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Blind cabinet minister promises Canada’s first national accessibility legislation will have teeth, could be retroactive

By Rachel Aiello      

Sport and Disability Minister Carla Qualtrough, a former Paralympian and human rights lawyer, will be introducing Canada's first national accessibility legislation next spring which she hopes will be a game-changer for federal employers and people with disabilities.

Sport and Disability Minister Carla Qualtrough, who is blind, is helping to draft a new bill to address accessibility for people with disabilities. The legislation will apply to all companies that operate under federal jurisdiction, and she hopes it's a game changer. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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PARLIAMENT HILL—“It’s been a very personal experience for me,” says Canada’s Minister of Sport and Disability Carla Qualtrough, taking a seat on the couch in her Hill office with her back facing the window so the sun isn’t in her eyes.

Ms. Qualtrough, a former Paralympian and human rights lawyer who is blind and light sensitive, is now embarking on an unprecedented journey: drafting Canada’s first national accessibility law which will set federal standards of accessibility for people with disabilities.

She said it will be a game-changer for big Canadian employers and could include retroactive compliance measures.

Ms. Qualtrough (Delta, B.C.)—who was born with five per cent of her vision, and has 10 per cent with her glasses on—has lived all her 45 years having to be the one speaking up for herself about the accommodations she needs. She said she hopes this new law will flip the script for people with disabilities.

“It’s been quite a journey; it’s been quite emotional,” she told The Hill Times in an interview last week in her Centre Block office on Parliament Hill, which is decorated with Canadian sports memorabilia and photographs of her and cabinet colleagues.

Currently, addressing accessibility issues is done reactively. People with disabilities can only defend their rights after experiencing inaccessibility, by filing a complaint with either their provincial or federal Human Rights Commission.

More than half of all the discrimination complaints received by the Canadian Human Rights Commission between 2011 and 2015 were disability-related. When she was appointed to cabinet in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) mandated her to pass a Canadians with Disabilities Act.

The legislation will apply to all companies that operate under federal jurisdiction, including banks like the Royal Bank of Canada and the Bank of Montreal; interprovincial travel services like Air Canada and Via Rail; national telecommunications companies like Rogers and Bell; and all federal government employers.

The intent of the bill will be proactive about addressing the common barriers faced, including those in the built environment, like ramps and the height of service counters. Ms. Qualtrough is considering whether to set expectations of compliance within the National Building Code.

Then there’s also the potentially tough sell to businesses that hiring people with disabilities, or setting up space to be accessible, is an investment and not an expense that will bring in the 14 per cent of Canadians, as customers or employees, who have reported they have a disability that limits their daily activities.

“We need to strike a balance between something that will have some teeth, so something that might have some standards that are enforceable, that create these expectations, but also something that promotes the innovation and the culture change,” she said. “It’s got to have teeth, that’s the point of it.”

Right now, Ms. Qualtrough is working with her colleagues on nailing down the basic principles of the bill, like whether it will include the creation of an ombudsman, how it will be enforced, and how to open up the definition of disability so the largest number of Canadians can see themselves and their situations reflected in the law. She says they haven’t settled on a model but are pulling from what has worked and what hasn’t in similar laws internationally and closer to home.

“How prescriptive do we want to be? How aspirational do we want to be? What kinds of enforcement mechanisms exist? Do we want to build our own internal shop within government? Do we want to task an existing external body like the Human Rights Commission? There’s a whole bunch of fundamental decisions that have to be made, which will then lead to the actual wording of the act,” she said.

“There are models out there. It’s just trying to figure out the Canadian solution, and that’s the next phase, that’s what’s keeping me awake at night, trying to get it right,” she said.

It will also have to set up some consistency across Canada between the federal and provincial realms; something the minister said there’s been buy-in for from her regional counterparts, with some provinces having already implemented their own laws, including the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Others are waiting for the federal model to come in before adopting a provincial or territorial model.

