Canada’s Minister for Sport and Persons with Disabilities

Hon. Carla Qualtrough is Canada’s Minister for Sport and Persons with Disabilities. That may seem an odd combination for a federal cabinet portfolio, but in this case, it makes eminent sense. Minister Qualtrough is not only a medal-winning Paralympian, she is also a person with a disability – she is vision impaired. On top of that, she is also a lawyer with a background in human rights.

When it comes to this country’s direction in relation to human rights and the rights of persons with disabilities, we thought it appropriate to provide the text of two speeches made by Minister Qualtrough earlier this year. If we weigh the content and direction of these two speeches against the content and direction of the CGSB’s draft service dog standard, we think there is ample reason to hope that the standards will not proceed as presented and as reproduced elsewhere on this blog.

Speech 1: Minister Qualtrough at Queen’s University Equity Conference

January 28, 2017 – Kingston, Ontario

Hello everyone.

It is truly a pleasure to be here today.

I’d like to begin by recognizing Indigenous Canadians and acknowledging that we are on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee First Nations people.

I’d also like to thank the organizers for inviting me to this very first Queen’s Equity Conference.

Since taking on the role as Canada’s first ever Minister responsible for Persons with Disabilities, I’ve been reminded and truly inspired by young people – like you – who are determined to take action and make a real change when it comes to equity within our society.

Before I got into politics, I was a human rights lawyer. And as a person with a disability who has dedicated my professional legal career to the areas of human rights and employment law – I can tell you that conversations like the one we’re having today are essential.

When we improve human rights for a specific group of people, all Canadians benefit. It strengthens our society. It promotes equity.

Improving accessibility is no exception. When we work together to build a Canada that is inclusive of persons with disabilities, all Canadians will benefit.

When our Prime Minister talks about how Canada is “strong not in spite of our differences but because of them” – this includes persons with disabilities.

Equity and inclusion

In Canada, as you probably know, we have a very robust human rights system. When someone is denied a job, denied housing, or denied a service, we have very strong anti-discrimination laws.

But the current system is for the most part reactive. People have to wait until they are discriminated against before we can help them.  And to compound matters, we rely on individuals to pursue systemic complaints. These efforts can be exhausting, expensive, and I think you would agree, unfairly burdensome.

You may not be aware, but half of all complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission are on the basis of disability. This is quite extraordinary if you think of the myriad of other grounds – such as race, religion, sexual orientation, gender.

Put simply, Canadians with disabilities continue to be systemically denied opportunities for inclusion.

In other words, Canadians with disabilities are not being treated equitably.

Being treated equitably doesn’t mean treating people the exact same.  And it doesn’t mean creating services and structures that work for most people and then trying to make them fit for everyone else after the fact.

Equity is about ensuring everyone is included from the start – everyone is considered from the start – everyone, regardless of any one specific personal characteristic, can fully participate in society.

Accessibility from the start

As I move forward with my mandate, my top priority is to ensure that all Canadians with disabilities are included and have equal access in from the start.

For me – it’s about shifting the conversation from one of needs and inabilities to one of economic, civic and social participation – or full citizenship.

It’s about recognizing that we as a society have to move beyond the conversation of the duty to accommodate to a conversation about inclusion.

Now don’t get me wrong, the concept of duty to accommodate is fundamental and essential to our human right regime.

But we need to do more – we need to improve a system characterized by retrofitting and afterthought – to create a system characterized by inclusion, access, and full participation.

As citizens – as Canadian citizens – the 14% of the population that has some form of disability deserves nothing less.

We need to set our expectations high for the kind of Canada we want – a Canada that is truly inclusive of everyone.

Filling a legislative gap

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tasked me with taking the necessary steps to shift this conversation and to improve our system.

We began this journey over a year ago – as we set about to consult Canadians from coast to coast to coast on accessibility legislation aimed at addressing the limitations of our human rights system – of filling a legislative gap.

At its core, this new law will aim to do two things:

First, we want it to increase the inclusion and participation of all Canadians in society.

Second, we want it to promote equality of opportunity by removing barriers in areas of federal jurisdiction.

The underlying objective is crystal clear – to create an accessible and inclusive Canada.

If we do it right, when it’s done, we will be able to help curtail some of the current discrimination, while demonstrating federal leadership on improving the lives of persons with disabilities.

We have gone on a bit of a road show to hear from Canadians about what this law should look like.

In June of last year we launched an ambitious public consultation process, that has taken us across the country, meeting with Canadians and stakeholders to talk about what an accessible Canada means to them – and we’ve done it in the most accessible way we can, with simultaneous sign language and live captioning available.

