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Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 4, 2022.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough says officials plan to work quickly on the details of a new multibillion-dollar Canada Disability Benefit following Parliament’s approval this week of Bill C-22, but the first payments to individuals are still about a 1½ years away.

The bill, called the Canada Disability Act, outlines the promised benefit in broad terms, but crucial details such as the amount of the benefit and who will qualify were not spelled out in the legislation. Government officials will now work with disability advocates and the provinces and territories to sort out those details through regulation.

Another key missing piece is funding. The 2023 budget announced $21.5-million to begin work on the regulatory details of the planned Canada Disability Benefit. But the program has not yet been publicly costed and accounted for in a budget.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail Thursday, Ms. Qualtrough declined to put a price tag on the benefit but said it will be a multibillion-dollar-a-year program that she hopes will be funded in the 2024 federal budget.

If that happens, Ms. Qualtrough suggested that payments could begin around December, 2024, while cautioning that was a rough estimate and the timeline could change.

“This will be a new permanent aspect of the Government of Canada’s social safety net,” she said.

The program’s ultimate cost will depend on the final terms of eligibility. The government is still trying to determine how many low-income Canadians may qualify for such a benefit. It is meant to be a top up to existing provincial benefits, but those programs vary widely in terms of size and form. They can include income supports, but also other benefits such as transit passes.

“Some very important questions need to be answered,” said Ms. Qualtrough. “We were not in the business of disability benefits, until now. And so we don’t necessarily have a list of Canadians with disabilities like we would have a list for seniors or children, for the Canada Child Benefit, or for the Old Age Security.”

The program is aimed at low-income adults – between the ages of 18 and 64 – with disabilities. It has been described as similar in design to the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), which is a top up to the Old Age Security (OAS) benefit for low-income seniors.

Nearly 30 per cent of working age Canadians with more severe disabilities were living below the poverty line, according to a 2017 Statistics Canada survey.

Ms. Qualtrough, who has been visually impaired since birth, said the program will address the gap in support programs for working age adults with disabilities.

“In the disability community, people celebrate their 65th birthday, because it’s maybe the first time they’ve had financial security in their life,” she said, in reference to the age of eligibility for OAS and GIS. “We want people to know that we’ve got their backs through their entire life.”

Bill C-22 received unanimous support from all parties in the House of Commons. It ran into resistance in the Senate however, following testimony from some legal experts who warned that the program could simply lead to provinces and private insurance companies clawing back existing supports, leaving disabled Canadians no better off.

The Senate agreed with those concerns and amended the bill to include language stating that the benefit cannot be used to clawback other benefits. Ms. Qualtrough rejected that amendment out of concern that it could lead to constitutional battles over provincial jurisdiction.

The minister said addressing those clawback concerns will be a key part of negotiations on the regulations to launch the program.

Disability advocates praised this week’s passage of Bill C-22 and pledged to work with the government on the details.

Krista Carr, executive vice-president of Inclusion Canada, which advocates on behalf of people with an intellectual disability, said Ms. Qualtrough has been “an amazing champion” of the new program. She said the disability community understands that regulations often take two years to complete and appreciates the minister’s effort to shorten that timeline.

“This is pretty historic,” she said, adding that the benefit will mean many low-income Canadians with disabilities will have much needed help with basics such as food, medication and special equipment.

“This has been something that the disability community has been only dreaming about for years and years and years and years,” she said. “We’ve got a tremendous opportunity here to do something big.”

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