Canada Health Transfer should ensure disabled persons’ needs addressed

HillTimes.com – opinion-piece/politics
13 August 2012.   David Smith

Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms recently turned 30 years old. That milestone was cause for celebration, indeed. But the work and advocacy that preceded the ratification of the Charter should give us all cause for reflection, because much of those efforts to advance inclusion and equity found life through the enactment of Section 15. They are also particularly relevant in light of policy issues currently before Parliament.

That part of Canada’s Charter did something for the first time that no previous document, policy or law did: among other things, Section 15 made specific reference to disability, thereby guaranteeing the equality rights of every Canadian with disability.

Section 15 of the Charter says: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

The year prior to the Charter’s enactment, 1981, was the UN’s first observance that focused on disability, the International Year of Disabled Persons. The Prime Minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau, insisted that Canada be involved, and to begin, established a committee (the first in Canadian Parliamentary history) to consider all aspects of living with a disability in Canada.

I remember it well, since I chaired that committee. We visited Canadians with disabilities in all parts of Canada, and we documented the committee’s work and recommendations in a report called Obstacles (another first in Parliament).

Obstacles not only became a hallmark document in the realm of disability issues, it impassioned several Parliamentarians to take action, in the first instance, to include disability in the Charter.

The phrase “mental or physical disability” was not included in the initial version of the Charter. The seven members of our committee were in total unanimity on the recommendations contained in the Obstacles report which had come out earlier in the same year. There were no partisan differences within our committee membership.

I kept making arguments within the government (Liberal) caucus to amend the Charter by including “mental or physical disability.” After making about five speeches on this point in different meetings, I started in on my sixth speech. Trudeau stood up and said, “David, you don’t have to make your speech again, we’re putting in.” It was one of the dramatic moments of my life, and I burst into tears and sat down, but they were tears of joy!

So here we are 30 years later, reflecting on how those efforts that culminated in Obstacles and in Section 15 of the Charter might serve Canadians well considering in the current work and issues of Parliament and its committees.

In March of this year, colleagues of mine on the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology released their review of the 2004 Health Accord, entitled Time for Transformative Change. The report examines what issues need to be considered for a renewed federal-provincial health accord.

I was heartened to learn that the Canadian Disability Policy Alliance, whose membership is composed of representatives from Queen’s University, March of Dimes Canada, Canadian Paraplegic Association, and many more academic and community organizations, called on this Senate committee to consider disability and accessibility issues in any consideration of a national healthcare agreement between Ottawa, the provinces and the territories.

This is something that Obstacles in 1981 had recommended in its own way. This is something that is upheld in Section 15 of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Time for Transformative Change, the Senate committee’s final report, embraced the recommendations of the national disability alliance by stating “that the federal, provincial and territorial governments ensure accountability measures be built into the Canada Health Transfer agreement to address the needs of disabled persons.”

It is my hope that all Parliamentarians, including Members of the House, as well as representatives of the provinces and territories, also explicitly embrace this recommendation as a principle that underpins a renewed Health Accord, and, in so doing, advances the spirit of inclusion and accessibility for Canadians with disabilities that has characterized the advocacy work of so many since the early 1980s. It is, indeed, time for transformative change.

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