Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology’s thirty-fourth report on Bill C-81, An Act to ensure a barrier-free Canada.
Our committee studied this piece of legislation extensively and heard testimony from 20 advocacy groups and umbrella organizations. These included the Federal Accessibility Legislation Alliance, a network comprised of 85 organizations; the Canadian Association of the Deaf; Barrier Free Canada, advocates for accessibility legislation; AGE-Well, Canada’s technology and aging network; March of Dimes Canada, an organization that offers a wide range of programs and services to persons with disabilities; the Canadian National Institute for the Blind; the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, a national human rights organization of people with disabilities; Confédération des organismes de personnes handicapées du Québec; and the Canadian Human Rights Commission, all who bring representation of Canada’s disability communities.
Although virtually all of the testimony we heard called on us to pass this bill with a degree of urgency, without exception witnesses expressed concerns about certain omissions they asked us to address. While the reflected desire for this legislation was strong, the desire to improve it was even stronger.
After much deliberation and discussion, our committee adopted 11 amendments. Today, I rise to speak to two of these amendments in particular that were raised with consistency throughout our committee hearings.
First, the amendment that addresses the issue of timelines. What we heard from many advocacy groups is that timelines are an essential accountability measure and are necessary if we are to achieve the purpose of this legislation. For example, Ms. Donna Jodhan, the President of Barrier-Free Canada, said during her testimony on May 1:
Bill C-81 requires timelines. Timelines are essential to ensure that key accessibility measures are taken. Timelines are also required so that progress on accessibility can be measured. In particular, we support recommendations for the bill to include a timeline for achieving a Canada without barriers and timelines with which accessibility standards are developed and enacted by law.
As another example, Ms. Zinnia Batliwalla, the National Manager, Government Relations and Advocacy for March of Dimes Canada, said during her testimony on April 11:
To enable organizations like ours to measure progress and urge change, timelines allow us to better work with our government partners to ensure we are actively moving toward an accessible and inclusive Canada.
Steven Estey, the Government and Community Relations Officer for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, said during his testimony on April 10:
Bill C-81 is silent on those timelines. That concerns us, not because we feel there is a lack of good intention, not because we feel that officials don’t want to move forward, but because five or ten years down the road, we can begin to have meetings. If there is no backstop or wall against which we can say the time has come, people can say, “We’re working very hard. We’re doing good things.” There is no way to say that we’re going to get there by a certain time. We are concerned about that.
The former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Honourable David Onley, who has been long involved in developing Ontario’s accessibility legislation, made an interesting point. He said that if we make only one amendment to this legislation, it must be around timelines. During his testimony on May 1, the Honourable Mr. Onley stated:
I was part of the discussions at the very beginning in 2005 and the first chair of the minister’s advisory committee on the implementation of the act. I, along with most of the members of the first advisory committee, felt that moral suasion and goodwill would be sufficient to achieve the objectives . . . .
Having listened, as I mentioned, to hundreds of people from across the province and taken submissions via email and in person, my views changed. I now believe quite firmly that the only way we’re going to achieve true and full accessibility is for the various standards and objectives to have a definable date in place and a government that is willing to enforce the implementation of these measures.
This is the type of consistent testimony that led the committee to support the date of January 1, 2040, for Canada to become barrier-free. This will give the federal government and the obliged federally regulated entities 21 years to take the necessary steps to reach their accessibility requirements, a time frame that is neither too far nor too near. It was said to be one that is realistic and will be seen in our lifetimes.
However, we also made an amendment to ensure that accessibility measures would not be delayed or postponed but enacted as soon as possible. In fact, we added a new clause to the bill, clause 5.2, which states:
Nothing in this Act, including its purpose of the realization of a Canada without barriers, should be construed as requiring or authorizing any delay in the removal or implementation of measures to prevent new barriers as soon as is reasonably possible.
The other amendment I would like to address is the recognition of sign languages as the language of the deaf community. Many organizations that represent Canada’s deaf community spoke about the importance for Bill C-81 to recognize sign languages as a way to ensure that deaf persons have equal access to information, communication, employment, government services, transportation and other federally regulated sectors.
As an example, Bill Adair, the Executive Director of the Federal Accessibility Legislation Alliance, said during his testimony on April 10:
. . . we want Bill C-81 to recognize ASL and LSQ as the languages of people who are deaf in Canada. We are not asking for official language status. We are asking that sign languages be included as an integral part of Bill C-81.
This is why. If it were not for the use of signing here today, any person in this room who is deaf would not be privy to my remarks and to the discussions that will follow. This is true of all public hearings. Indeed, the very name implies that these meetings are for those who can hear.
More importantly, if catastrophe were to suddenly strike us, a person who is deaf would not have access to potentially life-saving information. This was the case recently in Pearson Airport when a fire broke out.
Please ensure that ASL and LSQ are written right into Bill C-81 so that there is an expectation for federally regulated entities to provide resources and newsworthy information in sign languages.
Frank Folino, President of the Canadian Association of the Deaf, said during his testimony on May 1:
We commend the Government of Canada and the minister for introducing Bill C-81, which is an important and positive step toward becoming an accessible Canada. However, an integral part of Bill C-81 will achieve its purposes of a barrier-free Canada with legal recognition of ASL and LSQ as the languages of deaf people because this does make a tremendous difference for deaf Canadians, through accessibility, information, communications and services.
Our committee learned about the deaf culture, one which has its own defining characteristics and includes sign languages, cultural norms, historical traditions and heritage. For all of us, this new understanding was very significant and led us to amend the bill to recognize the important role that sign languages play in the lives of Canada’s deaf community.
Honourable colleagues, I am extremely proud of the collaboration of our committee members. We have weighed and considered very carefully the passionate testimony we heard from the disability communities. Although the needs of the disability communities are broad and unique, we believe we were able to focus on a few clear amendments that will add value to Bill C-81 without endangering its passage. Through our work, we are convinced that we have both reaffirmed our commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and made a meaningful piece of legislation even better in response to overwhelmingly consistent requests from the disability communities to the benefit of all Canadians.
Honourable colleagues, I hope that you will support the report of our Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee on Bill C-81. Thank you.