Speech Article from  Employment and Social Development Canada

The Honourable Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, at Queen's University Equity Conference

January 28, 2017 – Kingston, Ontario

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with the Government of Canada’s communications policy.

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.

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Hon. Carla Qualtrough Employment and Social Development Canada Government and Politics

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