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Liberals leave disability benefit bill in limbo as Parliament breaks for summer

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OTTAWA — 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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

 

Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press

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Canadian army veteran charged with murder after mass shooting in Belize nightclub – CTV News

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A Canadian Armed Forces veteran has been charged with murder in connection to a mass shooting in Belize that left two people dead and eight others injured.

J.R. Smith, who served with the Royal Canadian Regiment in Afghanistan as part of Operation Medusa in 2006, is accused of driving the getaway vehicle following the July 31 shooting at a nightclub.

Police in Belize allege that three local men who were with Smith got into an argument over a woman in the club. They left, but allegedly returned later with guns and opened fire.

Smith and the three other men were arrested and paraded in handcuffs.

Smith’s partner, Denise Hepburn, told CTV News that he was not involved in the shooting, and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hepburn also alleged that Smith was repeatedly beaten by police after his arrest, which resulted in the black eye seen in his arrest photo.

“He defended this country. He is a decorated soldier,” she said. “He’s a good person … he would never do something like this.”

Smith, originally from Newfoundland, moved to Ontario after he left the CAF. He studied woodworking and later opened a cabinetry business. He was profiled by CTV News five years ago as part of a Remembrance Day feature on veteran entrepreneurship.

Global Affairs Canada says it’s “aware of a Canadian who has been detained in Belize” and stands ready to provide consular assistance. Smith remains in custody in a Belize prison and is due back in court in November. 

With files from CTV Barrie’s Mike Arsalides

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Little change to Vancouver downtown street encampment as residents wonder where to go

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VANCOUVER — It was difficult to see any difference had been made to the tent encampment in Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside on Wednesday, a day after city staff began what’s expected to be a weeks-long process to remove the structures.

That’s for good reason, said a resident who goes by the name Edith Elizabeth — the people who live in the tents have nowhere else to go.

She said previously, residents would relocate their structures nearby so city staff could clean the street.

“It’s just like, ‘Okay, cool, take down our structures and move down the block so they can wash it,’ and that’s it,” said Elizabeth. “But here, now, it’s just like we have to disappear or something.”

Vancouver fire Chief Karen Fry ordered tents along the stretch of Hastings Street dismantled last month, saying there was an extreme fire and safety risk.

The city has said staff would concentrate their efforts on the “highest risk” areas, but several structures in those areas remained in place on Wednesday.

The neighbourhood struggles with many complex challenges including drug use, crime, homelessness, housing issues, and unemployment.

It was tense on Tuesday, Elizabeth said, with a heavy police presence on the street.

The Vancouver Police Department released a statement Tuesday saying multiple people were arrested after officers were assaulted during a “melee.”

It said staff at a community centre had called police to report a man throwing computers and behaving erratically. The man resisted arrest, police said, as “a large crowd gathered, and became hostile and combative with the officers.”

Elizabeth said police used pepper spray and the incident left people feeling scared.

An update from the city on Wednesday said a big contingent of police at the Main and Hastings intersection in the afternoon “was not as a result of the City’s effort to remove structures”, and instead stemmed from the incident outside the community centre.

The city said staff aimed to approach encampment residents “with respect and sensitivity, encouraging and supporting voluntary removal of tents and belongings through conversation.”

“We recognize that some people believe the city should not do this work, but there are significant safety risks for everyone in the neighbourhood that the city cannot ignore,” it said.

Elizabeth stood near her belongings on the sidewalk where she said she’s been staying for about three weeks after moving from another spot nearby.

“It’s not like this is a forever, permanent place,” she said, although she’s not sure where she might go next.

“As far as options down here, generally there’s been Crab Park, which is like tent city,” she said, referring to tents set up around the park near Vancouver’s waterfront.

Elizabeth said she, like many others living in tents along the street, doesn’t feel comfortable or safe in single-room occupancy buildings with “awful” conditions.

The city said staff have been meeting each week with a community-based working group since May, and more frequently with members of the Overdose Prevention Society and Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users over the past two weeks.

Staff spent Wednesday telling residents about storage options for their belongings, the city said.

These included up to two 360-litre storage totes, which staff would seal with tamper-proof labels before placing them in short-term storage. The city said the totes are on wheels, so owners can take them away if they did not want them stored.

A long-term storage container is also being provided nearby, the city said.

Community advocacy groups, including the drug-user network and Pivot Legal Society, have said clearing the encampment violates a memorandum of understanding between the city, the B.C. government and Vancouver’s park board, because people are being told to move without being offered suitable housing.

