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Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough takes part in a news conference in Ottawa, on Nov. 21, 2021.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

“This is a game-changer, a lifesaver even, for people living with disabilities,” says Rabia Khedr, national director of the organization Disability Without Poverty. “But now, the hard work begins.”

On Friday, after years of delays, MPs unanimously approved Bill C-22, legislation creating the Canada Disability Benefit (CDB).

This is a significant milestone, potentially the most important addition to Canada’s social safety net since the Guaranteed Income Supplement for low-income seniors was introduced in 1967.

But now that the legislative bones of the new program are in place, there needs to be meat added in the form of regulations and funding.

The Liberal government promised the new benefit in the September, 2020, Speech from the Throne. The first iteration of the law died when an election was called in the fall of 2021. Carla Qualtrough, the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, deserves credit for following through, as do the activists who spurred her on.

The new benefit should, in theory, lift more than 1.4 million Canadians living with disabilities out of poverty.

But that will only happen when the law’s principle – that people living with disabilities need additional financial support – is given life.

Over the next year, there are three important questions that must be answered: 1) What will be the amount of the monthly benefit? 2) Who will be eligible? 3) How can we ensure that the new benefit will not be clawed back?

The CDB is desperately needed. About one in five Canadians live with a physical, developmental or psychiatric disability. That’s about 6.2 million people. Two in every five people living in poverty in this country have a disability.

This level of poverty is baked into our public policies. In 2021, a single person living with a disability was eligible for provincial welfare payments ranging from a low of $10,884 in New Brunswick to a high of $21,164 in Alberta.

There are a number of other social programs that help, including the Canada Pension Plan, disability benefits for veterans, worker’s compensation services, Employment Insurance sickness benefits and private disability insurance that can provide some support to people living with disabilities.

What is important is that the CDB acts as a top-up, not a substitute for these programs. If provinces, territories or private insurers claw back the CDB, it will defeat its purpose.

Clearly, one of the key questions is how much additional money recipients of the CDB can expect to receive.

Currently, the Guaranteed Income Supplement (the added benefit that low-income seniors receive in addition to Old Age Security) is a maximum monthly payment of $1,032. That needs to be a starting point for the CDB while acknowledging that people with disabilities usually have additional expenses. The federal government needs to start budgeting for at least that amount now. (So far, Ottawa has committed only to $21.5-million to create the infrastructure for the new program.)

Disability Without Poverty, the grassroots group that sprung up to push for the new benefit, has articulated a number of principles for fleshing out the new program, beginning with the need to consult and include people with disabilities in the CDB design process.

Eligibility matters. Everyone currently receiving disability benefits federally or provincially should be automatically eligible for the CDB.

It can’t be tied to the Disability Tax Credit, where the Canada Revenue Agency determines who has a disability (“a severe and prolonged impairment,” according to the law). That is an absurdity.

There needs to be generous earnings exemption. We want people with disabilities to work, while recognizing that there are sometimes limits in their abilities to do so.

And we shouldn’t forget that most people living with disabilities do work. About 59 per cent of Canadians aged 25 to 64 with disabilities have gainful employment; for those without disabilities, the rate is 80 per cent.

Work is about more than money. It’s about dignity, social inclusion and contributing to society.

The CDB also needs to be an individual, income-based benefit, not family-based. It’s absurd that people with disabilities often lose important supports like transportation because they are in a relationship with someone earning an income.

And the issue of clawbacks is all-important. Provinces, territories, private insurers and service providers like group homes can’t use this new benefit as a cash grab.

The purpose here is to lift people out of poverty.

That’s why it’s important to get the regulations right from the start and to get the Canada Disability Benefit in place as quickly as possible.

As Ms. Khedr said, repeating a question: “When will the first cheques go out? Yesterday wouldn’t be soon enough.”

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