Christine Elliott's Vision of a More Inclusive Canada

Disabling Poverty/Enabling Citizenship Forum
2 December 2014
Ottawa, Ontario

(Christine Elliott was the keynote speaker at CCD's Forum.)

Good morning, everyone. I'm very glad to be here with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.  My late husband, Jim, was very proud of his association with you and the work that you did together.  It's a particular honour for me to have been asked to join you this morning.  And, of course, this is such an important week.  As you all know, tomorrow is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a day during which all of us here today will reflect on what we can do to build a more inclusive future, a future of hope and a future of optimism.

Today, I have been asked to speak about my vision of a more inclusive Ontario, of a more inclusive Canada.  I have been asked to talk about how we can remove barriers and create an environment that empowers people with disabilities and their families.  In short, I have been asked how all of us together can build a more inclusive society. 

That's a pretty daunting topic, I have to say, and one that's dominated many conversations that I have had with people across Ontario over the last several years.  But in thinking about these conversations, I have realized something: all of us face barriers in our daily lives.  All of us encounter challenges -- barriers to family supports, barriers to fully participating in society, barriers to achieving full independence.  These are challenges the average Ontarian or Canadian likely doesn't face, not because they don't want to but because they simply haven't been brought face-to-face with it.  They simply lack the firsthand knowledge that so many of you in this room have.  And here's the hard truth as we all know it: there's no easy solution.  There's no simple panacea.  These are all complex issues that demand complex answers.  They demand that we work together toward a common good.  They demand that we work together towards a truly inclusive society.  And that's what I realized.  I'm not here to present that silver bullet because there simply isn't one.  That's not how I see myself contributing to the goal of a more inclusive society.  Instead, my role is to listen, to discuss, and, yes, at times, my role is to challenge as I have with my legislative colleagues over the years.  But ultimately I see my role as being one of helping to empower, to do what I can to empower you to help drive the change we all need in society.  The change we need before we can realize our shared vision of an equal and inclusive society.

For those of you here today, who I have not met, you have heard something about my background, but I think you get a sense of how important this topic is to me.  Indeed, it's the core of what drives me and really it's what drove me to run politically in the first place, to build opportunities for people with special needs and to try and be a champion and advocate for people that don't have a voice, that don't get into the mainstream, that don't necessarily get the sound bites in the media but people who face unique challenges and need to have a champion in government for them. 

To me, it starts by putting conventional wisdom on its head by focusing on abilities, not looking at disabilities.  This was certainly the vision behind the Abilities Centre that my late husband, Jim, and I worked on for a dozen years before it actually opened in 2012.  We worked alongside a small group of people to focus on that mission to promote abilities and to create a place where everyone would be able to come together and would be welcomed and have a home.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the centre, I encourage you to take a look at it on our website.  It's 125,000 square foot local state-of-the-art sports and fitness facility specifically designed for use by people with special needs, so that everyone can participate.  It's truly a remarkable place.  Every day I go in there I continue to be inspired by it because you can see elite athletes working alongside – wheelchair athletes, basketball athletes, people who are recovering from a stroke who are walking around our indoor track.  We also have a wonderful program for young adults with cognitive challenges and autism.  Everybody comes together.  Everybody recognizes and celebrates everybody else's abilities.

To me what the Abilities Centre was meant to do is to mirror the full inclusion that we want to see in society and, personally, I would like to see other Abilities Centres being built across Canada and, in fact, across Canada, to help lead the way to full inclusion in all our communities.  In fact, it may interest some of you to know, those of you, who are from the Ottawa area, that we're right now working with a group of people who want to create an Abilities Centre Ottawa.  We're going to do everything we can to make sure that they don't go through the same mistakes we went through and it doesn't take 10 years to get the Abilities Centre Ottawa into the ground.

But, of course, there's much more to be done.  That's what I have done in my capacity as a community volunteer, but I also believe that government needs to take a far more proactive role than they have in the past.  That's the reason why I brought forward two Private Member's bills to deal with a lot of the issues that people with disabilities currently face.  The first was a Private Member's bill that I brought forward in 2009 on mental health and addictions and that resulted in a consensus report to create a comprehensive mental health and addictions strategy, some of which was used by the government in formulating their strategy.  I wish they had used a few more of our recommendations but that's another story.  So we have that one. 