We have held roundtables on areas of specific federal jurisdiction and on specific topics, such as procurement and customer service.

In November, along with Prime Minister Trudeau, I hosted a one-day national Youth Forum with young Canadians with disabilities and those involved with accessibility issues. This gave young people a chance to share their ideas on accessibility, to showcase their accomplishments and to inspire others.

We have also consulted with our provincial and territorial colleagues, with Indigenous groups, and with business leaders.

We have looked at international best practices, and have the benefit of learning from other jurisdictions both here in Canada and abroad, who have enacted their own accessibility legislation.

Valuable insight from Canadians

Canadians have come forth in the thousands to participate and to share their own views of what an accessible Canada looks like.

I have gained valuable insight into the broad array of barriers being faced.

I’ve heard about physical and architectural barriers that impede people’s ability to move freely in built environments, use public transportation, access information or use common technology.

I’ve heard about myths, attitudes, beliefs and misconceptions about what people with disabilities can and cannot do.

I’ve heard about outdated policies and practices.

Time and time again, Canadians with disabilities have told me the same thing:

We are not an afterthought.

We are citizens deserving of the same rights, and having the same responsibilities, as other citizens.

We are capable and valuable members of society.

We don’t want to be looked at as people who need “accommodation”, and we don’t want to be treated like some sort of burden…

We want to be included!

This is the conversation shift that I was talking about earlier….

I can tell you that the momentum has continued to grow.

Across the country, I have been inspired by the passion and innovation of the people who showed up at our consultations. People have expressed their concerns and brought forth their ideas.

It was frank.  It was thoughtful.  It was direct.

And for me – it has created a real sense of urgency – a sense that we are at a pivotal moment in history.

We have a chance to make history.

The next step is to take what we have heard and put it into a law. Whatever form this law ultimately takes, my goal is to create a series of expectations or standards for employers, service providers, program deliverers and businesses that fall under federal jurisdiction. We will aim to remove barriers so that Canadians with disabilities will be included and full participants in society.

2016: A milestone year

With this conversation and consultation as the backdrop, we have been busy taking other steps to make Canada more accessible and inclusive.

I am proud to say that 2016 was a milestone year for Canada when it comes to accessibility.

Let me give you some examples….

At the federal level, we acceded to the international Marrakesh Treaty, permitting the making of large-print books; reducing the restrictions on exporting accessible materials; and helping to protect the commercial market for materials in accessible formats.  This is a major step forward for the more than 800,000 Canadians living with a visual impairment and approximately 3 million Canadians that are print-disabled.

With the CRTC, we launched Video Relay Service in Canada which enhances the ability of people whose first language is American Sign Language or Langue des signes québécoise to participate fully in Canada’s communication system, and in Canadian society more broadly.

And last month, we began the process toward consideration of accession to the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Protocol aims to strengthen the implementation and monitoring of the UN Convention.

And in Budget 2016, we announced an additional $4 million over two years for the Enabling Accessibility Fund to help fund construction and renovations to improve accessibility and safety for persons with disabilities in Canadian communities. This is in addition to the 13.65 million per year the program already provides towards projects that enable greater safety and accessibility of Canadian communities and workplaces. Just last week, I announced the launch of some of these important projects.

In addition to these initiatives, we are working behind the scenes to create a more systematic approach to accessibility in government decision-making – to put an accessibility lens on policies, programs and services of the federal government.  We are also working to make the federal public service a model of inclusive employment.

These and other steps are necessary precursors to the success of our accessibility legislation.

Shifting the way we think as we move forward

But the biggest shift will come when the conversation permanently shifts.

When we fundamentally change the way we think and talk about disability and accessibility.

When we act equitably and fully include every Canadian with a disability.

I believe that we have started the journey towards this culture change.

I’m calling on all of you, as you go forward in your lives, at work and in your communities, as you continue to have discussion on equity with your fellow students … I’m calling on you to be part of this culture change.

I challenge you to think differently about accessibility issues.

Because when we talk about accessibility for people with disabilities, what we’re really talking about is creating an inclusive society where all Canadians have an equal opportunity to succeed, and are equal participants.

That is what an accessible Canada is all about.

Together, we can make it happen.

Speech 2: Minister Qualtrough at Realizing Rights 2017 Conference Human Rights and Constitutionalism

June 8, 2017 – Ottawa, Ontario

Good afternoon, everyone,

Thank you, Professor Malhotra, for that kind introduction.

I am sincerely pleased to be with all of you today.  Thank you for giving me this great opportunity to join you at your conference.

Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge that we are on the traditional territory of the Algonquin peoples.

