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Disability benefit bill in limbo as Parliament breaks for summer

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Shelley Petit said the financial situations faced by Canadians with disabilities right now are “horrific.”

“I know people that are eating one piece of bread a day, that’s what they can afford,” said Petit, chair of the New Brunswick Coalition of Persons with Disabilities and who also noted that she lives with a disability.

“It’s horrific because every month, you have to make decisions about, ‘Can I eat this month? Can I pay a basic bill? Can I go see my mother?”’ she said. “My mother is elderly and sick, it’s a big deal to go see her. She lives 45 minutes away.”

The federal Liberal government did not call their disability benefit legislation for debate before the House of Commons broke for summer, despite promised action since 2020 and recent pleas from organizations across the country.

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The bill to create a monthly benefit cheque for working-age Canadians with disabilities would be a game-changer, Petit said, topping up the benefits received from the New Brunswick government with about an extra $500 in her pocket every month.

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“That’s food, that’s medication, that’s being able to get socks that are not full of holes, or buy new underwear,” she said, adding that influx of money could also help people pay for treatments that could offer relief but aren’t covered by government health-care plans.

“I live in Canada and I have a master’s degree in education. But I cannot work anymore because of my disability. My life should be better than this,” said Petit.

“I’m angry. Because nobody should have to live like this because they have a disability.”

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Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough reintroduced the bill in early June, but without any new details about who will qualify, how much they would get or when the money will start flowing.

Over 75 groups that represent Canadians with disabilities called on the government in a letter last week to hold a second reading before the House rises for the summer recess.

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Petit said the bill should have been passed already.

“It should have been a done deal.”

Green Party MP Mike Morrice called out the government’s slow work to introduce the benefit in the House on Wednesday.

“It has been 20 days and we have yet to debate it once. Nine other bills have been prioritized since,” said Morrice.

“Canadians with disabilities continue to disproportionately live in poverty across the country. They want to see emergency supports. They want to see action.”

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The Canada Disability Benefit is to be modelled after the Guaranteed Income Supplement, fulfilling a promise first made by the Liberals in September 2020.

A bill introduced almost a year ago died without passing when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an election last summer.

The new bill is identical to the original, creating the benefit in principle but leaving almost every detail on how the benefit will work to regulations that are not yet complete.

When the bill was reintroduced, Qualtrough would not commit to a timeline for finishing the regulations, saying consultations were ongoing even as it took months for the government to bring the same bill back to the table for debate.

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The regulations will outline who would be eligible, the amount of the benefit, how often it will be paid and how, and an appeals process if applications are denied.

There is also a big concern that the benefit might interact negatively with provincial programs resulting in clawbacks on other programs, which is not the intent.

Now that debate of the bill and moving its process forward will be pushed until Parliament resumes in September, Petit said her biggest fear is that “we could be looking at a year and a half before it’s come back to be law.”

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Jane Deeks, spokesperson for Qualtrough, said in a statement Friday that alongside the legislative process to create the Canada Disability Benefit, the government has to work closely with the disability community to inform the benefit’s design, work that is “well underway.”

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The federal government must continue to work with the provinces and territories to ensure the benefit supplements existing provincial and territorial supports and benefits, “and that everyone who receives it is better off,” Deeks said.

“We will continue to work hard, both in the House of Commons and with the disability community across Canada, to ensure it becomes a reality.”

NDP MP Bonita Zarrillo, the party’s critic for disability inclusion, said Friday: “It is deeply disappointing that people with disabilities in Canada have been left unsupported while the cost-of-living skyrockets, without the Canada Disability Benefit they were promised by this government.”

Zarrillo said for the second year in a row, the Liberals waited until the last minute to table legislation on this benefit, giving no opportunity for MPs to debate or improve the proposed help for Canadians.

“People with disabilities have been given false hope and are now left struggling with the rising costs of essentials,” she said, adding by failing to act the Liberals are reminding people with disabilities they are not a priority of the government.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2022.

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