the regulations implementing the benefit. In the spirit of “nothing without us,” this was another amendment to the bill. The minister’s commitment is that the disability community will be involved in every step of the policy and program development regarding the benefit.

Second, while there is an element of trust embedded in this commitment, there is also a rich reservoir of trust on the matter for which Minister Qualtrough deserves a great deal of credit, and which I hope will be respected by all of us. A sign of that reservoir of trust is that a vast majority of the disability community — I have counted — is comfortable with the structure of the bill before us and strongly supports its passage in its present form.

A third element of the bill is its time frame. What is critical for people with disabilities is the time within which the benefit will be implemented and benefits become available. This is understandable. Every month of delay leaves hundreds of thousands of Canadians in a state of poverty. Too much time has already elapsed, and I hope that you will, for this reason alone, see value in the urgent consideration of the bill.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, or HUMA, heard this message loud and clear, and let me repeat a couple of passages they heard. From Rabia Khedr from Disability Without Poverty:

If we wait for this legislative process to determine all of the details of a perfect benefit, its arrival will be too late . . .

Krista Carr, the Executive Vice-President of Inclusion Canada — a sort of designated disability community leadership asked to work on the financial pillar of a disability — said:

My final plea to you as members of this committee is that if you truly want to make a historic impact on the lives of people with disabilities in this country, and I know you all do, you will do everything in your power to ensure that this bill passes as quickly as possible so that we can get . . . this benefit into the hands of people who desperately need it.

In my own province, Inclusion Saskatchewan has communicated the same message in its support of the bill.

To give effect to this urgency and put the department’s feet to the fire, so to speak, the bill was amended to require a series of reports and deadlines for implementation. There are four key features. First, the bill comes into force no later than one year after it receives Royal Assent. Second, there must be a report to Parliament within six months after coming into force on the commitment to engage with the disability community in the development of regulations. Third, there must be a report back to both houses of Parliament one year after it comes into force. Fourth, after that year, after three years and then every five years, there must be parliamentary reviews.

These provisions will enable Parliament to oversee the bill’s implementation to determine if it is reaching its goal and to change course if needed in the future.

I want to speak briefly about one other important dimension of the disability benefit — one that will present challenges and great opportunity.

As many of you know, the provinces and territories presently provide a range of benefits to people with disabilities. The goal of the disability benefit is to build upon existing benefits to meaningfully enrich people’s lives. For this reason, it will be critical for the federal government to work with provinces and territories — I’m advised that this work is already under way — to ensure that the provinces and territories sustain their commitments to persons with disabilities. In other words, the Canada disability benefit will not result in clawbacks of other existing benefits.

Indeed, with good cooperation, I’m hopeful that well-integrated supports will further enrich the lives of beneficiaries. For greater transparency, agreements with the provinces and territories are required to be made public — another HUMA amendment. To that end, I’ve indicated to the minister that beyond sponsoring the bill, I would be willing to help in any way I can in the dialogue with provinces and territories to facilitate optimal outcomes in the best spirit of federal-provincial-territorial cooperation.

Is there support for the benefit? The answer is that nearly everyone is supportive. First, Canadians in general strongly support the creation of a Canada disability benefit. A 2021 Angus Reid survey reported that nearly 9 out of 10 Canadians are supportive.

Support for the benefit was also expressed in an open letter to the Prime Minister from 200 prominent Canadians, including former parliamentarians. Over fifty senators themselves wrote in support. Academic, business and union leaders, economists, health care professionals and disability advocates have all expressed the same message. As I have noted, the bill passed unanimously at third reading in the other place.

We will give the bill meaningful consideration in this chamber and at committee, but the judgment of elected representatives of Canadians and their collective and unanimous judgment deserves, I think, special consideration.

Canadians with disabilities themselves have made it clear that this pillar — the financial security pillar — is their most urgent and highest priority. That message was conveyed, I’m advised unanimously, in a range of ways: an online survey to which 8,500 people responded; round-table discussions with the disability community and with experts; Indigenous-led consultations on a separate track of consultation; and an online petition signed by nearly 18,000 people that the other place received.

