Second reading of Bill C-22, Canada Disability Benefit Bill

By: The Hon. Diane Bellemare

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Women Are Persons Monument, Ottawa

Hon. Diane Bellemare: Honourable senators, I first want to acknowledge that we are here today on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people.

I’d like to begin by explaining why I wanted to speak at second reading of 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. Although I’m not a member of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, I wanted to point out some things that I think the committee should look at.

I would then like to draw a parallel with a historical period that Canada went through in the first half of the 20th century and talk about some points that I’d like the committee to consider regarding the title of the bill.

Why do I want to talk about this bill? As a parent, this topic resonates with me. I don’t have a disabled child, but if I did, how would I be feeling today? I’d be very anxious about the future. I’d be happy with this bill because, as Senator Petitclerc said, it is full of hope. As several of you have said, this bill is very vague. I’ve never seen a bill like this one. Its primary goal is to reduce poverty and increase financial security. We have no idea how much money will be allocated and we have no idea how the benefit will be delivered. The idea is to leave it up to cabinet to decide, which in no way guarantees sustainability or consistent objectives.

Don’t worry, I will be voting for this bill, but I would ask the committee to do its job as it has done in the past.

It was really Senator Seidman’s speech that resonated with me when I read it again — I actually read several speeches that mentioned that the Senate, back in 2008 or 2009 and again in 2018, said that, in order to lift Canadians with disabilities out of poverty, we need a basic income, not an income supplement. That set my thoughts straight.

When I read this speech with the reference to Professor Prince, I went to read his work and my ideas became clear. The Senate has to do its part because in reading the comments by the minister, who explained what she wanted to do, I noticed that the emphasis was being put on a social assistance income supplement.

It can’t be interpreted in any other way. The minister wants to create a benefit that would be a supplement to the social assistance benefits that working age persons with disabilities receive. Persons with disabilities no longer receive or collect very little welfare after the age of 65. If they receive any, it is for other reasons. In Quebec, generally speaking, after 65 no one receives any welfare benefits. That’s because there’s Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, which are both federal programs.

An income supplement for people with disabilities presupposes that these working-age people will continue to collect welfare, which will be supplemented. The government will try to negotiate with the provinces to make sure there’s no clawback, but they’ll still get that last-resort assistance. That’s where there’s a disconnect, and I hope the committee will try to find a solution. The provinces’ mission is to provide that last-resort help. The provinces are the end of the line. The federal government cannot put itself in the position of supplementing last-resort support. This calls for a different approach.

How are we supposed to lift people with disabilities out of poverty and get them off welfare if we force them to depend on welfare programs? The answer is self-evident.

I hope you’ll consider this issue in committee.

I said to myself, “Diane, go have a look at what you wrote in 1979 and 1980 when you were doing your Ph.D. thesis.” I went back to that 800-page thesis about the evolution of social programs in Canada. It didn’t say much about people with disabilities, but it did go into a lot of detail about how to get people over 70 — and now those over 65 — off welfare.

You know, I had initially forgotten, but then I remembered that I watched a lot of Senate work while I was writing my doctoral dissertation. The Senate played a major role in adopting programs to get seniors off welfare. It began quite early. To summarize very briefly, motivated by Keynes’s macroeconomic theory, the federal government decided to invest in income security for large families to get them off welfare, and it did so by creating the universal family allowance in 1945.

In 1951, the government passed the Old Age Security Act to get people aged 70 and over off welfare. It was time, and it worked at first. Everyone 70 and over received a universal pension, but by the 1960s, urbanization meant that some seniors were still receiving welfare.

Governments soon decided to adopt the Quebec Pension Plan and the Canada Pension Plan. The idea was that with these contributory plans, seniors could get off welfare but still have a basic income with Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement. Today, this basic income is around $20,000 for a low-income individual, and this helps keep people out of poverty.

Members of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology who are going to be examining this bill, I’d like you to take a closer look at the possibility of creating a program and even consider that issue. The federal government already has mechanisms in place that it could work with, including the non-refundable tax credit for people with disabilities. By enhancing that tax credit and making it refundable, we could ensure that everyone with a severe disability has an income. That brings me to the following question. How are we going to define “disability”? I think the committee has a lot of work to do.

I would encourage you to look at what Quebec and the provinces are doing in that regard. For a long time, Quebec didn’t want to define people with disabilities as being disabled. It also didn’t want to treat them as being incapacitated, so it came up with the notion of people of working age with severely limited or temporarily limited capacity for employment. That at least enables people in Quebec with long-term severely limited capacity for employment to benefit from the social solidarity program and for those with a temporarily limited capacity to benefit from the social assistance program. The criteria and employment incentives are different for these two programs.

I invite you to examine this issue and to study this bill in the context of the wonderful action plan tabled by Minister Qualtrough to provide employment for individuals of working age living with a disability. Professor Prince also proposed his own action plan, which is similar to what the minister has proposed.

I invite you to examine the problem from a different angle. I remind you that providing a supplement to welfare keeps people on welfare.

My second point is the following. Clearly, federal and provincial collaboration is required to implement a plan that not only provides financial assistance but also results in inclusion. That may not be the bill’s objective, but, no matter, it provides the opportunity to take action to achieve a shared objective. Who would be against this objective of reducing poverty for those living with a disability? I believe that no province would do that. The government may have an opportunity here to hold more regular meetings with the provinces to achieve a shared objective.

It may be a big ask, and it may not be up to committee members to do it, but I wanted to express the idea that there is an opportunity to create federal-provincial institutions that will create a more collaborative federalism on social issues.

My last point has to do with changing the title. Why change the title? Just as it is not acceptable in English to use them term “handicapped”, it is also no longer acceptable in everyday French to use the term personnes handicapées. However, those words appear in the translation of the bill. I was surprised. When I read the minister’s action plan, nowhere in French do they talk about personnes handicapées; they use the term personnes en situation de handicap. That is important.

In closing, on this issue of the title of the bill, I have two points I want to mention, just to give you a laugh. I forgot about something I wanted to read to you. This is a Senate report that, in 1963, talked about the elderly; you can see the parallel with people with disabilities. Senator Croll was in the Chair. The Senate report said the following:

It is the considered view of the Committee that the income guarantee approach to the income needs of old people has much to recommend it. Apart from its administrative simplicity (by comparison with public assistance) and the modest level of public expenditures that would be involved (by comparison with the equivalent increase in the Old Age Security Pension) the proposal in our view has two important merits. It avoids the indignity of the needs test to which we should not like to see several hundred thousand retired people subjected, and further it provides the most effective means we have discovered of correcting the present inequity in our treatment of the already retired and the about-to-be retired generations of old people, a matter which has given us grave concern.

I wanted to mention that. I also wanted to read you a little translation note from Renée Canuel-Ouellet.

The Hon. the Speaker: Senator Bellemare, your time is up. Are you asking for five more minutes to finish?

Senator Bellemare: Yes.

The Hon. the Speaker: Is leave granted, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Bellemare: Thank you.

Here’s that note about translating the term:

Translators who have to render the expression, “person with a disability” in French find it intensely frustrating. Naturally, they do not want to offend anyone by using a politically incorrect term. Is it better to say personnes handicapées? Or personnes ayant une incapacité? Maybe personnes ayant une déficience? How does one begin to sort out all these ideas? The World Health Organization comes to the rescue with its International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps, which proposes three definitions . . . .

I’ll leave you with that. I hope the committee will be able to study this issue because I think it deserves our consideration.

Thank you very much.

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