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

By: The Hon. Wanda Thomas Bernard

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Hon. Wanda Thomas Bernard: Honourable senators, I acknowledge that we are currently on the traditional unceded territory of the Anishinaabe Algonquin Nation. I rise today 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 appreciate the sentiment communicated by Minister Qualtrough and by our sponsor here in the Senate, Senator Cotter, about the urgent need to pull people with disabilities out of poverty; however, I do not believe this proposed legislation covers the bases to ensure people with disabilities are able to move from a place of poverty to adequate income. As our colleague Senator Kim Pate stated in her debate:

The government is rushing to pass a bill that could, regrettably, amount to little more than a promising name.

I understand the legislation is a framework and the plan is that details will be worked out in the next stage. While I respect that ideal, I have concerns, and I believe it is our responsibility to ensure the framework addresses the following three issues before the next stage.

I might mention that I share many of the concerns raised by Senator Petitclerc in her compelling speech earlier this evening.

First, the legislation must ensure the framework provides adequate benefits to people with disabilities; second, the legislation must safeguard against clawbacks of provincial social assistance; and third, the bill should build in equity for people experiencing intersecting identities.

I will speak briefly to each of these three points.

Colleagues, my primary concern with this legislation is the adequacy of the income supplement. As the critic, Senator Seidman, said in her debate, she sees an issue with:

. . . the adequacy of the disability benefit and whether there should be clear definition that the benefit itself must be above the poverty level.

I agree with my colleague.

I consulted with Vince Calderhead, a Nova Scotia human rights lawyer who has worked in Nova Scotia for over 30 years and who has been a fierce advocate for disability rights and poverty issues for decades. He said:

Bill C-22 is the first time in 40 years I have seen the federal government come close to an opportunity to provide adequate income support for people living with disabilities in Canada. This is the moment for Parliamentarians to ensure adequacy for people with disabilities. From a human rights perspective, we must build in for the ‘right to an adequate income’, because trusting the Cabinet to ensure income adequacy is just not enough. Yes, we need to trust, but we also need fundamental human rights protections and accountability. Our Constitution, in section 36, commits both the federal and provincial levels of government to ‘the provision of essential public services of reasonable quality for all Canadians’. With Bill C-22, now is the moment and the opportunity to fulfill our constitutional commitment in section 36 to income adequacy for persons with disabilities in Canada.

The main goal of this legislation is to pull people with disabilities out of poverty. There is no assurance of that in the current form of this bill.

My second concern with this legislation is that this federal framework must safeguard against the provinces clawing back from pre-existing supports. If provinces can claw back social assistance programs already in place, the purpose of this bill is moot. The level of poverty experienced by people with disabilities will be maintained, and again, the goal of the bill will not be achieved.

My third and final major critique about the efficacy of Bill C-22 is on its ability to provide equitable supports to people living with intersecting oppressions. For example, there is limited data on the experiences of African Canadians with disabilities. However, there is an advocacy group called the ASE Community Foundation for Black Canadians with Disability, which is doing some important work in this sector. Their mission is to disrupt disparities at the intersection of Blackness, disability and gender.

ASE released a report called The Intersection of Blackness & Disability in Canada that examines the racialization of poverty and links that to disability. It found that 12.5% of Black Canadians live in poverty in comparison to the 7.3% of non-racialized people. ASE describes how a disability and racialized income gap is formed by the systemic barriers of ableism and racism that exclude people with disabilities, and Black and racialized people. This income gap impacts the health and wellness of this group, which in turn reinforces the cycle of poverty.

I attended a town hall with ASE in February. Every Black Canadian in that space shared a story of hardship connected to the reality of living at the intersection of race and disability.

That intersection of ableism and racism is an issue that we have been addressing in Nova Scotia as well. A key issue is the stigma associated with disability. Accessing resources is difficult for many Black Canadians. In a research project I was involved with, we interviewed African Nova Scotians with disabilities, and my research team found that people experiencing both anti-Black racism and ableism are less likely to know about and access supports and services. They experience stigma, shame and silence, which prevent them from seeking out services. Furthermore, many people in the study reported that experiencing anti-Black racism while accessing supports is another way to keep them outside of those systems.

Those realities highlight some of the reasons why accounting for equity from an intersectional lens is a necessary component to be included in the framework.

The legislation cannot be presumed to be all encompassing and hope to improve the lives of all people with disabilities in its current form. People with disabilities are not a monolith, and policies affecting them should not assume equal impact. Colleagues, it is time that the unique struggles of African Canadians and other racialized people with disabilities are considered in the actual development of legislation like this and not as an afterthought. Equitable policy solutions are an important step toward an equitable society.

Honourable senators, I agree with the goal of this bill: to provide an income supplement to people with disabilities to pull them out of poverty. In fact, I am very excited about its possibilities. However, I do not believe the bill in its present form will accomplish this very important goal. It does not account for adequacy of the benefit, provincial clawbacks or the specific struggles of racialized people with disabilities who require equitable support.

I anxiously await the expert witness testimony during the committee study of the bill and encourage my colleagues to think critically about how this framework will roll out to support all Canadians with disabilities in measurable ways.

Thank you. Asante.

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