This is hardly surprising when one considers the statistics mentioned earlier. Each one of those statistics is a person with a disability, struggling to cope in really difficult circumstances. There are many everyday costs related to a disability that are not there for others, including housing, medical expenses and disability supports. Of course, it is not just about the money. Poverty takes a ruinous toll on mental health. Hopelessness, exhaustion, anger — these best describe the emotional turmoil of being a person with a disability with seemingly no way of getting out of poverty.

Finally, to make a long story short — I said that in a speech recently, and someone in the audience yelled out, “Too late for that!” If you said it today, you would be right as well.

Many parliamentarians in the other place played a meaningful role in bringing this legislation to us — MPs Bonita Zarrillo and Mike Morrice in particular. I would like to especially acknowledge the work and efforts of the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion in getting us close to the finish line. As Minister Qualtrough said in the other place:

The ultimate goal is to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of persons with disabilities. Disability Inclusion: This is the kind of Canada we are—the kind of Canada we should always do our very best to be.

In closing, I want to take a moment to personalize my remarks. I want you to think about someone you know. We all know someone — a friend, an acquaintance, a family member — with a disability. The struggles they face. The challenges they must overcome, often with your love and support. The strength and perseverance they show just to survive in an often unwelcoming world. My daughter Kelly and her friends come to mind as heroes to me in this respect.

Someone once said, wisely I think, “Sometimes the things we cannot change, end up changing us” — for the better. That is so with my daughter Kelly and so many of her friends. I am grateful for that, as I know to be the case for so many of you in the relationships you have in the world.

In my family, we are fortunate. My daughter won’t need this benefit to manage in the world. She is nevertheless a great champion of what we are doing in the Senate today and in the days ahead. I would not want it, or her, to be any other way. Some anonymous person once said, “I wouldn’t change you for the world, but I would change the world for you.”

Well, in a meaningful way, we have a chance to do just that — to change the world for hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens who really need us. What an opportunity. What an honour.

With that, colleagues, I respectfully ask you to consider and pass this legislation in a timely fashion. Thank you.

Hon. Patricia Bovey [ + ]

Senator, I wonder if you would take a question?

Senator Cotter [ + ]

I would be pleased to, Senator Bovey.

Senator Bovey [ + ]

Thank you for sponsoring this bill. I think it’s a very important one — you and I have talked about some of the issues our Canadian colleagues face.

You mentioned that the federal-provincial agreements are to be made so there won’t be clawbacks. I wonder if you can confirm that, based on the discussions you’ve had with the minister. As you know, I’ve been working with one young person with a contract from my office, and it was to be clawed back by the Manitoba government by two thirds. We managed to extend the contract, so it was only clawed back by one third. I fear that what we’re paying is far from close to a living wage.

I would really appreciate more discussion, if you can, regarding what the ceasing of these clawbacks would be so that the federal funds can really top up their financial situations.

Senator Cotter [ + ]

Thank you for the question, Senator Bovey. I know that you — and many other senators in this place, and members of Parliament in the other place — are often working on an individualized basis to assist people with disabilities in order to minimize their vulnerability and enable them to get ahead in the world.

The messages I hear from the minister and her office are that a — kind of — line in the sand is no clawbacks. As you will know, a lot of this has been delivered through provincial jurisdictions. These will be direct payments to people within federal authority.

A lot of the provincial regimes differ from one another. In some places, the situation you described could exist, but in another province, perhaps, it doesn’t — but something else might create a challenge. The receipt of money triggers other unfortunate moderations and consequences.

I think those will probably end up being negotiated on an individualized, federal-provincial-territorial basis so that the fit achieves the goal of, essentially, no clawbacks — no loss as a result of the generosity of this benefit, which will be significant in dollar terms when it’s put together.

I can’t tell you more in detail, except that there is this — kind of — line-in-the-sand commitment on the part of the federal minister. I’m supportive of that, and, as I’ve said, if there are ways that I can help both the minister and provincial leaders make that fit together, then I’m keen to do it, and I think it will be a success.

