Discriminating, Tone Deaf Response to Disability Advocates From The Trudeau Government

(Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough)

Within weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting in the spring of 2020, the federal government launched the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). CERB was to act as a safety net for working Canadians who lost their job due to COVID lock downs. What is ever present for Canadians with disabilities was the lack of response – or even thought – on those with disabilities in this country by their federal government during the CERB roll out. It took until the summer for the Trudeau government to put emergency relief on the table for Canadians with disabilities. Even then, the emergency relief only reached some, not all people with disabilities, and a lot of disabled Canadians are still waiting on this very needed help to arrive. I’ve been in contact with disability advocates from across the country who have been pressuring the Trudeau government on exactly why it’s been taking so long to implement COVID emergency relief for the disabled. The Ministry of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion has recently responded to one of those advocates with the following:

The Government of Canada recognizes that some vulnerable groups are disproportionately impacted by this pandemic, in particular Canadians with disabilities. As such, we understand that some are dealing with underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk of serious complications related to COVID-19. Others face discrimination and barriers in accessing information, social services, and health care. For others, the need for self-isolation and physical distancing creates additional challenges.

From the onset, the Government has taken steps to ensure that the interests and needs of persons with disabilities are being taken into consideration in the decisions and measures adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in the spirit of “nothing without us” from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Government established a COVID-19 Disability Advisory Group. This Advisory Group, comprised of experts in disability inclusion, provides advice on the real-time lived experiences of persons with disabilities during this crisis, the issues, challenges and systemic gaps that exist as well as the best strategies and measures to be taken.

The main issue the disability community has – is with respect to the CERB, the speed in which CERB was approved, the amount people received under the CERB (which is way higher than what most of the disabled get to live off of), why it’s taking so long for the federal government to provide emergency assistance to people with disabilities, and why so few qualify for this support? While it is welcome news that the government has officially acknowledged the “spirit” of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it’s also worthy to note that CERB recipients didn’t have to wait nearly 8 months for an advisory group to make decisions on whether or not to roll out CERB.

While the government says it’s acting in the spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), its COVID19 response to persons with disabilities as a result of CERB looks to be in violation of sections one and three of article 5 of the CRPD:

Article 5 – Equality and non-discrimination

1. States Parties recognize that all persons are equal before and under the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law.

3. In order to promote equality and eliminate discrimination, States Parties shall take all appropriate steps to ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided.

Now that we have established that the federal response to COVID 19 is not in the “spirit” of the CRPD, the government goes on to deflect attention away from that point and towards its “advisory group”. Continuing on with the government’s response to advocates:

This Advisory Group has played a key role in providing advice on guidance issued by the Public Health Agency of Canada on COVID-19 and persons with disabilities (www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection/guidance-documents/people-with-disabilities.html) as well as the Public Health Ethics Framework, entitled A guide for use in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada. The section on ethical values and principles recognizes the human rights of all people regardless of condition, including persons with disabilities. The framework is available at www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection/canadas-reponse/ethics-framework-guide-use-response-covid-19-pandemic.html.

In addition to public health guidance, the Advisory Group and the disability community have raised accessible communications and the need for engagement with persons with disabilities as a key issue. That is why, as part of National AccessAbility Week, the Government announced additional support for national disability organizations through the Disability component of the Social Development Partnership Program. This funding will enhance their communications and engagement activities to better address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on persons with disabilities.

Essentially this word sandwich of a response is meant to say “we care about your human rights” and deflects from the fact the government is clearly admitting to giving a lot of money to disability organizations (who I’m sure lobbied very hard for these funds) because it can’t quite figure out how to communicate with persons with disabilities? What? Isn’t that a form of discrimination in itself? Shouldn’t government communications in 2020 be fully accessible to people with disabilities as required under domestic law? I would also submit to the fact that the government is in violation of article 11 of the CRPD in its emergency response during COVID to people with disabilities.

The government in its first paragraph to advocates, recognized the risk to people with disabilities stating: “As such, we understand that some are dealing with underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk of serious complications related to COVID-19. Others face discrimination and barriers in accessing information, social services, and health care.”

Article 11 of the CRPD states (emphasis added):

Article 11 – Situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies

States Parties shall take, in accordance with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters.

The rest of the government’s response to disability advocates was extremely long winded and self-congratulatory on policy and what the government has done with respect to COVID relief for various disability related groups within the community, however doesn’t provide any acknowledgment towards what many people with disabilities feel as a result of the speed of the roll out of the CERB compared to the continued very slow roll out of disability relief and supports from the federal government.

A lot of the people I’ve spoken directly to in the disability community feel discriminated against by the Trudeau Government as a result of CERB. They feel as though they don’t matter in Canadian society as a result of both level’s of government (provincial and federal) not hearing the pleas for help from our most vulnerable during these unprecedented times. I don’t know who the federal government is taking advise from, but that advise quite clearly isn’t coming from actual people with disabilities considering the tone deaf response to people with disabilities thus far throughout COVID19. For a country that traditionally has very progressive views on human rights, and well known for that globally – the way we treat our disabled in this country doesn’t befit the global reputation Canada has across all waters as being a human rights champion, and a very bight beacon to rest of the world in that regard.

The federal government seems to be dragging its heels when it comes to emergency disability COVID relief. When approached about this, the federal government is deflecting to advisory groups who can’t communicate properly with the disability community and with long winded self-congratulatory responses. A political tactic most in the Ontario autism community are very familiar with when it comes to the Liberals. Former Premier Kathleen Wynne in the last election held the carrot of support over the nose of families of autistic children in order to sway votes.

Our disabled in Canada have been very vocal on social media around their suffering during COVID19. The Canadian Government shouldn’t be championing the inner spirit of international human rights law at a time when they are continuously delaying those rights as a result of the quest for self-preservation, and provincial governments that aren’t stepping up to the plate. For far too long the disabled in this country have been used as a political football by all levels of government. Human rights shouldn’t be based on political ideology, where you live in Canada, or political gamesmanship – they should just simply exist and be respected by all.

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