Disabled Canadians declared a partial victory Thursday hours after the government voted to enact Canada's first national accessibility law, calling it a major step forward while cautioning that more work was still needed to ensure it achieves its goal.
The Accessible Canada Act, which aims to improve life for those with disabilities, received unanimous support in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening. It awaits only royal assent, expected in the coming weeks, before officially becoming law.
Advocates who fought for amendments to strengthen the legislation praised the governing Liberals for delivering on a promise to implement the bill and bring Canada more in line with other countries that have had such laws for years. But they also cautioned against complacency, saying more work lay ahead.
"We applaud the government for its willingness to listen to Canadians with disabilities," Council of Canadians with Disabilities chair Jewelles Smith said in a statement.
"CCD reminds the government that there are many serious ongoing barriers that will not be addressed by this act, and encourages the federal government to pursue policy solutions to these well-known concerns."
Accessibility Minister Carla Qualtrough, who spearheadded national consultations on the bill and shepherded it through Parliament, hailed its passage as a significant moment.
"This is the most transformative piece of legislation since enacting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and a true testament to the work, commitment and contributions of the Canadian disability community," she said in a statement. "This historic act sends a clear signal to Canadians that persons with disabilities will no longer be treated as an afterthought."
The act passed by Parliament bears striking differences from the version initially tabled last June.
Its stated purpose — to "identify, remove and prevent'' accessibility barriers in areas that fall under federal jurisdiction — was greeted with enthusiasm and remains the same. Those areas include built environments, federally run programs and services, banking, telecommunications and transportation that crosses provincial lines.
But disabled advocates almost immediately began raising concerns about the effectiveness of the legislation and lobbied for changes.
Last fall, a group of 95 disability groups signed an open letter outlining nine areas of perceived weakness, including the lack of a timeline for the bill's implementation and failure to recognize various forms of sign language as official languages of the deaf.
The Senate's committee on social affairs, science and technology, citing community concerns, amended the bill to include sign language recognition as well as a timeline for the bill to be fully implemented by 2040.
Those amendments were reflected in the bill that garnered parliamentary approval.
Activists celebrated the passage of the act as genuine progress, but some continued to voice concerns about areas where they feel it still falls short.
The Arch Disability Law Centre indicated Thursday that it was particularly troubled by the language employed throughout the bill, which repeatedly uses "may" rather than "shall" or "must" when describing initiatives.
This language gives government ... power to make and enforce the new accessibility requirements, but does not actually require them to use these powers," Arch said in a statement.
An amendment before the Senate committee addressed that concern but was defeated.
Advocates also criticized the bill for granting the government broad powers to exempt people from the new rules, spreading enforcement over numerous agencies, and opting not to withhold federal funding from organizations that don't comply with accessibility measures. Conservatives and New Democrats echoed those issues in Parliament.
Gabrielle Peters, a Vancouver-based wheelchair user, said the government's failure to address those areas leaves the law lacking compared to similar legislation in other countries. She said she questions whether the law will prove significant for all its meant to serve.
"I and many like me will be at home with my broken wheelchair in my tiny box of an improperly adapted apartment living in poverty in a city with 8,000 corners where I can't cross the street," she said.
"Nothing in the act will change that. But I am glad Canada finally has an Accessible Canada Act, however lacking I find it, and I want to recognize the work of those who actually worked on and for it."
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press