The Special Rapporteur’s full End of Mission Statement can be accessed here.
This month, Canada had the distinct honour of welcoming the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for a 10-day visit. Ms. Catalina Devandas Aguilar is a lawyer and human rights advocate and the first person to ever hold the position of UN Special Rapporteur in relation to disability, a role she accepted in 2014.
As a United Nations Special Rapporteur, her position involves raising awareness of the rights of persons with disabilities; creating dialogue with governments, civil society and persons with disabilities to exchange information and promote good practices; making recommendations on how to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities; and receiving and communicating information about violations of those rights.
These rights are established in an international legal document called the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). As of February 2019, the CRPD has been ratified by 177 countries, including Canada.
In carrying out her responsibilities, Ms. Devandas Aguilar visits countries who have ratified the Convention to assess how well they are meeting their obligations to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. After each visit she prepares a report with recommendations that is submitted to the UN Human Rights Council.
She is also responsible for annual reporting to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly about the protection of persons with disabilities worldwide, addressing information about alleged violations of the rights of persons with disabilities and participating in conferences and panels and issuing communications on disability-related matters.
Ms. Devandas Aguilar’s trip to Canada included visits to 5 cities, with each stop focusing on a theme related to Articles of the CRPD. In each community, Ms. Devandas Aguilar met with government representatives and civil society, including disabled persons organizations (DPOs).
Upon her arrival in Ottawa, CACL’s Executive Vice-President, Krista Carr had the opportunity to participate in civil society meetings with the Special Rapporteur as she explored Canada’s work to fulfill its commitments under Article 9: Accessibility. This included discussions of the current challenges and progress being made in removing barriers to accessibility, including Bill C-81, Canada’s first national Accessibility legislation currently before the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology (SOCI).
While the Special Rapporteur recognized the importance of introducing the Accessible Canada Act, she expressed concern over the absence of baseline measures indicating the current level of accessibility in Canada and allowing for tracking of progress in removing barriers. She also highlighted Canada’s failure to officially recognize American and Quebec Sign Languages and how limited access to these services currently is.
The Special Rapport’s next stop was Toronto. Dr. Michael Bach, Managing Director of IRIS, joined Ms. Devandas Aguilar as she discussed Canada’s progress in implementing Article 12: Equal recognition before the law, Article 10: Right to life, and Article 13: Access to justice.
In her preliminary report, Ms. Devandas Aguilar comments on the high number of adults with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities who are currently being denied their right to legal capacity through the use of substitute decision-making systems, such as guardianship and curatorship. She calls on all provinces and territories to undertake comprehensive reviews of their legal systems to fully implement the right to legal capacity of persons with disabilities, noting successful models such as the one used in British Colombia. The Special Rapporteur reaffirms her recommendation that Canada withdraw its reservation to article 12(4) of the CRPD and eliminate all forms of substitute decision making.
With regard to access to justice, Ms. Devandas Aguilar expressed extreme concern over the overrepresentation of persons with disabilities, in particular those who are indigenous or from other minority communities, in prisons and the juvenile justice system.
In examining the issue of deprivation of liberty and involuntary treatment, the Special Rapporteur points to provincial and territorial legislation such as involuntary hospitalization and community treatment orders that are in direct contradiction to the CRPD. She urges governments to transform their mental health systems while also implementing independent monitoring mechanisms.
During her three day visit to Montreal, Ms. Devandas Aguilar’s civil society meetings, hosted by the DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN Canada), focused on intersectionality, the inclusion of girls and women with disabilities, and sexual and reproductive health (Article 6: Women with disabilities, Article 23: Respect for home and the family, Article 25: Health).
The Special Rapporteur identified a need for government to move beyond consulting people with disabilities, to actively involving them in decision-making processes, paying special attention to the inclusion of women and children with disabilities, as well as indigenous peoples and those belonging to racialized groups.
In Fredericton, the Special Rapporteur had the opportunity to explore New Brunswick’s internationally acclaimed work on Article 24: Education. In addition to meetings with Inclusive Education Canada (IEC). Director Gordon Porter, IEC Associate Jody Carr and New Brunswick Association for Community Living staff, Ms. Devandas Aguilar was able to visit a local school to observe NB’s inclusive education system in action.
The Special Rapporteur described herself as “extremely pleased” with the inclusive education system implemented in NB, suggesting that the system should be used as a role model. However, she acknowledged that most Canadian provinces and territories have yet to implement fully inclusive education systems, with some still using segregated classrooms, special education schools or partial school days.
Krista Carr rejoined Ms. Devandas Aguilar in Halifax, where the Council of Canadians with Disabilities hosted public meetings about Article 19: Living independently and being included in the community.
The Special Rapporteur expressed extreme concern over the lack of support guaranteeing individuals with disabilities the ability to live independently in community. She highlighted that access to such support is still being considered a social assistance benefit, dependent on availability, rather than a right which is resulting in many individuals living in institutions and residential settings. In her preliminary report, she calls on Canadian governments at all levels to adopt concrete actions plan to ensure community-based services and adequate housing for people with disabilities.
The Special Rapporteur’s visit concluded with two days in Ottawa where she held a press conference, sharing her preliminary observations and recommendations from her visit to Canada. She will be preparing a detailed report of her visit, which will be presented at the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2020.
In addition to the topics referred to above, Ms. Devandas Aguilar’s preliminary report addressed the need for appropriate safeguards in Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying system, including a protocol to ensure that people with disabilities have been provided alternatives so that MAiD is not accessed due to absence of community-based alternatives or access to palliative care.
She also calls on Canada as a whole to review its social protection system, noting the disproportionately high number of people with disabilities who are homeless and living in poverty. While pleased with the country’s collection of statistical data concerning people with disabilities, the Special Rapporteur remarks that this information is not being used to inform program and policy design, implementation and monitoring.
Throughout her preliminary report, Ms. Devandas Aguilar notes the variations that exist between provinces and territories in terms of legislation and access to services and the need for all levels of government to align their approaches with the CRPD. She also highlights the additional barriers experienced by Canada’s indigenous peoples.
The Special Rapport explains that “As a highly-developed nation, Canada still lags behind in the implementation of its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” The country continues to frame discussion of disability in the context of social assistance rather than the human right-based topic that is it.
The UN Special Rapporteur’s visit to Canada is significant for several reasons. It demonstrates country’s commitment to fulfilling its obligations under the CRPD, its openness to input and recommendations, and its readiness to engage civil society and persons with disabilities in making this a reality.
CACL was pleased to have the opportunity to learn from Ms. Devandas Aguilar and share the important work being done to advance the inclusion of persons with intellectual disabilities and their families. CACL continues to work with the disability movement and the federal government in making the CRPD a reality in Canada. This work includes civil society monitoring and reporting to the UN on Canada’s progress in implementing the Convention, as well as providing leadership in policy and practice.