I hope it will occur in a really timely way. Your passage of this bill would officially unlock that process.

Thank you.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore [ + ]

Senator Cotter, I have three more senators who want to ask questions. Are you willing to answer questions?

Senator Cotter [ + ]

I’d be pleased to, yes.

Hon. Pat Duncan [ + ]

Thank you, Senator Cotter, for your sponsorship of this bill. I appreciate the intent, as you’ve so eloquently described, and I have full respect for our colleagues in the other place.

Because you mentioned in your speech that you’ve pored over all the documents, the testimony and so on, as well as pored through the bill, my question is as follows: Where in the federal‑provincial-territorial consultations do the Workers’ Compensation Boards, which are independent of government, fit?

I’m thinking of a long-term claimant with something, such as a diagnosis of PTSD, where sometimes you will get the Workers’ Compensation Board saying, “No, you’re fit to return to work, or we’re done; you’ve reached the limit.” Yet a doctor would still diagnose that person with a disability.

Would this be of assistance to them? Is this subject to the clawback? Where does that consultation fit?

Senator Cotter [ + ]

I’m not very knowledgeable on the specifics about the link to workers’ compensation, but I do know that there has been consultation and dialogue with — let me call it — the insurance industry. When you think about workers’ compensation as a form of insurance, where workers and employers pay into it, to try to figure out the intersection there as well — and the minister and her office have advised me that they have identified that, and have been working to ensure that people are not damaged by the benefit where they would get here, and it would not undermine benefits to which they’re legitimately entitled to in other ways.

I will make a further exploration about the workers’ compensation point because I think it’s a very good one.

Senator Duncan [ + ]

Thank you.

Hon. Éric Forest [ + ]

My first words will be to thank you from the bottom of my heart for agreeing to sponsor this bill, which is so important and speaks to our values of solidarity and equity.

My concern is a bit on the periphery of the bill because there are still many things to define, including eligibility criteria and what this eligibility will entail. The devil is often in the details, and I hope that this complementary information will be delivered quickly.

In listening to you, we realize that there are persons with disabilities who benefit greatly from the love and support of the people around them, and you yourself are a living example. However, we know that in Canada, more than 10% of taxpayers don’t even file a tax return. Many of those people are isolated and have disabilities. They are the most vulnerable members of our society.

This may not be germane to the bill, but I really want to know if we will be able to create certain tools in order to identify these people. We are currently unable to reach them because we don’t know who they are. What’s more, they get lost in administrative limbo because they don’t file tax returns, yet they’re the most vulnerable people in our society today.

Senator Cotter [ + ]

Thank you, Senator Forest. It’s a very legitimate question, and an important one.

One provision of the bill provides access to the bill’s implementation and delivery to income tax information, so people who are obtaining tax credits, for example, will be able to be identified. You are right that there is a black hole of people disconnected from government in all kinds of ways, largely through their impoverished circumstances and disability. I think the bill — if it does not fail — will not achieve its objectives unless it can reach out to those people.

What has happened with respect to this bill and the conversations that have been going on for too long, really, in the last couple of years, in particular, is that the disability communities at the national, provincial and local levels are unbelievably engaged with this bill. I hope, perhaps, with support from the government, there is a way in which outreach can be made to those folks so that they will know about the bill. There’s a commitment in here that making application, and the like, is intended to be disability barrier-free, so hopefully it will be possible through that kind of outreach.

Speaking from my own personal experience with Inclusion Saskatchewan, with whom I’ve worked a little bit over the last number of years, it feels to me, in a really lovely way, that they have their fingers on — I don’t want to say every family in Saskatchewan that has someone with a disability, but I think the local communities know, and their commitment to this bill is so powerful that it won’t be a perfect success; yet, I think, it will be a far greater success than one might think, sitting in Ottawa, reflecting about it.

Hon. Percy E. Downe [ + ]

Thank you for your speech, senator. Like you, I support the bill. I think it’s much needed.

