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It will be many months before Canada's new disability benefit is ready, minister vows to 'get it right'

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As the disability community continues to wait for the federal government to put in place its long-promised Canada Disability Benefit, the new minister responsible says she is focused on getting the program "right."

"I know Canadians with disabilities want to see this benefit become a reality as soon as possible," Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Persons with Disabilities Kamal Khera said in an interview with CTV News.

"This is going to be a generational national program. I think it's really important that we find the balance between, of course, the expediency and the care that it needs to make sure we get it right, with engagement with the community. So, that's exactly what I'm committed to in this new role."

Bill C-22, as it was titled, passed Parliament on June 20 with all-party support in the House and a handful of amendments made by the Senate.

Advanced by then-minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion Carla Qualtrough, there has been pressure on the federal Liberals to make good on this commitment for years, after a previous version of the bill died in the House with the call of the last federal election.

It proposes to create a federal income supplement for hundreds of thousands of low-income, working-age people with disabilities, modelled after the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

Federal statistics estimate that more than 900,000 working-age Canadians with disabilities live in poverty and just 55 per cent of Canadians with disabilities aged 25 to 64 have gainful employment.

While the disability advocacy community celebrated Bill C-22's passing as a historic milestone closing a gaping hole in Canada's social safety net, many questions remained about the scope and size of the benefit, prompting focus to quickly turn to the regulatory process that will determine the benefit’s parameters.

In the interview, Khera couldn't provide any more specifics on what the benefit will look like or how soon eligible Canadians will be able to claim it, saying she wants the benefit to be meaningfully co-created with the disability community.

"They have fought so hard to get us to this milestone and I want to make sure once we roll it out, it is something that the community wants," she said.

WHERE DOES THE BENEFIT STAND?

When Bill C-22 passed, the minister responsible estimated that it could take more than a year to set up the benefit before any money would actually flow.

The latest budget earmarked $21.5 million to be spent in the 2023-24 fiscal year to work on the future delivery of the benefit. However, no federal money has been set aside to actually fund what is expected to be a multibillion-dollar-a-year program once it begins.

In July, the federal government outlined the timeline and details for consultations on the new regulations, indicating it will likely be well into 2024 before the final benefit framework is in effect.

The now-underway engagement process has been divided into two phases: the first being a regulatory design phase that includes roundtables and meetings with Canadians with disabilities, stakeholders and experts on the potential structure of the benefit.

This is expected to take until the winter, concluding with an online survey and open submission process to gather input from Canadians, likely on the proposed eligibility, benefit amount and application process.

Then, the "more formal" phase will begin with the government publishing proposed regulations for review. This will generate more feedback that federal officials will consider before drafting the final version of the benefit program.

A month into her new cabinet portfolio, Khera said this schedule "remains unchanged."

Happening parallel to the regulatory consultations is work with the provinces and territories to try to ensure the federal disability benefit does not bump up against any existing provincial or territorial offerings "to ensure persons with disabilities have more money in their pockets at the end of each month."

Khera said she wants to make sure the Canada Disability Benefit is "an income supplement, not an income replacement."

PETITION PUSHES FOR INTERIM AID

Amid frustration over how long it is taking the federal government to follow through on this benefit program, London, Ont., resident Jeffrey Salisbury launched an e-petition in July through the House of Commons' online system that allows Canadians to push for action on causes and gather support across the country.

Salisbury is calling for the government to create a "disability emergency relief benefit to provide immediate support to people with disabilities while awaiting the implementation of the Canada Disability Benefit."

As of publication, his petition is the second most signed petition among those currently active, with more than 5,200 Canadians backing this call.

In a letter to Khera earlier this month, NDP MP and disability inclusion critic Bonita Zarrillo also called for an emergency relief benefit to be provided until the Canada Disability Benefit is in the hands of those who need it.

"Action is needed now," Zarrillo wrote, going on to state that she has heard medical assistance in dying (MAID) is becoming "more accessible because of the lack of social infrastructure for persons with disabilities. This is not acceptable."

Asked whether an interim stop-gap form of financial assistance is something the Liberals are considering, Khera offered no indication that such a benefit is on the table.

To those in the community who are calling for financial assistance in the meantime, the minister said her focus is on dedicating all her resources to installing a "long-term solution."

"My goal and our government's goal is to have the Canada Disability Benefit running and getting out the door as quickly as possible," she said.

In an interview with CTV News, Salisbury expressed his disappointment that he and others continue to be left waiting for federal support to help make ends meet.

"It's been three years since they made the promise of this benefit and in that time CERB (the COVID-19 Canada Emergency Response Benefit) came and went. That only took a month for them to start paying that out and we're still waiting on this. I don't know why it's taking so long, it's getting ridiculous."

Salisbury said he doesn't think the Liberals are giving the program the prioritization it deserves.

The e-petition will remain open for signatures until Sept. 10. Shortly after that, its sponsor, Green Party MP Mike Morrice, can present it in the House of Commons, a routine move that happens to any petition that garners more than 500 signatures.

The government is not bound to act on any e-petitions, but it will have to respond within 45 days. 

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