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Canada Disability Benefit Bill

Bill to Amend--Third Reading

May 18, 2023

Colleagues, as I mentioned yesterday, consulting with disability communities is not the same as guaranteeing, in legislation, the protections they advocate. During her testimony at the Social Affairs Committee, Margaret Eaton, National Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Mental Health Association, clearly articulated that while the CMHA applauds the creation of Bill C-22:

. . . we also have some real concerns with the legislation because many crucial aspects of the benefit will be implemented by regulations and not by legislation. Regulations can be vulnerable to shifting political priorities, and if it’s not legislated, it means that future governments can make unilateral changes without requiring parliamentary oversight.

Precisely to avoid leaving the substance of this bill to be determined by the regulatory process, the CMHA emphasized that key recommendations made by the disability community should be “. . . baked into the legislation. . . .”

The pressure to pass Bill C-22 quickly was pitted against the importance of ensuring it was fit for purpose. This irreconcilable framing reflects a very real and urgent need to address and redress the disproportionate and shameful poverty rates for people with disabilities in this country. Shouldering this tension, many of the groups urging us to work quickly have also acknowledged the urgent need for amendments and regulation design to Bill C-22. Too many people with disabilities are in desperate straits.

As I said in committee and as I’ve discussed with disability advocates directly, as someone whose life’s work has been in collaboration and coalition with many of these individuals and groups, I recognize the pressure and responsibility they experienced. When I was in their position, I frequently heard, “This is the best we can get. If you push for more, you’ll likely get nothing. We’re running out of time. We have to get re‑elected, and then we can do more.”

And best of all: “Trust us.”

Today, however, I’m no longer in the challenging position of a non-governmental advocate offering only one option. Here, with all of you, honourable colleagues, we share the responsibility of scrutinizing the adequacy of the measures Bill C-22 offers and the opportunity to propose a more fulsome response. That’s the spirit in which I fully support the amendments adopted at committee; I’m so pleased that so many of you have also indicated your support, and I urge us to follow the implementation of the legislation and continue to push for further necessary improvements.

In particular, as the Social Affairs Committee, or SOCI, heard from Linda Bartram, First Vice-President, Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, this bill:

. . . leaves out a complete sector of a community of persons with disabilities in that it is restricted to working-age persons with disabilities and excludes, presumably, seniors.

The alliance emphasized that the unemployment rate for blind persons is 75%. They are forced to subsist on Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement alone once they turn 65. Their impact analysis showed that these individuals are subsisting well below the poverty line.

In Ontario, for example, a single person who qualifies for the Ontario Disability Support Program receives a maximum of $1,228 per month. This is well below the official poverty line, and from 2002 to 2021, the supports of an unattached single person with a disability decreased, plunging those with disabilities 18 percentage points deeper below the poverty line.

Friends, in most provinces, the majority of people in receipt of social assistance are persons with disabilities. This bill, now with amendments, has the potential to change that and take a huge step toward the elimination of poverty in Canada.

Minister Qualtrough heralded Bill C-22 as a once-in-a-generation legislation. I agree with her. If we only get one chance in our careers to do this, we must get it right. All the more so given our roles and responsibilities as senators.

As committee discussions here and in the other place underscored, adequacy must be enshrined as a fundamental principle of Bill C-22 in order to ensure that the Canada disability benefit provides the necessary supports for all people with disabilities to live with dignity. If the government is planning to fulfill this promise, then why not provide for adequacy upfront? Why ignore this deficit?

Together, we can fulfill our mandate to represent the interests of and address the issues faced by the most dispossessed, the most economically disadvantaged, individually marginalized and historically ignored.

Human rights and equality litigation experts have identified that, as it was introduced as originally written, Bill C-22 would assist middle-class folks with disabilities. It could also be a windfall to provinces that, as many did with pandemic benefits, may feed their coffers by clawing back provincial benefits in response while leaving those with the least to languish. Without national guidelines with respect to adequacy, the poorest will likely not just continue to be neglected but, worse yet, be plunged ever deeper into poverty.

As evidence mounts that increasing numbers of those without adequate economic, social and health resources to live in the community are considering end-of-life options preferable to the desperation and despair of deep poverty, this issue is made even more urgent.

Disability groups have demonstrated that they are ready and eager to play their part in the meaningful co-creation of regulations to realize the Canada disability benefit.

