Updated: Dec 29, 2020
Minister Carla Qualtrough discusses the new Canadian Disability Benefit, and opens up about lessons, challenges, and successes
By Spencer van Vloten
A former Paralympic swimmer and now federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, Delta's Carla Qualtrough played a leading role in passing Canada's first national accessibility legislation, and is currently working to develop the Canadian Disability Benefit.
BC Disability's Spencer van Vloten talked with Minister Qualtrough about the lessons and challenges of passing the Accessible Canada Act, what's next for the Canadian Disability Benefit, and how to increase the political participation of persons with disabilities.
Spencer: From your experience of developing and passing the Accessible Canada Act, what lessons have you learned and what advice would you have for the BC government and any other governments looking to pass effective accessibility legislation?
Minister Qualtrough: The biggest take away from the Accessible Canada Act process was the importance of good consultation—to have good legislation you really need to put in the effort to hear from people. We held robust, inclusive cross-country consultations, and this paid off by capturing the diversity and range of issues around the country.
Another lesson is that you need a strong system of tracking what was heard during consultations---the consultation means nothing if it is not well-documented and not readily available as a resource, and that gives the impression that it is not an honest process where people's views really matter.
The feedback we got informed a much larger body of issues and legislation than just the Accessible Canada Act, and helped governments at provincial level too, so it is well worth the effort to have a robust documentation system in place.
If I could do it over again, I would frame the legislation as being about disability inclusion rather than specifically about accessibility. The legislation really goes beyond accessibility and touches so many aspects of life for disabled persons, and I think moving ahead disability inclusion is the best way to capture what we are aiming for in the ministry.
"If I could do it again, I would frame the legislation as being about disability inclusion rather than accessibility"
With reference to BC in particular, the province has been a leader in disability issues and accessibility, and when many provinces put accessibility on hold in order to wait for federal legislation to be passed, BC kept working on it and showing genuine interest in it.
Spencer: What were the biggest challenges in working on the Accessible Canada Act?
Minister Qualtrough: The biggest challenge was doing things on such a large scale. Accessibility legislation had never been done at the federal level, and there were so many different voices across the country we needed to hear from and then represent in the Accessible Canada Act.
But this was something that absolutely had to be done, not only to show that everyone's voices matter, but to capture all the issues and perspectives so we could have the best legislation possible.
The phrase 'nothing about us without us' is often used, but it should really be 'nothing without us', because every decision impacts disabled persons and they need to always be at the table.
"The phrase 'nothing about us without us' should just be 'nothing without us'; every decision impacts disabled persons"
Spencer: It was announced that there will be a new Canadian Disability Benefit, based on the Guaranteed Income Supplement for Seniors. Tell us what this entails, how progress has been, and what the consultation process has been like.
Minister Qualtrough: The federal government had been out of the business of income support for disabled persons, because income support has traditionally been a provincial area. But the pandemic was a wakeup call for the federal government’s ability to interact with and support persons with disabilities—there was no federal program to do this and it showed.
The fact is, income support means independence and choice, it means more time for self-care and the things that you enjoy, and it means not having to put all your resources and energy into barely making your bill payments and living in poverty.
"The pandemic was a wakeup call for the federal government's ability to interact with and support disabled persons"
The legislation is in its early stages and the parameters have not been set, but the starting point, the basis of it, will be what we do for seniors, where those seniors who make below certain amount get a supplement to help them live more dignified lives.
Spencer: Have you run into any challenges with the Canadian Disability Benefit so far?
Minister Qualtrough: We have a lot of work to do with provinces to see how this will impact other supports; we do not want to do anything that jeopardizes the entitlements or supplements of disabled persons at a provincial level.
This is not going to be a case of getting one thing, then having another taken away, which unfortunately happens too often.
"This is not going to be a case of getting one thing, then having another taken away"
Spencer: Can a non-disabled politician or public servant ever have the same grasp or level of understanding of disability issues that someone with a disability can?
Minister Qualtrough: Having a disability adds another level of understanding; it gives you a lifetime of experiences that non-disabled persons simply have not had, and that provides an extra layer and more developed lens through which to view these issues. It is especially the subtle things that disabled persons can pick up better on.
However, someone certainly does not need to be disabled to be knowledgeable and a strong leader when it comes to disability; in fact, family members of disabled persons are often among the strongest advocates and in a way have their own lived experience of disability.
Spencer: What advice would you have for disabled persons who want to become active in politics but aren’t sure how, or are having self-doubts? How did you get started?
Minister Qualtrough: You are right Spencer! There are not many disabled politicians—and that is why it is more important ever for people with disabilities to make that first move and to set the example as role models.
One thing that must be stressed is that you can be politically active and build your skills in many ways—you do not have to jump straight into running for office. I started as volunteer board member for a non-profit I was involved with, building my skills and passion for governance over time.
"You can be politically active and build your skills in many ways; you don't have to jump straight into running for office"
I wasn't involved in federal politics until 2015, but I had been learning, gaining confidence, and developing relationships long before, and this built a foundation that helped me get where I am today. It is intimidating if you think you have to dive into the deep end straight away, but you can move up gradually so that you are already a strong swimmer once you get there.
Another thing I recommend is to reach out to leaders and people with experience in the fields you are interested in. Before I first ran in politics, I called Rick Hansen and had invaluable talks with him about his experience as a leader and change maker.
You just have to make the effort to reach out, and you will be pleasantly surprised at the response.