The second committee, that I brought forward to create a subcommittee was on developmental disabilities, recognizing there's a whole range of issues from housing to employment to social supports, to everything else in between that, resulted in a July 2014 report that was tabled just after the election, called "Inclusion and Opportunity, A New Path for Developmental Services in Ontario."  Now, for those of you who aren't familiar with the working of select committees, they are comprised of members from all three political parties and to issue two consensus-based reports, I have to tell you, is a rare and wonderful thing.  It doesn't happen very often.  All of the members of those committees, Liberal, NDP and Progressive Conservative, recognized how important these two topics were and we all worked together to build reports that we hope contained recommendations that are going to be of benefit over the  years.  I think to all of you, it's encouraging.  It formulates a long-term strategy that can stand the test of time and isn't going to be dependent on 4-year election cycles.  It's for that reason that I am very proud of the two reports and I wanted to speak a little bit today about our most recent report, Inclusion and Opportunity, because to me it is more than a report.  It's really a road map.  A road map built not just by the 9 members of our committee but by people across Ontario and while it's based on the challenges faced by persons with developmental disabilities, it became clear that it speaks to the issues that affect people with disabilities generally.  I think it's analogous to very many communities which are represented here today.

Over the course of a year, starting in October 2013, my legislative colleagues and I heard from more than 140 presenters at more than 14 public hearings held across the provinces.  We also received more than 300 submissions from individuals, families, service providers, academics and advocates.  Our report outlines 46 recommendations aimed primarily at moving individuals and families out of far too familiar experience with crisis.  I can't begin to tell you how inspiring it was – very upsetting at times, but inspiring – to hear from people their personal stories which they shared with us.  It was very difficult, as you can imagine, for very many people to do that, come forward before a committee, which is pretty daunting and tell us their personal stories.  Some of you may have presented to our committee.  If you did, thank you so much because it was so important to hear from you and so many others. 

No two stories or experiences, of course, were the same but we certainly began to notice common challenges as well as common themes -- long wait times for too many services, repeated onerous and invasive assessments, abrupt termination of children's services at 18, school services terminated at 21, unmet health needs because of inadequate primary and dental care, a serious lack of services and supports in remote, northern and First Nations communities and above all else, we heard that individuals and families in need of developmental services and support were in crisis.  Too many families were left with aging parents who were desperate about what was going to happen to their sons or daughters when they were no longer around.  This was an all too familiar story but, of course, it's completely unacceptable.  The status quo doesn't work.  We need to be innovative with our solutions.  And the result is practical recommendations that recognized the fact that this sector has been unattended to and underfunded for far too long.  Everyone in Ontario, everyone in Canada has the right to full inclusion.  Everyone has this right to receive the support and services that they need without delay.

Driving our recommendations were five core principles.  First, no more wait lists.  All people have the right to receive timely and appropriate supports and services throughout their lives.  Second, oversight and system accountability.  The developmental service system must be accountable to the people of Ontario while also being responsive to their needs.  In short, as we talked about often, more service, less system.  Third, empowering individuals, families and communities.  Individuals and families want and deserve more autonomy in designing their services and supports.  Communities want and need innovative solutions that meet local needs.  Fourth, building capacity.  As it stands, the developmental services sector is unable to meet demand.  Capacity must be built in a number of areas.  It's become very apparent to me in the work that I am doing as health critic and also responsible for mental health and addictions, and I sort of veer into community and social services as well , that we have great service providers in Ontario.  All we need is to build capacity, which could be done for a fraction of the cost we're now spending in sending people out of country for services.  People want to receive services in their own community.  We can do that at very little cost.  That's one thing we're going to be standing up for as a committee.  Finally, inclusion and opportunity.  People with disabilities want and have the right to expect full inclusion.  That's full stop.  No questions asked.  And that means full inclusion in ensuring access to education.  Employment is a huge challenge, housing, as well as social and recreational opportunities.  These principles informed the Committee's recommendations and in fact they informed our very approach to reaching them.

At the core of these recommendations was the creation of a new inter-ministerial committee on developmental services.  This committee called the IMCDS  and I'm not going to say that anymore because it is quite a mouthful – would be tasked with a mandate both clear and complex, implementing the remaining 45 recommendations contained in our report.

Now, I know some of you might be thinking: why is this important?  Shouldn't we simply just be focusing on access to and the quality of service?  Well, of course, we should be and that's why the work of the committee, we believe, is so important.  We need the committee to be tasked with the responsibility of implementing and coordinating these supports and services, and to be responsible to a single ministry.  What we find now is there are so many ministries that are involved in one way or another in providing services to people, that there's no one actually responsible and things fall between the cracks.  That needs to stop.  We need to have one organization responsible for it and that would be the committee that we have recommended.

