By Ian Fine, Executive Director of the Canadian Human Rights Commission

The past few years have seen many changes at the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC). Under the leadership of our Chief Commissioner, Marie-Claude Landry, we have focused on putting people first by bringing changes to how we work and how we serve Canadians, with a goal of ensuring access to human rights justice for all.

This past year, the Government of Canada entrusted the CHRC with significant responsibilities under the Accessible Canada Act (ACA). We will have a new Accessibility Commissioner who will be responsible for both proactive compliance and enforcement of regulations. We are now also responsible for monitoring the Government of Canada’s implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). These are exciting times!

In my 20 years working at the Commission, I have seen many people come to us because they faced discrimination. While it can be difficult to fight for your rights, their efforts have played a critical role in achieving equality for persons with disabilities in Canada. Talking ATM machines to better serve people who are blind or partially sighted, closed captioning on television, and the acknowledgement that Elections Canada must ensure its polling stations are accessible to those with physical disabilities are all examples of positive changes that began with a complaint to the Commission.

Although we can celebrate these victories, I strongly believe that it should not be the victim’s responsibility to drive human rights progress forward. The reality is that filing a complaint and following it through to a final decision is a difficult and time-consuming process – especially for persons with disabilities.

Beyond that, when someone brings a complaint to the Commission, the harm has already been done. So, perhaps what we at the Commission are most excited about is that the ACA represents a shift in mindset – from reactive, to proactive. From people having to complain in order to have barriers removed, to organizations proactively preventing and removing those barriers from being there in the first place. In other words, the legislation places the responsibility on organizations to ensure that they meet their human rights obligations, rather than asking the victims of discrimination to serve also as the change agents.

While the ACA will still include a complaints mechanism, it is our hope that this legislative shift will make complaints a rare and last resort, instead of the norm.
We are also encouraged that the principle of “Nothing about us without us” has been included in the law. This approach is consistent with Canada’s obligations under the UNCRPD, which highlights the principle of engaging with and involving persons with disabilities in decision-making that affects them.

The tools in this law have the potential to make a real contribution to the removal of barriers to accessibility that have persisted for a long time. It is a positive step towards a society where our workplaces, public spaces and technology are accessible to all and the barriers created by attitudes and stigma are a thing of the past.

That does not mean it is perfect, or that there will not be challenges. For example, because there are four different organizations involved in developing the ACA’s standards and enforcing its compliance, we have heard from many in the disability community who are concerned this will create complexity and new barriers. For that reason, the Commission and our partners at the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), and the Federal Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board (FPSLREB), have joined together to create the Council of Federal Accessibility Agencies so we can work collaboratively and put people first to address these concerns.

We know there is still much work to do. Even though the legislation has received Royal Assent, the standards and enforcement mechanisms still need to be developed. The Commission will not be able to begin enforcement work until regulations are in place.

While we are excited at the milestones we have achieved so far, we recognize that the passage of the ACA is a beginning not an end. We know there is a long way to go before Canada is a fully accessible country – the ACA’s target is by 2040, twenty years from now.

The Commission along with its partners will need to keep pushing and fighting. As we move forward, we remain committed to working with the disability community until the vision of a barrier-free Canada becomes a reality.

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