Bill C-81, An act to ensure a barrier-free Canada: Nine initial observations

Background: On June 21, 2108 the Federal Government tabled Bill C-81, An act to ensure a barrier-free Canada, or the Accessible Canada Act (ACA), to make our country more accessible and inclusive!  This paves the way for committee review in both the House and Senate and eventual passage into law.  Below are the Council of Canadians with Disabilities’ (CCD) initial observations concerning the Bill. CCD is reserving its more fulsome comments, which will be made following a clause-by-clause analysis of the Bill done over the summer.  When the analysis is complete, representatives will meet with MPs to discuss our findings. 

1. Raising Awareness - With its emphasis on making Canada barrier-free, Bill C-81 is a key new development initiating a welcome national conversation on the barriers that limit people with disabilities. 

For many Canadians, Bill C-81 will introduce them to the goal of a barrier-free Canada and what is needed to achieve access for persons with various disabilities. After Bill C-81 is passed there will be new mechanisms, such as the Accessibility Commissioner, to bring about attitude and behavior change.

2. Grounded in Human Rights – The Bill’s human rights approach is a victory for the disability community. The Government of Canada heard our message: we are rights-holders.

The Bill’s Preamble, which contains elements called for by community members, establishes the Act on a solid human rights foundation, referencing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and throughout Bill C-81 we see the CRPD’s influence.  A human rights approach to disability issues means a move away from the traditional view of people with disabilities being objects of charity, to a new understanding where we are subjects of human rights, just like everyone else. 

3. A good definition – The CRPD influenced the Bill’s definition of disability, which avoided a medical approach, and recognized the disabling impact of barriers in the environment.

Bill C-81’s definition of disability advances beyond the CRPD by recognizing that certain impairments cause the experience of barriers to be episodic.

4. Establishing Canada’s monitoring mechanism for the CRPD – We applaud the Government of Canada for naming the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) as the oversight body for monitoring the CRPD.

The CHRC will have the power to check on Canada’s progress in meeting its responsibilities under the CRPD. The disability community has been urging Canada to name the CHRC as the monitoring body since Ratification of the CRPD in 2010. The Government of Canada listened to people with disabilities!

5. Full citizenship – Bill C-81 takes a principled approach to creating a barrier-free Canada, with full citizenship being one of its core values, in keeping with the aspirations of the disability rights community.

The five principles to be followed as the Act is being implemented are in summary:

  • People with disabilities are to be treated with dignity;
  • People with disabilities must have the same opportunity to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have;
  • All persons must have barrier-free access to full and equal participation in society regardless of their abilities or disabilities;
  • All persons must have meaningful options and be free to make their own choices, with support if they desire, regardless of their abilities or disabilities; and
  • Laws, policies, programs, services and structures must take into account the abilities and disabilities of persons and the different ways that persons interact with their environments, and persons with disabilities must be involved in their development or design. (i.e Nothing About Us Without Us”).

6. Progressive Realization – Progressive realization is not found elsewhere in Canadian law and could slow down the achievement of a barrier-free Canada. 

The purpose section of the Act, introduces the concept of progressive realization, stating that the Act “is to benefit all persons, especially persons with disabilities, through the progressive realization, … of a Canada without barriers. The inclusion of the term “progressive realization” is ambiguous and could be problematic if Canada views this as meaning the measures in the Act can be implemented according to its own priorities, such an implementation schedule could serve to reinforce patterns of exclusion. This is exacerbated by Bill C-81’s, frequent use of the word “may” as opposed to the word “shall,” thus making many actions appear discretionary.

7. Lack of a specific timeline – In other Canadian jurisdictions with accessibility legislation, a timeline is a prominent feature. 

However a timeline for achieving accessibility is missing entirely from Bill C-81.  Some are asking: “Where is the bold aspirational statement of when Canada intends to be barrier-free?”

8. What is missing – Language rights for Deaf Canadian’s and a government wide disability policy lens. 

Deaf Canadians called for ASL and LSQ to be designated as official languages but the Bill does not amend the Official Languages Act.  The Bill does not include a policy lens to ensure that disability and other intersecting characteristics are considered when laws, programs and policies are being developed; to prevent the creation of new barriers. CCD will address other gaps in its forthcoming analysis of the Bill.

9. A strong collective voice – We were heard on some points.  MPs need to keep listening to us about Bill C-81 as the Bill goes to Committee: “Nothing About Us Without Us”.