Statements & Speeches

Bill C-22 – The Canada Disability Benefit Act – Second Reading

February 14, 2023

Hon. Judith G. Seidman: Honourable senators, I rise today as opposition critic to speak to Bill C-22, An Act to reduce poverty and to support the financial security of persons with disabilities by establishing the Canada disability benefit and making a consequential amendment to the Income Tax Act.

I recognize and thank my colleague Senator Cotter, the sponsor of this bill, for his important work. I look forward to our ongoing collaboration to ensure this is an efficient and effective process.

The disability community is mostly united on the importance of this legislation, and I fully understand the urgency with which we must proceed.

The history of supports for people with disabilities in Canada, especially at the federal level, is relatively short. In an essay entitled “Disability in Canada: An Historical Perspective,” Dr. Aldred Neufeldt, Emeritus Professor of Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies at the University of Calgary, notes that in the first decades of the 1900s, Quebec, and then Ontario, established workmen’s compensation laws, but it was war, he writes, that prompted government to develop rehabilitation services. After the Second World War, returning war veterans insisted “ . . . on their rights to be treated as citizens with continuing contributions to make . . . .” Thus, workers’ compensation and veterans’ allowances emerged as two of the earliest forms of compensation for Canadians with certain kinds of disablement.

In his book, Struggling for Social Citizenship: Disabled Canadians, Income Security, and Prime Ministerial Eras, Dr. Michael Prince, the Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy at the University of Victoria, observes that, although workers’ compensation and veterans’ allowances were established as distinct programs, most subsequent disability programs, including original benefits for blind persons, the Canada Pension Plan disability benefit, social assistance and employment insurance, are parts of broader policy frameworks. As Dr. Prince argues, “These diverse access points and separate program designs result in a mottled social citizenship for disabled people.”

Indeed, our Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, in its 2018 study of the Disability Tax Credit and the Registered Disability Savings Plan, heard from many witnesses regarding the complexity of applying for disability support programs. Witnesses urged us to simplify and clarify processes for federal supports. In our report, we recommended:

That the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development work closely with other orders of government to harmonize the application processes for disability supports programs.

Our report also recommended that both ministers “. . . develop a basic income or guaranteed income for people with severe disabilities. . . .”

An earlier report entitled In From the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness, released in 2009, again by the Social Affairs Committee and their Subcommittee on Cities, describes how the source or level of income of someone with a disability depends on when and how one becomes disabled and whether private or public insurance payments were available to an individual upon disablement.

The report warns:

The complexity of current programs and their interactions can leave too many people . . . without adequate incomes, and even without any income, as they are bounced from one “system” to another.

This lack of continuity in eligibility for disability income supports only piles on even more uncertainty in the lives of Canadians.

The 2009 report also recommends the development and implementation of a basic income for people with severe disabilities, though the basic income considered at the Subcommittee on Cities was meant to replace provincial social assistance income, which would have resulted in substantial savings to the provinces. In his testimony to that committee, Dr. Prince noted that this model would have taken half a million Canadians off provincial social assistance, which would have then allowed the provinces to reallocate funds into personal supports, education, inclusive schools, inclusive parks and recreation, family supports and public transit.

That is not what is being proposed in Bill C-22. As Minister Qualtrough noted in her second reading speech in the other place, this new benefit will be an income supplement, not an income replacement, and it is not intended to replace existing provincial or territorial supports. When it becomes available, the Canada disability benefit should provide additional monthly income for people with disabilities. It is worth noting, however, that this type of program will not lessen the financial demands on the provinces. A different approach could have otherwise allowed for more investment in services for people with disabilities.

Historically, Canada’s supports for people with disabilities have differed from those in the United States and most European countries because, in our federation, the provinces bear the prime responsibility for health, education and social services. According to the OECD, Canada lags behind on public spending on incapacity — that is, spending due to sickness, disability and occupational injury.

Of the G7 countries, we come in seventh on public spending on incapacity as a percentage of total gross domestic product. We spend, in Canada, just three quarters of 1% of our GDP. The U.S. spends 1%, and Japan about the same. Our European peers spend much more. France spends 1.7% of GDP; Italy, 1.8%; the United Kingdom, 1.9%; and Germany, 2.25%.

