Editor’s Note: The source interviewed for this piece uses disability-first language to describe herself, and The Pigeon has adapted our language accordingly. We acknowledge that this is not a universal preference.
The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was announced in March 2020 to support Canadians struggling financially due to COVID-19. Since then, 8.46 million Canadians have applied for the benefit, and 86 per cent of Canadians have agreed the CERB is a necessary and useful aid. However, while the federal government has extended COVID-19 support to countless Canadians, those with disabilities were left in the lurch.
The financial needs of disabled Canadians appear to have been wholly neglected by the government until recent weeks. It took until the end of July for any legislation supporting disabled communities to pass into law. Even so, disabled Canadians were offered only a fraction of what the average non-disabled adult has received in financial support.
According to the Canadian Survey on Disability, about 20 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15—6.2 million people—self-identified as having one or more disabilities in 2017.
While those receiving disability payments are still eligible for the CERB—provided they stopped working for reasons related to COVID-19—disabled Canadians have a higher rate of unemployment than those who are able-bodied. For people unable to work, CERB was never an option.
Why was the federal government so delayed in implementing and passing a bill in support of this underprivileged group, whose financial struggles were a problem long before COVID-19?
A comprehensive understanding of this issue requires examining not only the debates that recently took place in Parliament, but the history of the relationship between the Canadian government and its disabled citizens.
On June 10, the Liberal federal government introduced Bill C-17, “An Act respecting further COVID-19 measures,” in the House of Commons. The bill aimed to extend the duration of the COVID-19 financial relief programs that were already in place. Additionally, the legislation’s third section proposed a non-taxable one-time payment of $600 for disabled Canadians.
Opposing party members in the House of Commons refused to move forward with the bill, citing issues with its content.
Due to the pressing need for disability legislation, Liberal members of Parliament then suggested the bill be split in two, with the section on disability assistance proposed as its own document. However, members of Parliament failed to come to an agreement once again. The meeting adjourned with no resolution in place.
As a result, the only hope for financial assistance to disabled Canadians was delayed indefinitely, despite the government’s assurance that they would provide support. For the remainder of the month, it seemed that there was little chance of any progress being made.
On July 14, Ottawa, Ont. mayor Jim Watson voiced his concerns in a letter, urging the government to pass, at minimum, the portion of the bill that concerned financial support for those with disabilities, as Liberal Members of Parliament had attempted to do in June.
The House of Commons met again, on July 20, after being recalled by the Liberal government to discuss the portions of Bill C-17 that had failed to pass into law. Finally, a new piece of legislation was created.
Bill C-20, the newly revised bill, contained both the wage subsidy and disability plans originally part of Bill C-17. The new document was introduced, read twice to the Members of Parliament, and debated once.
Bill C-20 had more promise than its predecessor, which had only acknowledged disabled Canadians who received the federal Disability Tax Credit (DTC)—a federal non-refundable tax credit—as eligible for further compensation.
The former bill had been criticized by both the general public and NDP Members of Parliament for its failure to account for the 60 per cent of disabled Canadians who do not receive the DTC, and who therefore did not meet the criteria to receive COVID-19 funding.
Evidently, these criticisms were heard, as Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough assured reporters on July 17 that the revised disability payment, “will now also go to those receiving disability benefits from the Canada Pension Plan, the Quebec Pension Plan and Veterans Affairs Canada.”
However, disabled Canadians will not see these benefits right away. Disability payments will only be distributed to Canadians in the early fall, months after the legislation was approved.
Furthermore, NDP MP for Hamilton Centre, Matthew Green, argued in the House of Commons that Bill C-20 has only been an “incremental improvement” to previous legislation.
While Bill C-20 is a step in the right direction, it is ultimately still not enough.
Living with a Disability in Canada
Sarah Colero, 24, is a former student from Toronto, Canada. She now spends most of her time advocating for disability rights and human rights.
Colero is an activist in support of medical cannabis, which she started taking at the age of 18 to help alleviate the symptoms of multiple Acquired Brain Injuries (ABIs). An ABI involves damage to the brain that occurs after birth, and can cause physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioural changes.
During infancy, Colero had a cyst removed from her brain. When it grew back, doctors inserted a shunt to drain it. This led to health complications throughout her childhood, including strokes and seizures.
By the time Colero was 17, her physical condition deteriorated. She experienced immobility, requiring around-the-clock care from her family. Through investigative surgery, doctors discovered that the shunt in her head was broken, and while this error was later fixed by surgeons, Colero continued to experience persistent migraines and seizures.
