The federal government’s accessibility legislation has gone to the Senate after seeing several amendments in the House of Commons, but lawyers who work with those who have disabilities say that more amendments are still needed to the bill — particularly when it comes to timelines and the complexity of the complaints process.
Bill C-81, The Accessible Canada Act, aims to set accessibility standards in federally regulated areas, which include private and Crown corporations involved in the transportation industry, banking, and telecommunications. It will create an accessibility commissioner who will work out of the Canadian Human Rights Commission; it will also create the Canadian Accessibility Standards Development Organization, which will create the standards that federally regulated bodies will need to adhere to, in consultation with provincial and territorial counterparts.
Brendon Pooran of Pooran Law PC in Toronto, says that the federal bill doesn’t include any specific timelines on when the government will achieve full accessibility for people with disabilities, as compared to Ontario legislation, which states that accessibility standards must be developed, implemented and enforced before Jan. 1, 2025.
“There are no deadlines that speak to when regulations need to be implemented,” says Pooran. “Including some piece around specific deadlines for achieving full accessibility would be an improvement.”
Robert Lattanzio, a lawyer and the executive director of the ARCH Disability Law Centre in Toronto, says that timelines should include benchmarks on when certain aspects of the bill will be completed.
“When will the first regulations be enacted? When will there be a review?” asks Lattanzio. “All those pieces remain up in the air.”
Lattanzio says that experience with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act — which became law in 2005 — shows that having timelines has been an important tool for the disability communities to push and advocate for change.
Pooran says he would also like amendments to clarify the enforcement and compliance measures in the bill.
“While the federal legislation is a little bit more effective than what Ontario has, when it comes to enforcing accessibility standards, that responsibility is spread among various entities,” says Pooran. “There’s potential for duplication and inconsistencies.”
Laverne Jacobs, associate dean of research and graduate studies in the Faculty of Law at the University of Windsor, says that the enforcement can be tricky.
“It’s important to have government will to put into place the discretion in order to ensure that inspectors are put into place, that investigations are done,” says Jacobs.
She adds that the federal commissioner’s job is fairly elaborately set out, and there is the inclusion of a complaint mechanism that doesn’t exist in the Ontario legislation.
“There are provisions for remedies if an individual has suffered monetary or psychological damage because of a lack of accessibility,” says Jacobs. “Investigations can be done and matters can then be brought before the Human Rights Tribunal. It’s quite well thought-out.”
Jacobs adds that while the federal commissioner will have great tools and powers, the legislation says that existing authorities such as the Canadian Transportation Agency, or the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will still take complaints and do enforcement based in their own jurisdictions.
Paul Champ, principal at Champ & Associates in Ottawa, says that for complainants who feel that their rights have been violated under the new act, there isn’t much guidance in the legislation as to where to make complaints, and that can lead to “bounce-back,” similar to provisions in the Canada Labour Code.
“They kind of point at each other,” says Champ, citing cases he’s dealt with where a dismissal under a federally regulated sector under discriminatory grounds meant trying to determine whether to file the complaint under the Canada Labour Code or the Canadian Human Rights Act.
“There’s a complex answer to this that makes it work,” says Champ. “You file a complaint with the commissioner and you ask them to hold it in abeyance while you make a complaint under the Canada Labour Code Provisions. It’s unclear how that will unfold under the new statutory regime.”