The stated aim of the agreement struck last March is to connect unsheltered people to housing and preserve their dignity when dismantling encampments.

The City of Vancouver may enforce bylaws that prohibit structures on sidewalks “when suitable spaces are available for people to move indoors,” it reads.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.

 

The Canadian Press

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Draft speech on residential schools edited out blaming Ottawa for abuse: documents

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Ottawa was careful to avoid admitting abuses Indigenous children suffered at residential schools happened “at the hands of the federal government” in remarks prepared for a Liberal cabinet minister after the discovery of unmarked graves last year, documents show.

The Canadian Press obtained documents through the Access to Information Act that show a draft version of a speech written for Carolyn Bennett, who was then minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, originally contained those words before they were edited out.

“It gets to me that they’re still in a place of defending themselves,” said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

In May 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced ground-penetrating radar had found what are believed to be the unmarked graves of about 200 children on the site of a former residential school near Kamloops, B.C.

The revelation spurred a reckoning across the country about the legacy of residential schools, which were government-funded, church-operated institutions that about 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend in Canada over more than a century. Thousands of children experienced physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect, or even died.

The discovery also prompted questions about what Ottawa was going to do about it.

Days later, the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations was drafting a speech for Bennett in anticipation of a possible emergency debate on the matter in the House of Commons.

That never happened. Another form of debate was held and it appears the draft speech, as written in the documents, was not the one that Bennett ended up delivering.

One section of the draft remarks addresses the suffering children endured in residential schools, originally saying “they experienced unthinkable trauma, including physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of the federal government by simply attending school.”

Speech writing can be a lengthy process. Text is often drafted by the department and then sent to staff in the minister’s office and to the minister, and then sometimes back and forth again.

Edits contained in the 17 pages of drafts show the words “at the hands of the federal government” were struck out. The reason for the revision was redacted before the documents were released to The Canadian Press.

“The government, they talk a great deal about reconciliation,” said Eleanore Sunchild, a Saskatchewan lawyer and advocate from Thunderchild First Nation, who has represented many residential school survivors in physical and sexual abuse cases.

“That, however, doesn’t speak of reconciliation at all, taking out those words.”

Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand said he found it “disturbing … that Canada keeps trying to minimize its role in residential schools.”

The Crown-Indigenous Relations Department has not yet responded to a request to explain the change. But the office of the current minister, Marc Miller, said in a written statement that the federal government “takes full responsibility” for its role in the residential school system, “including the abuse that Indigenous children suffered at these institutions.”

Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper apologized for Canada’s role in residential schools in 2008 as part of the historic Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

In his speech, Harper apologized for the government “failing to protect” children at the institutions, which he said “far too often … gave rise to abuse or neglect.”

He also apologized for the separation of children from families and acknowledged it carried consequences for future generations.

In the speech that Bennett ultimately gave on unmarked graves on June 1, 2021, she said she wanted to give her “profound apologies to the families and survivors,” but she did not mention abuse or assign blame.

Last month, Pope Francis came to Canada to apologize for residential schools on behalf of the Catholic Church, which operated more than 60 per cent of the institutions.

The pontiff asked forgiveness for the “evils” committed by “many Christians” against Indigenous children in residential schools. Many Indigenous leaders said they had hoped for an apology that specifically spoke about the role of the Catholic Church.

Bill Percy, a Winnipeg-based lawyer who has represented survivors seeking compensation for sexual and physical abuse, said it’s possible government took issue with the words “at the hands of” in the draft.

“That implies that they were the physical abusers,” he said.

“Most of the direct abusers would be church-related employees, not federal government employees.”

Regardless, he said Canada has paid out most of the billions of dollars distributed to abuse complainants under the settlement.

“When push comes to shove, in the court cases, the federal government always has taken responsibility.”

Blackstock said she sees where Ottawa has “wiggle room,” given that the federal government did not directly perpetuate abuse.

“What the federal government did is knowingly leave children in situations where this was happening, and were choosing not to intervene to save them from the deaths and save them from the abuse,” she said.

She said whether it’s the Vatican or Canada, institutions have demonstrated a reluctance to take full accountability for residential schools.

“What I’ve been concerned about writ large is the portrayal by the federal government as this is a ‘dark chapter in history,’ and not really owning the fact that they knew what they were doing was wrong. They knew it was leading to children’s deaths.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.

— with files from Jim Bronskill

 

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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