We have a moral obligation to do more. The preamble of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that:

. . . the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people . . . .

For too long, people with disabilities in this country have not enjoyed freedom from want, and the effects have been devastating.

According to the Canadian Survey on Disability, 2017, which is the most recent survey data we have, one in five Canadians over the age of 15 had one or more disability. The likelihood of having a disability increases with age: 13% of those aged 15 to 24 years had a disability compared to 47% of those 75 years and older. Disability’s correlation with poverty is strong, as we’ve heard from all our speakers: Of Canadians aged 25 to 64 years, 28% of those with more severe disabilities live in poverty compared to 10% of their counterparts without disabilities.

Dr. Deborah Stienstra, the Jarislowsky Chair in Families and Work at the University of Guelph, notes that people with disabilities face barriers to education; barriers to employment; high costs, including those associated with necessary disability-related supports and barriers to systems of transportation, telecommunication and health care. She says:

Each of these sets of barriers, in addition to stigmatizing attitudes about disability, limit the opportunities for full citizenship and participation for people with disabilities, and can result in a life with poverty and exclusion.

Bill C-22 comes to us as amended by the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities — HUMA — in the other place. Bill C-22 is meagre on details — what is often referred to as “framework” legislation. It sets out general provisions for the administration of the benefit and authorizes the Governor-in-Council to implement most of the benefit’s design elements through regulations. As MPs noted at second reading, Bill C-22, as it was first introduced, was more of a promise to act than a real proposal. Thanks to the nine amendments made at HUMA, the bill is somewhat improved.

The first amendment adds a definition of “disability” to the bill, the same as found in the Accessible Canada Act.

The second amendment requires the federal government to make public all federal and provincial-territorial agreements with respect to the Canada disability benefit.

The third amendment requires that the benefit be indexed to inflation.

The fourth amendment requires that the application for the benefit be barrier-free.

The fifth amendment requires that the Governor-in-Council, when setting the amount of the benefit, take into consideration the official poverty line.

The sixth amendment requires the minister to table a report in the House of Commons on the engagement and collaboration with the disability community in the development of regulations within six months of coming into force, and to table another report on the progress made in the regulatory process within one year.

The seventh amendment requires the minister to provide persons with disabilities the opportunity to collaborate on the development and design of the regulations.

The eighth amendment tightens the timelines for parliamentary reviews of the legislation from three years after coming into force and every five years thereafter to one and three years after coming into force and then every five years after. The ninth amendment set the coming-into-force date to no later than one year after Royal Assent.

The House of Commons human resources, skills and social development and the status of persons with disabilities committee has done excellent work. As our Senate committee studies the bill, it will be our job to review that work and to hear testimony from experts and stakeholders to ensure that no flaws have been inadvertently introduced and that there are no important omissions in the bill.

This might be just the right time to remind my honourable colleagues of a similar situation we found ourselves in just three-and-a-half years ago with another piece of legislation vitally important to the disability community — Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act. Everyone was fully united behind that legislation, and there was similar pressure for us to get that bill passed without amendments.

While virtually all of the testimony we heard at the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology called on us to pass the bill with a degree of urgency, there was concern expressed from some members of the disability community about certain omissions. Our committee believed that we could focus on a few clear amendments that would add value to C-81 without endangering its passage. While the reflected desire for this legislation was strong, the desire to improve it was even stronger. The Senate — all of you, senators — agreed, and we passed the amended bill at third reading, and the House concurred with all our amendments. It is important to remember the essence of these amendments because it highlights the value of true sober second thought.

One, timelines. Bill C-81 had no definitive timeline for Canada to become a fully accessible country. Without timelines, there would be no accountability, progress could not be measured and standards might never be developed and enacted by law. Therefore, we added the recommended deadline of 2040 to be the definable date in place for full implementation of accessibility requirements. Related to this, we made an amendment to ensure that accessibility measures would not be delayed or postponed as an unintended consequence, but enacted as soon as possible.

Two, the next amendment we made was recognition of particular sign languages to be named in the bill as the languages of people who are deaf. This would ensure that deaf persons would not be forgotten and have equal access to information, communication, employment, government services, transportation and other federally regulated sectors. Honourable senators, these are not insignificant additions to a good bill.