It is now time for us to ensure the framework proposed by Bill C-22 is strong enough to support its ambitions and that the burdens of any flaw in the legislation will not be borne by disability communities.

Our colleagues have done impressive work at committee. I hope we soon see unanimous concurrence from the other place so those who need this benefit the most finally have access to supports that allow them to live with dignity and choice. We can and we must do this. The time for heartfelt intentions that deliberately ignore the needs and interests of the most marginalized has passed.

It is time to do our job and make the Canada disability benefit just that.

Meegwetch, thank you.

Hon. Marilou McPhedran [ + ]

I rise to speak briefly in support of every amendment to this bill. I have been asked to bring you a brief message from disability rights experts and some of the community leaders who testified at the Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee. They ask you to support Bill C-22, as amended, and in so doing stand up for ensuring that no private insurance company can claw back the Canada disability benefit from impoverished people with disabilities.

Let me offer a different perspective than that of Senator Cotter on this amendment, sharing with you the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a provision in the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act that prohibited private insurance companies as a term of their contracts from certain actions. This amendment to this bill is a similar limitation.

Please also bear in mind that private insurance companies in their contracts and plans state that they can set off any government benefit, and that regulations to this act could not change that. The protection of Canada disability benefits reaching intended recipients must be in the statute. This is key to the amendment made to this bill by a majority of the members of the Social Affairs Committee.

Allow me to offer another reassuring example.

Enacted more than 40 years ago, the Merchant Seamen Compensation Act has a section very similar to what our committee added to Bill C-22. This provision in the Merchant Seamen Compensation Act has protected recipients of the compensation from private insurance set-offs or clawbacks for decades without legal challenge.

It may also be helpful to share with you this clear interpretation of federal authority from Canada’s dean of constitutional law, the late Professor Peter Hogg:

. . . the federal Parliament may spend or lend its funds to any government or institution or individual it chooses, for any purpose it chooses; and that it may attach to any grant or loan any conditions it chooses, including conditions it could not directly legislate.

Disability rights experts are asking you to adopt Bill C-22 as amended and, in doing so, stand up for cabinet having a reasonable timeline set for passing the regulations that are needed to get the Canada disability benefit to impoverished people with disabilities.

Stand up for the right to appeal that is now in this bill, and take note of the fact that the amendment secures appeal options in the two most crucial areas of decision making: eligibility and amount.

While also noting that Senator Cotter’s concern is addressed by the fact that this amendment in no way constrains development of regulations in consultation with disability rights advocates that could expand the appeal categories.

Stand up for ensuring that cabinet must take into account the additional costs of living with a disability and the intersectional needs of disadvantaged groups when setting the amount of the Canada disability benefit.

Honourable colleagues, senators have demonstrated they know the significance of the Canada disability benefit and have worked hard to be thorough and efficient. It was promised by the government in 2020, but introduced in the other place almost two years later, and then not called again for debate for more than three months. Consideration in committee was more focused and timely. The bill passed third reading on February 2 of this year.

In all, Bill C-22 spent eight months in the other place. In contrast, the Senate has conducted its own comprehensive study, including more days of second reading debate and almost double the amount of committee study time in little more than three months. The Senate has clearly responded to the pleas for urgent action. Today, we can ensure that this bill is returned to the other place, made stronger and clearer with amendments.

Honourable senators, please vote today to approve Bill C-22 with the high impact, least intrusive amendments in the report to you from the Social Affairs Committee based on substantial supporting evidence from experts in the field of disability rights.

I wish to close with appreciation to Minister Qualtrough for her dedication and skill as a disability rights expert and parliamentarian; to Senator Cotter for his dedicated sponsorship; to Senator Seidman for her thoughtful contributions as the official critic of this bill; to Senator Ratna Omidvar, Chair of the Social Affairs Committee, for her deft navigational guidance; to expert assistance from Senate and Library of Parliament staff; and, of course, to members of the Social Affairs Committee but, most of all, to every witness and individual who communicated with senators on this crucial legislative initiative that we are now given the honour and responsibility of returning as a strengthened bill to the other place, where all parties have expressed their support for the urgent need for Bill C-22 to proceed.

Thank you. Meegwetch.

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

Are senators ready for the question?

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

(Motion agreed to and bill, as amended, read third time and passed.)

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