I am, however, concerned whenever there’s unanimous legislation from the House of Commons. Unfortunately, I base that on years of experience of what I call their manic behaviour. We had the recent pension bill here that, for years, the House of Commons refused to support and then it’s suddenly unanimous.

As you know, it’s not our job to delay this legislation but to make sure that it’s fundamentally sound in the implementation. I mentioned the Veterans Charter when I was first appointed. The House of Commons spent two and a half minutes in total on the legislation. They sent it to us. We sent it to the Department of Finance; we did not send it to the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee. Who doesn’t want to assist the men and women who serve our country? We passed it only to find out years later from the Parliamentary Budget Officer that it shortchanged our veterans by millions and millions of dollars they would have received if it had not been changed.

So, further to the question recently asked, the Guaranteed Income Supplement is an excellent example of a valid program, but in terms of its implementation — many of us worked on it for years. You had to file income tax or, if you don’t owe any taxes, you don’t have to file income taxes. In my home province, hundreds of low-income seniors were not getting a benefit they were entitled to because they didn’t want to pay somebody $50 to file their income tax when they didn’t have the skill set to do so.

Would you share my concern that, notwithstanding the many people saying to pass this, it’s very important that the Senate committee will do the work the House of Commons committees often do not and make sure we have a superb program, with all the wrinkles out of it, before we pass this legislation?

Senator Cotter [ + ]

I agree entirely with the sentiment you have expressed, Senator Downe. The challenge is to put that together in an organized way.

But in this context, the bill proposes that be done through regulation, so we will not be able to get a very significant parliamentary oversight of that process. It’s intended to be done in as transparent a way as possible, but the construction of it will reside in regulations, I think.

This is my last observation: The result is that we may be comfortable and satisfied — and this is our job — that the markers are right in this bill. I think they’re pretty good. You may identify some that could be better. But it is consciously intended to be a framework. To be frank about it, that places a significant degree of trust in the ministry and the officials to put it together. There’s quite a bit trust that I’m prepared to repose there.

The nice additional thing is the commitment that the disability community will be engaged with that process every step of the way.

Hon. Pierre J. Dalphond [ + ]

Thank you, Senator Cotter, for your very interesting speech.

I read the bill carefully in preparation for your speech. You said one word that struck me. You said that it was a framework to move forward toward something. I also noted that the legislation is scheduled to come into force no more than 12 months after the bill is passed. I noted that the government must report on the consultations six months after the legislation comes into force and that the government must table a report on the proposed regulations in both chambers within one year of the legislation coming into force. That already means a delay of perhaps two years.

In the briefings you had with the department, was there any discussion of a realistic time frame for the first cheques or benefits to reach recipients? I suspect there could be an election within the next two years.

Senator Cotter [ + ]

In one respect, if I may say, Senator Dalphond, the occurrence of an election will be rendered somewhat irrelevant, because the framework will be in place and the department will carry on putting the program together. I hate to use a golf analogy, but I’m a 30 handicap at predicting elections, so I’m happy that it’s off to the side.

The message I keep hearing, which is informal and nobody is prepared to make an absolute commitment, is that it will be possible to do the negotiations and put the regulations in place in 12 months, hopefully. Once that happens, I think benefits can begin to flow.

There will be an application process as the bill is presently constructed, so it does mean that people will have to apply. However, the language people talk about is a 12-month period, and I hope that’s correct; I hope that’s the longest it is.

Senator Downe is right that we have an important job to do. We need to do it in as timely a way as possible, because my feeling is that each month that goes by pushes the time by a month, and that means tens of thousands of Canadians remain in poverty for one more month. It’s really important for them for us to do the best we can do.

Hon. Marty Klyne [ + ]

Senator Cotter, I have to hearken back to the days of COVID and monies going out in CERB payments, top-ups to social assistance and such. There was a significant problem in some provinces and territories where they did claw back on the social income assistance side of things, which was tragic. I want to support this bill. I’d like to see it go to the people who are eligible for it and not to help the provinces and territories balance their books.