Colero’s treatment and pain management journey has had its ups and downs.
“They put me on opioids, and that did not help at all,” Colero told The Pigeon in an interview. “Then my doctor prescribed me medical cannabis, when I was about 18 or 19, and things have been relatively stable ever since.”
Colero’s ABI symptoms continue to affect her today, causing cognitive and behavioural problems.
Growing up, Colero experienced discrimination at a postsecondary level because of her disabilities. She was unable to discuss these matters further due to involvement in ongoing legal proceedings.
She found that engaging with the disabled community on social media helped improve her mental health and allowed her to discuss her issues with others who could relate to them.
While Colero’s experiences with systemic discrimination have partly come from the Canadian government’s treatment of disabled citizens, she believes accessibility is a worldwide struggle.
“[Disabled people] have the same issues, in that the world is inaccessible,” Colero said.
Recently, the topic of disabled rights in Canada has been the focus of her attention. The financial struggles of disabled Canadians were already at a tipping point, and it seems that the lack of COVID-19 supports have only made things worse.
Colero, who receives roughly $1,100 dollars a month through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), is hoping to receive the additional COVID-19 disability support promised by the federal government, like many other disabled Canadians.
“Every provincial [disability] program across this country is [paying less] than the poverty line,” Colero said. “We are the most vulnerable, so I don’t understand how we are not a priority.”
However, despite these setbacks, there is still hope among disability advocates in Canada. The NDP’s recent pressure on the Liberal government to bring aid to disabled Canadians has been a source of comfort for people like Colero, who feel like their voices are being heard among some members of Parliament.
“I talked to the MPs of the NDP party,” Colero said. “They have stepped up to the plate in the House of Commons.”
The progress on Bill C-20 is a step in the right direction, but it’s clear there is more work to be done. Bill C-20 still leaves out the majority of disabled Canadians.
“Advocacy is two steps forward, one step back,” Colero said.
Canada’s History: The State and Its People
Canadians with disabilities were systemically neglected well before COVID-19. Canada has a long history of ridiculing, exploiting, or entirely forgetting the lived experiences of disabled Canadians.
Disability advocacy movements in Canada started gaining momentum in the late 19th-century and have continued to the present day.
One noteworthy instance of disability history that mirrors today’s struggles is the experience of Canadian soldiers returning from World War I with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who were often overlooked. While soldiers who returned with physical disabilities were often federally compensated, past stigmas against mental disabilities and illnesses meant mentally-ill veterans went unsupported.
Mark Humphries, a historian at Wilfrid Laurier University, outlines the years of ill treatment by the Canadian government towards these disabled veterans in his article, “War’s Long Shadow: Masculinity, Medicine, and the Gendered Politics of Trauma, 1914-1939,” published in The Canadian Historical Review in 2010.
The parallels to today are striking—physically-disabled Canadians are still treated differently than mentally-disabled Canadians at a federal level.
“Ottawa politicians were well aware that disabled soldiers would require government financial assistance after the war ended–and they wanted to keep costs down,” Humphries writes.
To make matters worse, “soldiers had to prove that they had been in treatment for some form of legitimate war injury during the conflict.” Since the majority of cases were “deemed illegitimate at the front,” soldiers suffering from mental disabilities were unable to receive financial assistance after the war.
Today, disabled Canadians still often have to prove the validity of their own disability and their need for help. For Ontarians wishing to receive the ODSP’s COVID-19 supports, there was a financial benefit of $100 available to single, adult, disabled Canadians until July.
However, according to Colero, it was not promoted, and was offered on a means-tested basis, meaning that disabled Canadians had to prove why they needed monetary support. This poses a difficult barrier that able-bodied Canadians do not have to face in programs such as the CERB.
This historical relationship between the individual and the state, where disabled Canadians were left to struggle for themselves, appears to have changed very little in the last hundred years. It paints a bleak picture of the current political environment of Canada, which continues to disregard marginalized groups.
From advocating for the rights of Deaf Canadians to use sign language in classrooms, to fighting against eugenics and discrimination in healthcare and in the law, disabled Canadians are forced to constantly push back against the government for their right to be valued and respected as much as non-disabled Canadians.
With a fraction of financial support offered to only a small percentage of disabled Canadians today, the Canadian government is glaringly complicit. Like many Canadians with disabilities, Colero will continue using her voice to fight for disabled rights in Canada.
“I always have to remind people that Trudeau is [only] treating able-bodied people well in this crisis. […] Disabled people are always left behind, whether it be in school or in work, whether it be in society, or whether it be in politics.”