Déclaration faite le 24 avril 2012 par Senator David Smith
Hon. David P. Smith:
Honourable senators, I rise to speak to the thirtieth anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is not often in life we have the opportunity to do something that can have a real, positive effect on people's lives; it does not happen every day. The passage of the Charter was one of the most meaningful and moving events of my life. Here is the story.
In 1980, I was a relatively young MP, still in my thirties, and the United Nations had passed a motion that 1981 would be declared as the International Year of Disabled Persons. Prime Minister Trudeau said, "David, look, I want to have a special committee. I want you to review the situation in Canada and bring us a report, you know, within about a year, in early 1981."
I was the chair of the committee; there were seven members. There were four Liberal MPs, whom I just want to mention: Thérèse Killens from Montreal, Peter Lang from Kitchener, who was a medical doctor, and Ray Chénier from Timmins. There were two Conservative members: One was Walter Dinsdale, who was one of the finest men I ever knew. He was a Salvation Army officer, and he had been in the air force in the Second World War. I know his wife, and he had a member of his family who was disabled. The other was Bruce Halliday, the MP for Oxford. He was a wonderful man; we were good friends. His wife, within six months of their being married, got polio — just about a year before they got the vaccine — and she spent her life in a bed on wheels.
We had people on this committee who understood the issues. I had an uncle I was very close to, Lennox Smith, who when he was a baby got polio, and he spent his life walking with a very stiff brace and a cane. On our committee there was not one ounce of partisanship. It is nice when that happens. I felt very strongly we had to get the message out as to what the challenges were for people who had disabilities in this country. I got some of the best script writers and photographers from top Toronto ad agencies to donate their time and we produced a report — some of you may have seen it — called Obstacles. It was about the obstacles that disabled people had. We picked 12 people across the country with different obstacles living in different areas, remote areas.
These people had photographs taken, and I am just showing you some of them. This was a woman, Joan Green, from Saint John, New Brunswick, who had rheumatoid arthritis. She had to live in a bed all the time. Her body temperature was three or four degrees above average, and she always had a smile.
There were some others in there that I want to mention. Julius Hager was a paraplegic, an Aboriginal who lived in Pelly Crossing in the Yukon — a little wee place — in a wheelchair and he was 95 per cent disabled. Craig Ostopovich was totally deaf in his teens, but his accomplishments were astounding, and both his parents were deaf.
Melanie Wise was quite a case because we could only talk to her father. She was profoundly mentally retarded. At the time she was 21; she was also autistic and lived in a wheelchair, rolled up in a ball. She had never had any eye contact or speech contact with her father. She was also epileptic and had about 25 fits a day. Can you imagine? We talked to her father, who was gentleman.
This main report was 190 pages long. We had 130 recommendations, but it was full of photographs of these people. We had to do abbreviated versions that had all the photographs and the summary because high schools all over Canada wanted it. Nursing schools wanted it; community colleges that had health programs wanted it. We had to do 400,000 copies of this report. The Speaker at the time, Madam Sauvé, who was later Governor General — and we were quite good friends — called me in and gave me a bit of trouble. She said, "David, we cannot afford this stuff." I asked, "What is the problem?" She said, "Everyone wants it." I said, "You are complaining? At lot of parliamentary reports are cures for insomnia. Just keep them by the bed and, if you cannot sleep, start reading them." She backed down pretty quick. We also did a special report on native populations. We did a follow-up report a year and a half later and filled it full of photographs telling the story.
Why am I making this point, honourable senators? The point I am making is: We got this issue on people's radar screens. They were talking about it all over. We had gone to 23 different communities in Canada to hear witnesses. We divvied up. We went up to the North and to remote areas. We heard over 600 witnesses.
I lost track of my notes here. I was going to speak briefly about the other ones in the book, who I will briefly mention now. We had a blind fellow, Dennis Beaudry from Montreal; a quadriplegic, Bill Selkirk of Ottawa. Then there was Shaun McCormick from Halifax, who had become a paraplegic at 21; Barbara Goode from North Vancouver, who was mentally retarded and spoke frankly and candidly; Len Seaby from Edmonton, who had had artificial arms since he was four years old; Jennifer Myer from Lethbridge, who had multiple sclerosis; Serge LeBlanc from Chicoutimi, who had cerebral palsy; and Ian Parker from Toronto, who had a spinal cord injury from a car accident and was totally paralyzed.
Honourable senators, just a few months after this report came out, the first draft of the Charter came out. I was the Deputy House Leader and very involved in all this stuff. We had special caucus after special caucus on the Charter. Section 15(1) at that point read like this — and I am deleting some of the legalese to make it understandable — "every individual is equal before and under the law, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex or age." It ended there.
We felt very strongly that it should include mental or physical disability. I got up in our caucus and started giving speeches that this was a question of integrity and a question of principle. It was about our values. I had given this speech several times and had been getting feedback through the grapevine because there were no bureaucrats at these caucus meetings, but they were talking to lawyers and justices. One said, "Does that mean every two-storey building in Canada has to have an elevator?" When I was asked that I said, "Well, if it is a federal government office building where disabled people have to get in, yes, but not houses. We have to assume that the judiciary will apply common sense to this. We have to do it."
I had given this speech four or five times, and it still was not in. I was a little down. We used to have the meetings in the West Block. I was walking back to the Centre Block — and I will never forget this — when I felt an arm around my shoulder. It was Allan J. MacEachen, who was then Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. He said, "David, you are right. Do not give up. This is a question of principle. Do not give up."
Excuse me if I get a little emotional here, but two weeks later I got up again at another special caucus and I started into the same speech with a few variations. I will never, ever forget it. Pierre Trudeau stood up after about two minutes and said, "David, we do not have to listen to your speech again. We are putting it in." I descended into a basket of tears, but they were tears of joy. I will never, ever forget that.
I do want to say — and I would like the leader to listen to this — that we got it through, but it was not really a Liberal thing. Walter Dinsdale and Bruce Halliday were among my best friends. Years later, I went to Bruce's funeral. When Walter died, I flew out to Brandon. I will never forget that because he was a Salvation Army officer. When they lowered the casket, the band was playing O Boundless Salvation and there was not a dry eye in the place. They helped do this. This was not a Liberal thing. This was a Canadian thing.
I want to pay tribute here. I feel very proud about what happened and I hope that everyone else in this house does, too. I want to mention some of the folks up there, in particular Barbara Reynolds and Sherri Torjman. They were there; they helped make it, too. That is how I feel about the Canadian Charter. When one reads it now, what does it say? It states: "without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability."
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!
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