What Does the Accessible Canada Act Mean for Canadians?

Published June 22, 2021

Canada has a history when it comes to disability advocacy that is broadly credited to organizing that occurred in the 1970s. However, unlike the landmark pieces of legislation in the United States — whether it be the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 504, to name two — the first sweeping federal legislation of the kind in Canada, the Accessible Canada Act, was passed in 2019. That’s almost 30 years after George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law.

Let’s back up. The rights of Canadians with disabilities were enshrined in Canadian law with the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This put disability rights explicitly in Canada’s constitution, but didn’t explicitly name what that would mean in practical terms. Section 15 reads: "Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability." The section was enforceable by 1985, giving, in the government’s own words, them "time to bring their laws into line." You will see that delays in enforcement are common when it comes to disability legislation in Canada.

So, what took so long between 1985 and 2019 and what does the new act, entitled the Accessible Canada Act, mean for your average disabled Canadian?

Well, first it’s important to understand a little bit of Canadian political geography. A lot of power is delineated to the provinces when it comes to how laws are applied. Like our neighbors to the south, aspects like health and education are provincial (think: state) responsibilities, on the whole, rather than federal ones. Even the Accessible Canada Act, which I’ll get into more detail on soon, only has power over places that the federal government regulates. That means that agencies like the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which controls a lot of media guidelines, fall under its purview, but not your neighborhood grocery store.

The next logical question, then, is: So what have the provinces done about it? It’s best to describe that part of the equation as in transition. Most of Canada’s provinces run on a human rights model. Because disability is protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act, it’s common for citizens to be sent towards their local human rights commission to lodge a complaint. This is a lengthy process and, for some, feels akin to when well-intentioned but ill-informed Americans think of the ADA as a cure-all rather than an imperfect solution to a larger problem.

There are four provinces with accessibility legislation: Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia. Siteimprove provides a great overview of Canada's accessibility laws. Most proposed lengthy timelines, Ontario’s version, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, passed in 2005 and had a timeline stretching to 2025 for some sectors. Manitoba’s 2013 legislation aimed for 2023. British Columbia also has lawmakers working on a bill, Bill 6, that has similar aspirations, though some have called into question whether its scope is large enough. Also read our Introduction to Canadian Digital Accessibility Laws.

Given how long it took for Canada to obtain a piece of nation-wide legislation, it came as not much of a surprise when the Accessible Canada Act brought with it some lengthy timelines. The act was brought forward by the current government in 2018, having gone through a lengthy consultation process, and was enacted in 2019; but, and it’s a big 'but,' the act isn’t meant to be fully implemented until 2040.

However, this doesn’t mean that the Canadian government has been sitting on its hands. Consultation committees have been struck for seven priority categories which are: employment; the built environment; information and communication technologies; communication (other than information and communication technologies); the procurement of goods, services and facilities; the design and delivery of programs and services; as well as transportation. Recently, there was also a call asking those interested to apply for the role of Chief Accessibility Officer, the person mandated in the legislation to shepherd the project forward. How quickly the project moves forward now is a question of political will and consultation, among other factors. One thing is certain: it will be a while before the whole affair is completed.

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