Canadians with disabilities getting new benefit — but critics say it’s coming late and with few details

Bill creating monthly disability benefit for working-age Canadians died when Trudeau called 2021 election.

The federal government today reintroduced legislation to create a monthly benefit payment for working-age Canadians with disabilities.

“The purpose of this law and this benefit … is to reduce poverty and create financial security for working-age Canadians with disabilities,” said Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough.

“We have a very good social safety net in Canada but this gap was identified years ago.”

Qualtrough said that children with disabilities can get support through the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) and seniors with disabilities are able to access Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), but working-age Canadians have been left to fend for themselves.

“We’re changing that,” she said. 

The Liberal government introduced Bill C-35 in June 2021, during the last Parliament. The bill received first reading but died on the order paper when the 2021 federal election was called.

Earlier this month

The New Democrats introduced a motion calling on the federal government to re-offer the disability benefit. The non-binding NDP motion passed unanimously in the House of Commons. The party said it introduced the motion to prompt the government to act.

“I have to respect the will of the House but we recently had a unanimous consent motion where all parties in the House supported the creation of the Canada Disability Benefit,” Qualtrough said. “It feels to me like all parties understand this should, and potentially could, rise above partisanship.”

The New Democrats criticized the Liberals for taking a year to table a bill identical to the one tabled in 2021.

“I am thinking today about the persons with disabilities who have waited a year for a bill about the disability benefit and I am already hearing that they’re disappointed,” NDP MP Bonita Zarrillo said Thursday before question period.

“They’re disappointed that, after a year of waiting, the exact same bill came to the floor, the exact same empty bill that doesn’t give them any information about the amount of benefit, the eligibility of a benefit and, really important, the timeline of the benefit is missing.”

A bill delayed

Asked why it took so long to reintroduce the bill, Qualtrough said she wanted to take the time to make sure the legislation was studied in detail.

Qualtrough said the benefit was modelled after the GIS but — because the disability benefit is for working-age people — there are many ways the Canada Disability Benefit could affect other payments Canadians receive at the provincial level. 

“It’s really important to understand the interaction with provincial and territorial benefits,” she said. “I don’t want to be creating a benefit that disentitles someone to pharmacare from their province, or accessible transit or disability supports.”

During the 2021 federal election campaign, the Liberals said there were more than one million Canadians with disabilities living in poverty and promised to address the issue.

The Liberals’ 2021 platform pledged to introduce the benefit to help with the cost of transport, medical procedures and other expenses. The platform said that, once the benefit was implemented, it would deliver “a direct monthly payment … for low-income Canadians with disabilities ages 18-64.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s post-election mandate letter to Qualtrough directed her to re-table the bill. 

Topping up provincial benefits

Bill C-22 does not state the monetary value of the benefit but it gives the government scope to set most of the benefit’s design elements, including the conditions that must be met to receive it, the monetary value of the benefit and how it would be indexed to inflation. 

Frank Smith, national coordinator for the National Educational Association of Disabled Students, welcomed the new benefit but said its details will determine how useful it is in addressing poverty among disabled Canadians. 

“Of course the proof will be in the pudding, as they say, in terms of the amount of the benefit and how many Canadians with disabilities are eligible,” he told CBC News.

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa Thursday, Qualtrough did not reveal the monetary value of the benefit. She did say that Bill C-22 has been designed to lift recipients to an income level similar to that provided by the Guaranteed Income Supplement, which ensures someone receiving the benefit gets around $19,000 in benefits a year.

She also said that the benefit is being crafted to top up existing provincial benefits, not to replace them.

“We will be taking into account the provincial-territorial contribution,” she said. “Unlike with the Guaranteed Income Supplement, we’re not committing to entirely filling that 100 per cent, but to work with provinces to make sure that’s where people get to.”

Broad support for move

On Wednesday, a multi-party group of senators and members of Parliament issued a public call for the government to re-offer the bill, saying that while 22 per cent of the population is made up of people with disabilities, 41 per cent of Canadians living in poverty have a disability.

“We need to deliver on our promise to create a new benefit for people with disabilities. It is as simple as that,” Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said.

Sen. Chantal Petitclerc, a Paralympic athlete named to the Senate by Prime Minister Trudeau in 2016, sits in the Independent Senators Group. She said now is the time to take action.

“As one of the 22 per cent of Canadians with a disability, I am aware of the barriers and inequities that still exist and persist,” she said.

“As a senator, I am committed to ensuring that, in our country, everyone has equal opportunities and has the tools to reach their full potential as well as actively contribute to society.”