Returning to the here and now — Bill C-22 — there are several issues that will be helpful to review at committee. First, the ninth amendment to the bill, which changed the coming-into-force date, merits sober second thought. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance published a response to the amendments on their website in which they argue:

As amended by HUMA, Section 14 specifies no specific date for the bill to come into effect. Section 5(2) of the federal Interpretation Act fills the void by making the bill come into force immediately upon Royal Assent.

I am not a legislative legal expert, but I did consult with one who agreed that this change may indeed be problematic. We should give due attention to this clause and amend it if it is in the interest of Canadians to do so.

Second, the committee should examine the existing disability support programs in this country and how they might interact with this new benefit. Jennifer Robson, associate professor and director of the political management program at Carleton University, told The Hill Times in September 2022 that existing support programs at the provincial and federal level each have a different definition of disability, different benefit levels and different rules regarding other income. She described the existing programs as “a Swiss cheese space” for the new benefit to fit into.

We must ensure that application for provincial and federal benefits isn’t prohibitively bureaucratic so that people with disabilities will not fall through the cracks. There should be a well-defined monitoring and complaint process for appeals of refusals, reductions in benefits and clawbacks, perhaps a tribunal or an advocate. One of the complaints we heard at the Senate social affairs committee about the disability tax credit process was that the Canada Revenue Agency was tasked with the complaint and investigation process, and it was unsatisfactory and exceedingly slow.

Third, the committee should consider the value that the benefit be determined on the basis of the net income of the applicant, not the income of the person’s household. Louise Bourgeois, president of the Mouvement personne d’abord de Sainte-Thérèse, told the House committee:

People living with intellectual disabilities are among the poorest in our society. They are also at greater risk of experiencing economic violence. It will be important that the amount given to individuals does not depend on their spouse’s income. It should be calculated and given to the person individually. After all, the bill is about strengthening people’s financial security.

StatCan data also show that people with disabilities are more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence than people without disabilities. In an analysis of 2018 data, Laura Savage from the Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics at Statistics Canada noted:

Having a disability may increase some women’s vulnerability to intimate partner violence. For example, women with disabilities may experience an increased risk of isolation or an increased reliance on an intimate partner.

This reliance is often economic.

When Green Party MP Mike Morrice moved an amendment at the House committee to address this concern, a department official pointed out that most federal benefits are built on family income. Can the Canadian disability benefit, in particular, enhance the financial security of the individual in order to make financial independence more possible? An amendment could help address that vulnerability.

Related to this is another important issue around the adequacy of the disability benefit and whether there should be clear definition that the benefit itself must be above the poverty level. The amount of the benefit is not specified in the bill as it stands and is left to Governor-in-Council and the regulations. The challenge was addressed in Senator Pate’s question to Senator Cotter last week. Discussed in the other place, it was ruled out of order. Our committee hearings should explore the adequacy issue. There are many detailed international comparisons available. Most European countries have a disability benefit. Switzerland, Norway and Denmark provide the most substantial monthly disability allowances, and Norway offers disability allowances as a universal right in contrast to many other countries that only offer benefits to those in the labour market.

Although the House of Commons committee passed many helpful amendments and really put some meat on the bones of this framework legislation, this bill, nonetheless, leaves so much to the regulations. The Governor-in-Council — that is, the Governor General acting on the advice of cabinet — is tasked to create the regulations for the very essence of the substance: eligibility criteria; the amount of the benefit; the payment periods; the application process; reviews or reconsiderations of decisions; appeals; retroactive payments; applications made on behalf of persons incapable of managing their own affairs; the application of the act when an applicant or beneficiary dies; and the identification of debts.

Colleagues, we must all reflect on the deference shown to cabinet that is so profuse in this bill. It restricts our debate in Parliament, and also opens the door to future changes — not by legislation, but by orders of the Governor-in-Council. And, while it is critically important that the government intends to fully consult the disability community with regard to the substance and implementation of this legislation, it remains a concern how few of the specifics of this process, along with the timelines, are actually delineated in this piece of legislation.

In closing, I support the principles of Bill C-22, but I lament that what we have is only a very bare framework. The government could have — and should have — done better. Now, honourable senators, let’s do our work and get this bill to committee. Thank you.