One of the problems the last time was that it took a while for someone of authority, whether it was the minister responsible or the Prime Minister himself, to tell the provinces and territories that this is intended for people with a disability and not for any other purpose. It is not for clawing back. They need to get some agreement in that place so that it is not clawed back. Otherwise, we’re going to be providing false hope. Just by citing this bill in consideration, it’s providing hope. Let’s make sure it’s not false hope.

Senator Cotter [ + ]

Thank you, Senator Klyne. I took this out of my speech, so maybe I’ll shove it back in to answer you, if I may.

I worked as a deputy minister in a provincial government for a dozen years, and when Ottawa steps forward and provides support for a program or initiative, it’s a natural consequence that provincial departments look for ways they can generate savings for themselves. Provincial ministries of finance have that expectation. It’s almost like the law of gravity, in a way.

For a bill like this, that seems to be bad faith, if I can put it that way. This initiative is to try to help those who are among the most in need in our country, so I’m fully supportive of the minister’s message. I don’t know every little trick that provinces tend to do, and it’s not exactly illegitimate in general terms; provinces have financial obligations to their people, and rightly so, to us, in our own provincial worlds. In this case, I think it would be dishonourable, and it’s important to minimize, and ideally eliminate, that happening in every respect. To the extent I can be helpful regarding that, I’ve indicated a willingness to talk with people and examine the programs that we can ensure stay in place at the provincial level.

I entirely agree with the modest degree of anxiety you’ve identified.

Would you take another question, Senator Cotter?

Senator Cotter [ + ]

I certainly would, Senator Pate.

As you’re no doubt aware, along with Senator Petitclerc, I was one of the initiators of the letter that went out from 50 senators, in large part because the government was not acting as they had promised and as had been indicated in the previous budget.

I have no doubt in the faith and the intention of the minister in this respect. I do have significant concerns, however. One of the main issues raised by disability groups initially — and then, in my understanding, they were pushed off and, some would say, pressured to be silent — is on the issue of adequacy. Legal experts also say a key issue not in the bill is adequacy.

While there was a Royal Recommendation on adequacy, when that was raised in the other place, it was deemed out of scope. As Senator Downe and others have said, that seems a little odd when the focus is on bringing people out of poverty and, as you’ve indicated, trying to ensure that people with disabilities not only have enough but that they have an opportunity to thrive in this country.

I’m curious about how you see us best able to support this process, given all of these issues, given the many questions you’ve already been asked around clawbacks, adequacy and access. How do you see us addressing that particular issue when it’s very clear that legal experts seem to agree that our failure to include adequacy could be one of the keys? And many courts have said that, unfortunately, we keep asking people with the least to keep dragging the government back to court to enforce actions. What can we do best to ensure that that’s in there, given the limitations on our ability with respect to fiscal challenges?

Senator Cotter [ + ]

Beyond trust, which I have quite a reservoir for with respect to this bill, I accept your point, and I would have been probably happier if an amendment had occurred in the other place that made that a little bit stronger. I think it will still get delivered on.

On the question of it being ruled out of scope, I am again out of my depth. Senator Seidman, who is the critic of the bill, and I have talked about the significance and meaning of that. I think that’s deserving of exploration. I just hope it gets done in a timely way and that the question of whether there is a need for the bill to be strengthened along those lines and how that can be done gets meaningful consideration at committee. I am happy with the bill in its present form, but, of course, that’s a call for all senators to make.

Hon. Diane Bellemare [ + ]

Congratulations on your speech and this bill. This initiative is a credit to you and also to the government. However, my question is the following. Since the bill will be implemented through regulations, how will people with disabilities be assured of receiving a sufficient income? All the bill’s parameters are vague. Why didn’t we decide to create a cost-shared program with the provinces, for example, to ensure that the benefits are adequate?

