Canada’s Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities was in Whitehorse Thursday on her way to creating Canada’s first federal Accessibly Act.
Carla Qualtrough is on a cross-country tour speaking with Canadians about what they would like to see in new accessibility legislation. Whitehorse was her first stop.
The new law will legislate the accessiblity of anything under the federal government’s jurisdiction. That means banks, cross-border transportation, federal departments and Crown corporations will all be covered.
“I think one of the challenges with our system right now is, especially our legal system, we have to wait until people are discriminated against before we can help them,” Qualtrough said in an interview prior to Thursday’s consultation. “The main goal of our legislation is to proactively address issues of accessibility before we get to the point of people being denied access.”
The minister, who is a human rights lawyer and former Paralympian, said it’s too early to go into specifics.
She promised the new law will “absolutely” have mandated consequences if standards aren’t met.
“It will go beyond saying this is the nice thing to do or the right thing to do.”
The law will not just touch on physical barriers, she said, but also address systemic barriers like those that keep disabled people from finding jobs.
According to the federal government, there are approximately 411,600 working-aged Canadians with disabilities who could work but cannot find employment. Almost half of those potential workers are post-secondary graduates.
“Any employer within federal jurisdiction will be expected to be inclusive and hire and retain and recruit people with disabilities,” Qualtrough said.
The proposed new legislation won’t touch on anything that is under the territorial government’s control. It won’t force the coffee shop down the street to install a ramp, for example.
“But what many provinces have told us is, once we do our law, they will then do a mirror image in their province which would then get to the coffee shop,” the minister said.
Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec already have accessibility laws. British Columbia and Nova Scotia are working towards versions of their own.
Aside from the Yukon Human Rights Act, which prevents people from being discriminated against because of their disability, the territory does not have specific accessibility legislation.
New buildings in the territory must meet the current national building code, updated in 2010, which requires ramps, elevators, and accessible washrooms.
But, unless they are significantly renovated, older buildings are only required to meet the standard that was law the year they were built.
That means many of the territory’s structures do not have to meet the same accessibility requirements, said Scott Milton, the territorial government’s director of realty and capital asset planning.
“If you have a building that was built in the ’70s and you haven’t really touched it, you’re not in violation of anything because it is still compliant to the code of the day when it was built,” he said.
A few dozen Yukoners came to Thursday’s consultation and spoke to Qualtrough about ways to improve accessibility for people with a range of physical and mental disabilities.
With the help of the multiple sign language interpreters who had to be brought in from Outside, Elke Kraemer-Tremblay spoke about how difficult it is to have only one territorial American Sign Language interpreter.
The territory has been running the program since 2012. Funding is set to last until 2018.
“It feels like it’s tenuous grounds,” she said.
Along with ASL interpreters, Thursday’s events had large screens projecting text of what was being said in both official languages.
Kraemer-Tremblay said it was the first time in four or five years that she has been to an event that was fully accessible.
The territorial ASL interpreter only works part time, she said.
“We can’t afford to hire a full-time interpreter, so for us it’s a loss.”
Sandy Peacock, who works as a facilitator for local NGOs, said the closure of government offices by the previous federal government, including Whitehorse’s Canada Revenue Agency office, directly impacted people with disabilities.
She encouraged the government to consider re-opening the office.
Peacock also wants to make sure that those outside of Whitehorse are not forgotten.
“What about the people who are deaf and blind in the communities? Or have mobility issues and there are no sidewalks? I would like to speak out for the communities.”
Public consultation on the new legislation will be open until February 2017. Anyone who was not able to attend Thursday’s consultation can submit suggestions online at www.canada.ca/Accessible-Canada.
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org