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Canada Disability Benefit Bill

Bill to Amend--Second Reading--Debate Continued

February 16, 2023

Honourable senators, there can be no doubt that there is an urgent need to reduce poverty for Canadians with disabilities.

Like probably most of us in this chamber, many people in our families and circles — people we know and love — could directly benefit from this bill. Unfortunately, in its current form, this bill promises the world but falls short when it comes to delivering. We are told it is supposed to lift people with disabilities out of poverty, but as written, it may never lift any people with disabilities out of those depths.

The government is rushing to pass a bill that could, regrettably, amount to little more than a promising name. While Bill C-22 has been animated by good intentions, especially a desire to offer Canadians living with disabilities a lifeline, dignity and a path to financial stability, it includes no tangible financial benefits. Bill C-22 sets no minimum dollar amount. Without a threshold benefit amount, the material support offered through this bill could amount to as little as $1 per month or nothing at all.

The Canada disability benefit will not be delivered to anyone, let alone those who most need it, until the government passes a series of regulations detailing the benefit amount and eligibility criteria. Worse still, there is no requirement to ensure the necessary regulations be enacted before the bill is technically operational.

The result? Bill C-22 does not ensure a Canada disability benefit at all. It sets no deadline for the commencement of payment of a benefit. It also disqualifies almost one third of people with disabilities in Canada from receiving it solely because of their age, no matter how poor they are. The dimensions of disability poverty do not end at the age of 65, but as written, this bill does not recognize the compounding effects and corresponding needs associated with disability, poverty and aging.

What is the reality? Bill C-22 allows the federal cabinet to decide in secret all the specifics, including the amount and even if and when a benefit will start to be paid to whomever ends up qualifying. What would, therefore, stop this or any future cabinet from gutting it with an equally non-transparent vote behind closed doors? This bill asks, perhaps unfairly, for tremendous amounts of trust from some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged people in our communities.

A concern to many of us, the minister herself included, is the prospect of clawbacks of any benefits to people receiving provincial or territorial disability supports. The government has not ensured that provincial and territorial coffers are not privileged over the needs and well-being of people with disabilities.

Similar concerns abound regarding the failure to prevent insurance company shareholders from experiencing windfalls via clawbacks or set-offs of any disability support monies an individual might receive as a result of insurance benefits. Without a prohibition on deductions or set-offs by private insurance providers, provinces or territories, targeted beneficiaries of the Canada disability benefit may receive no supplemental benefit at all or may even receive less than they currently do, a situation that would undermine the very purpose of the new federal program.

As Senator Cotter and others have acknowledged, rather than achieve its goal of reducing poverty for persons with disabilities, the Canada disability benefit could contribute to provincial coffers and increased profits for private insurance providers and no doubt without a corresponding drop in the costs of insurance premiums. Taxpayers could thus end up indirectly and unintentionally supporting private insurance providers or enhance provincial coffers.

People with disabilities are being told that they must trust the minister, trust the government and trust public officials. So many are desperate and have been clearly induced to believe that if they don’t accept this version of the bill, despite its ongoing inadequacies, they will receive nothing. They risk getting nothing or risk trusting the government process and still possibly getting nothing.

In what universe could anyone consider this kind of ultimatum a choice? They’ve been encouraged to trust that the government’s promises are adequate and that they will somehow pay their rent and fill their fridges.

It is happening. It is heartbreaking to see the desperation that we are creating when we could do so much better.

As several commentators have pointed out, the framing of the legislation in this way makes the basis of the bill one of charity rather than grounding it in fundamental human rights.

I love Minister Qualtrough and trust her intentions, but it’s been three years since the government promised this benefit. It is for good reason that many people with disabilities are raising alarms and calling upon us to not just leave them to hope and trust.

Canadians with disabilities are desperate. As Senator Coyle underscored, here in Ontario, a single person who qualifies for the Ontario Disability Support Program, or ODSP, receives a maximum of $1,228 per month. This is not enough money to live a life of dignity when the average price of rent in Canada — and certainly in this city — surpasses that by hundreds of dollars. While able-bodied, middle-class Canadians struggle to cover the costs of food and housing, Canadians with disabilities are worse off still.

Advocates and individuals with disabilities have reported that without sufficient resources to build a life worth living, some are opting not to. Evidence continues to mount that many reliant on disability benefits are forced into an inescapable poverty. As we are also hearing, a lack of options and adequate social, economic and health support can be deadly. Horrifically, long-term and seemingly inescapable poverty has been cited as a primary reason for some individuals to seek access to medical assistance in dying.

Bill C-22 follows a well-worn pattern of governments offering ill-considered, precarious solutions that fail to meet the needs of those who are the most vulnerable in our communities.

We’ve heard time and again the tired adage that we cannot make perfect the enemy of good or that we cannot wait for the perfect bill. I agree, no bill will ever be perfect. The question, however, is not whether the Senate can make this a perfect bill; the question is whether the Senate can build on the work in the other place and make this bill better, one that gives people with disabilities some rights and where they are not left to hope and trust alone. We have effectively created such disabling conditions for so many people that they may choose to die because of poverty and a systemic lack of care, and because access to basic necessities like adequate housing and food are so challenging to come by that it is impossible to live. This is a shameful and preventable reality.

Canadians with disabilities are in urgent need of support. Just this morning we were urged by experts during the All-Party Anti-Poverty Caucus to do this right. We have the information, expertise and resources necessary to fix this bill. We can choose to learn from the ongoing failures of provincial and territorial disability benefit programs. We can choose to fulfill our mandate and represent the interests of those who are too often marginalized and ignored.

As we senators reminded the government when we wrote to nudge the implementation of this benefit, if in the end the disability benefit fails to even meet the official poverty line, the government, by choosing to leave people in poverty, will not only fail to meet our human rights obligations, but Canada will fail to meet the obligation in section 36(1)(c) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to provide “. . . essential public services of reasonable quality . . . .”

As written, Bill C-22 is a one-size-fits-all model that will likely assist the middle class but neglect the poorest Canadians with disabilities. As Senator Seidman pointed out when she spoke, many disability groups have generously provided a few clear ways to avoid this unintended outcome.

First, they urge us to ensure that Bill C-22 incorporates national guidelines that require a minimum level of funding for all beneficiaries. Second, they recommend that it be amended to prevent needless administrative barriers such as complicated application processes that force beneficiaries to prove periodically that they remain disabled. They also want the bill to include a complaint or appeals process to investigate and redress unfair refusals, denials or clawbacks. Their final recommendation is that the bill require the federal government to immediately disburse the Canada disability benefit to all who qualify predicated on requisite requirements of provincial or territorial governments to not then claw back provincial benefits, regardless of the status of other provincial or territorial agreements.

Without a doubt, we know Minister Qualtrough is an advocate for people with disabilities. However, she is one MP and one member of cabinet, and for whatever reason, she was not able to remedy the deficits in this bill.

Bill C-22 is well intentioned, but people with disabilities in Canada who live in poverty deserve better; they deserve security.

In my view, if we only have this one shot, let’s take the care to ensure that this bill gets it right. We have the responsibility to do so, and I know, dear colleagues, that we can do it. So as Senator Seidman urged us yesterday, let’s do our job.

Meegwetch, thank you.

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