This year’s conference theme of Human Rights and Constitutionalism is very fitting.

When we speak of human rights and constitutionalism, one of the most informed persons on this matter in Canada is Mr. Roger Tassé, the father of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And as many of you probably may know, Mr. Tassé passed away just recently. I’d like to take a moment to pay tribute to this great man who changed Canada’s human rights landscape for the better.

Mr. Tassé had a long career in federal politics, which included representing the government in Meech Lake and Charlottetown accord talks.

In 1980, Mr. Tassé led a team of Justice Ministry lawyers tasked with helping political leaders reach an agreement on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And in 1982, the Charter declared physical or mental disability as a prohibited ground of discrimination. This was the first time that such a right was guaranteed in the Constitution of a country.

As we look back during Canada’s 150th on all that we have accomplished when it comes to Canadians with disabilities, we have many milestones to be proud of:

  • The Canadian Human Rights Act was passed in 1977.
  • The Employment Equity Act was introduced in 1986.
  • Since 1988, the Canadian Transportation Agency has had a mandate to protect the right of people with disabilities to an accessible transportation network.
  • In 1994, Gary Malkowski became Canada’s—in fact North America’s—first elected deaf parliamentarian, and the first deaf parliamentarian in the world to address a legislature in a signed language.
  • In 2007, Canada was one of the first countries to sign the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Canada ratified in 2010. And of course, last year we began the process of accession to the Optional Protocol.

In 2015, I had the honour of becoming Canada’s first-ever federal Minister responsible for Persons with Disabilities. As a Canadian with a disability, I am very proud.

I could go on because there are more achievements I could mention.

But while it is true that important progress has been made, and is being made, to advance the rights of Canadians with disabilities, the history of how we have treated these citizens is not a proud one. Ours is a history of compulsory sterilization, lobotomies, forced institutionalization, abuse and neglect amongst other things. We have stripped people of their rights, and taken them away from their families. We have sent the clear message that we are people who need to be fixed, that our needs are expensive and burdensome, and that we just have to accept that it will cost too much to include us.

I have met many Canadians who still live with the memories of these traumas.

As you all know, disability in Canada has historically been seen through a medical model of seeing individuals as “objects” of charity, medical treatment and social protection.

My mandate from the Prime Minister to ensure greater accessibility for and inclusion of Canadians with disabilities means fundamentally shifting this paradigm as a matter of public policy. To one of full citizenship where Canadians with disabilities are recognized as full, contributing members of Canadian society with rights and obligations, fully capable of economic, social and civic participation.

Today, almost 14% of Canadians aged 15 or older report having a disability that limits daily activities. This number will only increase as our population ages.

Forty-nine percent of persons with disabilities aged 25 to 65 are employed vs. 79% of the general population. Additionally, persons with disabilities earn 44% less in total income than the general population. This needs to change.

Everyone in this room knows that we have very strong anti-discrimination laws in Canada—laws interpreted by tribunals and courts to afford Canadians with disabilities a broad scope of protections.

Historically, I would suggest that advances both big and small in disability issues and rights have been made primarily through our human rights mechanisms and the courts.

The gratitude we owe the people and the organizations that have tirelessly pursued these cases is significant.

I’m thinking about people like Donna Jodhan, who successfully pursued a case against the Government of Canada regarding the inaccessibility of its websites.

There is also Peter Hughes and the Canadian Human Rights Commission, who won their case against Elections Canada regarding the inaccessibility of a polling station.

As difficult and time-consuming as they were, cases like these established pivotal jurisprudence and paved the way for others.

There is no doubt that Canadians with disabilities and their families fought hard for their rights to be recognized. And thanks to their efforts and the efforts of those within our judicial system, Canada has made progress.

But what if we took a more proactive approach to accessibility and inclusion of Canadians with a disability?

While robust, our human rights mechanisms are for the most part reactive. We have to wait until someone is discriminated against. Someone has to be denied a job, denied housing, denied a service…you get the idea.

How long did Donna Jodhan have to fight to be able to create change within the Government of Canada’s process?

Imagine an act of law that could proactively set expectations for employers, businesses, policy-makers and program deliverers—including the federal government. A law that established accessibility standards across all areas of federal jurisdiction. A law that could address systemic issues. A law that acknowledged our obligations under the UN CRPD. A law with robust enforcement and compliance mechanisms.

We know that more than half of the complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission are on the ground of disability. Would this change?

Well, we’re going to find out….

Since I was appointed Minister, my primary focus has been to work on new federal accessibility legislation that will help address discrimination before it even happens.

I believe that we have an amazing opportunity to change the course of Canadian history with this legislation.