We need a committee that's actually going to deliver results, not just talk about it, to actually do the work and implement those recommendations.  Job number one of the committee would be to eliminate wait lists within 12 months.  Nothing is more important to developing supports and services than giving people access to the care that they need.  We talked about timeframes and we talked about whether it's actually realistic or reasonable to expect that wait lists can be eliminated within 12 months, but you have to, in my view, you have to have an optimistic goal, a daunting goal, one that's going to challenge people.  If you don't challenge people, nothing is ever going to happen.  So whether it happens within 12 months or 15 months or 2 years, we need to continue to pressure government to work on this.  This isn't something that can wait any longer.  People deserve services now.  That's why we felt it's so important that we have that timeline to receive services.  That's integral to the success of the entire report. 

For those of you who haven't had the chance to take a look at our report yet, it is pretty short.  We didn't give you a phone book to read.  Our recommendations are pretty succinct.  We hope that you will agree with all of them.  We want to hear from you, if you don't. It was a start point for decision making and change. 

We believe that the recommendations touch on every aspect of developmental services, from calling for an integrated provincial strategy to build capacity and coordinate services in primary and dental care, to earlier diagnosis, to geriatric care, to recommending programs that promote the employment of people with disabilities -- and I believe you'll probably be speaking about that more today – to innovative housing solutions for people with developmental disabilities and disabilities generally.  We know that the same way of doing things, by having people wait on wait lists for group homes, isn't the way to go anymore.  People want to be able to build their own housing solutions.  It doesn't mean that the same old model is going to fit.  We need to look far beyond that and to what people are actually going to have in their lives as opposed to fitting them in to what currently exists.  We need to expand our horizons and make sure that the people with developmental and other disabilities have the right to make their own choices in life as well as everybody else does.

This is just the beginning.  We all know there's so much more that remains to be done.  But I want to believe they represent the strong step forward we all need, the strong step forward that Canadians with disabilities all deserve.  There isn't an easy solution.  We all know that.  But there's too much at stake to shrink from the challenge.  The work is simply too important.

So, building an inclusive society, yes, at times it may seem daunting.  At times it may seem a little bit too elusive.  But when you think about how much we can accomplish together, the goal of an inclusive society doesn’t seem quite so daunting, doesn't seem quite so elusive.  Our future will be one of full opportunity, of independence.  Our future will be one in which individuals with disabilities and their families are empowered where the threat of chronic poverty can be eliminated.  Our future will be an inclusive society.  There's no doubt about that, because I know that working together we can achieve that.

Thank you so much for allowing me the opportunity to speak with you today.  I look forward to hearing about your future deliberations and wish you all the best.  Thank you so much.

About Christine Elliott

Growing up in Whitby, Christine learned the value of hard work and public service at an early age. Her dad was a teacher and her mom was a homemaker and community volunteer. They instilled in Christine the importance of responsibility, integrity, and the knowledge that a strong resolve, hard work, education, and family are the keys to success in life. Christine’s interest in politics began with passionate conversations around the dinner table, and she has been a Progressive Conservative ever since.

Christine graduated from the University of Western Ontario, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree and her Bachelor of Laws. As a successful business lawyer specializing in real estate, corporate, and estate law, Christine co-founded her law firm with her late husband, Jim Flaherty. As a lawyer and entrepreneur, Christine has worked to help businesses in Whitby, Ottawa, and Toronto open, expand, and thrive.

Christine also used her legal practice to pursue her commitment to public service, and her pro bono legal work for charitable organizations gained her the recognition as a Rotary International Paul Harris Fellow, the highest award with Rotary.

As a mother, lawyer, and entrepreneur, Christine knows the importance of balancing a family budget and managing a successful business. Christine knows that responsible leadership is needed to get Ontario back onto the right financial track.

Christine is widely known for her commitment to the rights of people with special needs. She was a driving force in the development, construction, and operation of the world-class Whitby Abilities Centre, where people with special needs are given an opportunity to expand their personal horizons. Christine is also the past Director of a number of organizations including Grandview Children’s Centre, Lakeridge Health Whitby Foundation, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and Durham Mental Health Services.

In 2006, Christine was elected as the Member of Provincial Parliament for Whitby-Oshawa during a by-election, and was reelected for subsequent terms in 2007, 2011 and 2014. Christine served as the Deputy Leader of the official Opposition and the Critic for the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and Mental Health Reform. As MPP, Christine was the author of the Private Member Resolutions creating the Select Committee on Mental Health and Addictions, and the Select Committee on Developmental Services.

Christine lives in Whitby with her triplet sons John, Galen and Quinn and their golden retriever, Guinness. She remains an active volunteer in her community, and enjoys running, theatre, cooking, and music.