“We’ve got to steer this ship in the same direction or it’s just going to be a huge missed opportunity,” said Ms. Qualtrough. “If you have a credit union next to a bank, one is provincial, one is federal, and they don’t want to have a different accessibility experience.”

There’s also consideration being made as to whether the new law will include retroactive measures, meaning numerous federal buildings would have to think about retrofitting its space to meet the new accessibility standards. The minister said this is likely because “if we don’t do something retroactive, we won’t be cracking this nut.”

One unanswered question is who will pay for it, a detail Ms. Qualtrough said is still to be decided.

The Justice Department is taking the lead in drafting the text of the bill, and Ms. Qualtrough is aiming to go to cabinet with the legislative portfolio in the early fall of 2017 and to have a bill ready to table in Parliament by the spring of 2018.

This drafting process comes after months of consultations, which are scheduled to formally end on Tuesday, Feb. 28, and included an online survey, the minister travelling to 18 cities across Canada to hold town halls and consultation meetings, as well as a youth forum in Ottawa in November, in total reaching or hearing from about 5,700 people. The report on what was heard will be released in late May or early June after it’s translated into both official languages, as well as in braille and on video.

At all the stops on the tour Ms. Qualtrough and her staff used accessibility forms, as well as having American Sign Language and other technical supports. She said it was probably the most inclusive consultations ever done in Canada.

‘You can tell when I stand up and my Question Period notes are in a 55 font, that I can’t see very well,’ says Carla Qualtrough. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright.

“For me it was obvious. It was a no-brainer, I don’t think anybody even dared question my desire to make it otherwise, because we had to walk the talk. Embarking on this journey would have been window-dressing if we didn’t provide the people we’re trying to serve every opportunity to be involved,” she said.

She said on many federal files, she’s made sure to be a bit of the stick in the mud, making sure other decisions have a disability lens, much like what the federal Liberals have embraced with gender-based analysis.

“It’s time for it to happen on the disability file,” she said. “What I heard consistently across the country is that there really has been a lack of federal leadership on disability issues writ-large.”

While the opposition parties are signalling support for the new law, NDP disability critic Cheryl Hardcastle (Windsor-Tecumseh, Ont.) has been calling for the government to fully implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities before passing legislation, otherwise it’ll just be a “paper tiger.”

“If you’re serious about legislation, you want it to be monitored and to be held-up. You want someone to be able to appeal. You want it to be able to be enforced, in some way, shape, or form, and that’s what this does,” Ms. Hardcastle told The Hill Times.

Ms. Qualtrough said the responsibility to get this right weighs heavy, mentioning that in the consultation process she’s heard from parents who are worried about their children’s futures, something she takes to heart as a mother of four.

She said she hopes that, in some way, she and Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr (Calgary Centre, Ont.), who is quadriplegic, are setting an example.

“It’s exciting. When you look on the floor of the House of Commons now, there are two people with visible disabilities. You can tell when I stand up and my Question Period notes are in a 55 size font that I can’t see very well,” she said, noting that while Parliament is fairly accessible, there are certain things about her day that most don’t have to think about.

For example: the House speaker will speak to her instead of nodding; at speaking engagements her staff make sure the spotlight and backlight are lowered so the glare doesn’t prevent her from reading her notes; documents and electronic devices are formatted to a larger font; and she’s found new ways to relate to people because it’s rare she can read a name tag or remember the details of faces.

Prior to entering politics in 2015, being elected with 49.1 per cent of the vote in her riding, Ms. Qualtrough worked as a human rights lawyer. She was also a Paralympic swimmer that competed in the Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992 Paralympic Games, winning three bronze medals.

After her athletic competition days were over, she worked on Parliament Hill as a staffer between 1999 and 2005 for Liberal MPs Dennis Mills and Paul DeVillers.

Just announced last week, she’s being inducted into the Canadian Paralympic Hall of Fame in April, a celebration she says her whole family will be coming to Ottawa for.

raiello@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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