In the summer of 2016, we launched what would become the largest and most accessible Government of Canada consultation on disability issues ever. We held public sessions in 16 cities across the country, as well as 10 expert roundtables on areas specific to federal jurisdiction.

We engaged with over 6000 Canadians and community partners either in person or online to hear about what an accessible Canada means to them—and we did it in the most accessible way possible to ensure that everyone was able to participate and have their say in what this legislation could look like.

Last week was National AccessAbility Week. We released a report which is available online on what we learned, which will inform the development of the legislation.

Participants showed a lot of hope and excitement for new accessibility legislation that would improve the quality of life for Canadians with disabilities.

Regardless of age, gender or where they lived, Canadians were clear on one thing: It is not acceptable for Canadians with disabilities to be excluded from any aspect of life. I heard loud and clear that Canadians with disabilities do not accept being considered an afterthought: They want to be included from the start. To them, being accommodated means that they were forgotten in the beginning.

Participants shared their personal stories of the barriers they faced.

  • I heard about physical and technological barriers impeding people’s ability to move freely, use transportation and access basic information.
  • I heard about instances where government projects and services excluded persons with disabilities.
  • And I heard about the attitudes and misconceptions that Canadians continue to have about what people with disabilities can and cannot do.

Canadians want to see legislation that is ambitious and bold—legislation that reflects current best practices from across Canada and around the world. They want a broad statement of principles that frames the law and acknowledges our obligations under the UN CRPD.

Canadians want legislation that leads to a more consistent experience of accessibility across Canada.

They want legislation that applies to all areas of federal jurisdiction; and for the Government of Canada itself to be a leader in accessibility.

Canadians with disabilities want to continue to be included in the development and implementation of this legislation.

They want legislation with robust enforcement and compliance mechanisms.

And while there was no consensus on one particular area of accessibility being more important than another, issues of common concern emerged around employment, access to buildings and public spaces, information and communication technology, procurement, transportation by air and rail, and program and service delivery.

At the same time, the business community expressed uncertainty about new rules and regulations and the need for technical assistance and supports. But, I also heard loudly that carrots or incentives alone do not work—even when there is a strong business case for including people with disabilities.

I have learned from other jurisdictions in Canada and around the world that accessibility is bigger than one particular law. Culture change is as important as legal change.

We will need to support the new legislation with complementary initiatives that drive culture change and better support persons with disabilities and their communities.

We also need to support businesses. I have been doing quite a bit of foundational work with employers and businesses. Underlying this effort is the desire to set everyone up to succeed.

I will be looking at options for programming that support the full participation of persons with disabilities. I am thinking specifically here of a national employment strategy.

Investments will need to be made to allow for a larger and more diverse workforce and the inclusion of a historically marginalized community of Canadians.

But I want to stress that the costs of inaction are much higher, both financially and to our core values of being a diverse and inclusive Canada.

Next week, I will be leading Canada’s delegation to the United Nations Conference of States Parties to the UN CRPD. This Conference will provide a great opportunity to engage in a discussion with my international counterparts on inclusion and full participation of people with disabilities, and give us a chance to learn from one another.

There, I will speak about our planned accessibility legislation and how Canada intends to move on demonstrating our commitment to the Convention.

I will speak to policy and programmatic preparatory work being done across our government to break down barriers in anticipation of our new law. I am particularly proud of the work we are doing to include accessibility as a core policy objective for our infrastructure investments and our national housing strategy.

I will highlight some of the other highpoints of the past year and a half, such as the ratification of the Marakesh Treaty, and our commitment to the UN CRPD Optional Protocol.

Before concluding, I want to extend my thanks to those of you who participated in our accessibility consultations. I also want to thank the CHRC for working with the Office for Disability Issues as we have turned to the task of drafting this legislation. I believe that the CHRC will be a critical partner in this endeavor, as we collaborate on the interplay between our accessibility law, the Employment Equity Act, and the CHRA. I anticipate having to lean quite heavily on your expertise and experience.

In conclusion, I’d like to reiterate that the Government of Canada is committed to upholding and safeguarding the rights of people with disabilities, and enabling them to reach their full potential.

This year, we are celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary. It’s the perfect time to think of our past achievements while looking to the future and putting into practice lessons learned.

Building an accessible Canada will be historic, but this process will take time. We must keep up our momentum for future generations.

We have the unique chance to change the course of Canadian history and my colleagues and I are up to the challenge.

Apart from breaking down barriers, be they physical or social, this legislation will also send a strong message—Canada is saying no to discrimination and saying yes to inclusion.

Once again, thank you all for giving me this opportunity today.

Have a great Conference everyone!

Thank you.