Advocates are urging Parliament to quickly pass disability legislation before the summer recess as the federal cabinet weighs whether to accept a package of Senate amendments.
Bill C-22, the Canada Disability Benefit Act, sets the stage for a long-promised new income support program for Canadians with disabilities.
The legislation was first tabled nearly two years ago in the previous Parliament. It died when the 2021 election was called and was reintroduced last June.
After about three months of study, the Senate sent the bill back to the House of Commons late last week with six amendments, including one aimed at ensuring the promised new federal benefit is not used by provinces and insurance companies as a reason to claw back existing support programs.
Other amendments added new language related to timelines for the government to implement the related regulations that would create the new benefit. The bill leaves key details of the benefit – such as the size of payments and eligibility – to be decided later by cabinet through regulations.
There are signs the government may have issues with the amendment related to constitutionality. Senator Brent Cotter, a former dean of the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan who sponsored the bill in the Senate, expressed concern last week that the amendment infringes on provincial authority.
But senators heard in committee from Osgoode Hall Law School adjunct professor Hart Schwartz, who told them the amendment is constitutional.
In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, did not directly address whether she will accept all of the Senate amendments.
“I’m glad to see Bill C-22 pass third reading in the Senate. It means the Canada Disability Benefit is one step closer to becoming a reality for persons with disabilities in Canada,” she said, adding that the benefit has the potential to reduce poverty and improve the financial security of many working-age persons with disabilities.
“I am reviewing the Senate’s amendments, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House of Commons and the Senate to ensure swift passage of the bill. The disability community is counting on us to get this done,” she said.
If the House of Commons approves the Senate amendments, the bill can go immediately to royal assent. If the House rejects some or all of the amendments, that decision will need to go back to the Senate for a vote.
The House is scheduled to break for summer on June 23, but often rises a few days earlier than scheduled.
Prof. Schwartz and lawyer Steven Muller, who testified together at a Senate committee in support of an amendment to ensure the bill does not create an unintended windfall for insurance companies, wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other MPs this week urging them to support the amended bill.
The letter repeated their warning that adopting the bill without the Senate’s clawback amendment will increase the profits of private insurance companies.
“It will do so by reducing the amounts that they will be required to pay out. The taxpayers of Canada will be indirectly subsidizing private insurance providers,” they wrote.
Rabia Khedr, national director of Disability Without Poverty, said the government, MPs and senators must find a way to pass the bill into law before the end of June.
Ms. Khedr said Mr. Cotter’s comments suggest there is concern about the amendment related to clawbacks. However she expressed hope the issue will not cause any further delay.
“We hope that amendments proposed by the Senate can be swiftly debated and resolved by the House of Commons, because we’re still advocating for the bill to be fast tracked with or without these amendments,” she told The Globe Tuesday.
Mr. Cotter, the sponsor of the bill, said that while he speaks regularly with Ms. Qualtrough about the bill, he doesn’t know whether the government will accept the amendment related to clawbacks.
“My own personal speculation is that they have reservations,” he said Tuesday in an interview. “I have similar reservations on that very point, myself.”
Senator Marc Gold, the government representative in the Senate, spoke against the amendment when it was proposed in committee, saying “the government feels very strongly about this.” Other senators with legal backgrounds, including Kim Pate, say the amendment is in line with Canadian Charter protections for minority rights.
“Rather than see provinces and insurance companies enriched at the expense of the very people the benefit is being designed to assist, we think, better for the government to err on the side of constitutional protections of those who are most vulnerable,” Ms. Pate told The Globe Tuesday.