Senator Cotter [ + ]

I don’t have a complete answer on that, Senator Bellemare. On the question of negotiating shared-cost initiatives, those are complex, as you know. My guess is that there is a time for that. My experience in a provincial government was that there are times when the Government of Canada wants to move — let me say unilaterally — to do a good thing, and direct payments are often a model that is embraced in that respect. There are days in the province when I would have liked a different approach, but this seems to be an attractive and more immediate response.

It does require work to make sure that the provinces don’t take advantage of the initiative, because we are talking about, I don’t know how much, but a lot of money that will make its way to people with disabilities. It will actually infuse provincial economies because people with disabilities are disproportionately in the lower areas of the income status and stratosphere of Canada and they tend to spend the money not on trips to Hawaii or Palm Springs, but to pay for rent and food, to support their families and try to make ends meet. There will be benefits out there, and I think the idea is to try to get them quickly, and shared-cost programs would have been a bit of a challenge.

It’s also a bit more complicated here because it wouldn’t be a greenfield that you would start with, but a situation where the provinces have their own and some disparate — in fact, no two are the same. Each one of those would require a careful and lengthy dialogue. It’s going to be challenging enough as it is.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore [ + ]

Senator Cotter, I have three senators on the second round. Do you wish to ask for five more minutes to answer these questions?

Senator Cotter [ + ]

I’d be happy to ask for five more minutes and I’ll try to provide briefer answers.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore [ + ]

Honourable senators, do we have an agreement for five minutes?

Senator Bovey [ + ]

Thank you, Senator Cotter. I’ll be very brief.

In your speech, when you were going over the bill itself, you talked about the fact that there would be provisions for reconsiderations, reviews and appeals. Were those the right words, and are those in the cases of people being denied the benefit?

Senator Cotter [ + ]

I have just pulled out the language here. The relevant provisions under section 11(1) read, “(h) respecting reviews or reconsiderations of decisions made under this Act;” and “(i) respecting appeals;”

So there’s an expectation that a model of reconsideration will be put in place and also an arrangement for an appeal process.

Senator Downe [ + ]

Thank you, Senator Cotter, for taking so many questions. I think the number of questions is a reflection of the passion senators have to get this legislation absolutely correct.

You talked in response to my earlier question about the framework and the regulations. I think it’s very important and I’m wondering if you share my view that at the committee, that senators on that committee are able to nail down officials from the various government departments on exactly how they intend to proceed.

It has been my experience that the more we have on the record, the more we can pursue after the fact if they’re not doing what they said they would do. Like you, I have a lot of trust that this is going to proceed, but, as accountants like to say, I like to trust and verify and I think that is a way to do that. I hope, given your background, you would be well suited to do that on the committee as well. Are you thinking along those lines as opposed to generic, general questions when it gets to committee?

Senator Cotter [ + ]

I agree with your observations, Senator Downe. I’m really honoured to be connected with this bill in a meaningful way and I want to be as fully participatory as I can and help to see it produce the best result. Thank you.

Senator Klyne [ + ]

I have trust in the minister as well but, again, I have to hearken back to 2022, when the Saskatchewan government clawed back payments from people with disabilities. I think we’ll see a repeat of that unless we have some type of formal agreement before we go forward with this. I don’t want to stall it, I don’t want to see it slowed down, but we need some assurance to make sure that this goes to where it’s intended. I do want to see that happen. If there is anything I can say or do, please call on me.

Senator Cotter [ + ]

I’m desperate not to run out of those five minutes. Senator Black in our Agriculture Committee often puts up his hands to get us to stop, and I was hoping that wouldn’t happen here.

The positive feature of this is that those agreements need to be negotiated and made public. It was a requirement in the bill; it was an amendment. You and I will be able to have a look at those agreements and see whether they are rich enough and strong enough to achieve the goals that you and I are looking for here. It will occur after the bill is passed, but it probably has to be in that fashion. I don’t think we have too many other options, but at least we get a good look to see whether the expectations and the commitments of the minister — and to the extent that I’m making any kind of a commitment, my commitment to you and people with disabilities — will be honoured. We can verify or unverify. Thank you.

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