Pierre Trudeau's Legacy
for People with Disabilities
As our country mourns the death of former Prime Minister Pierre
Trudeau, our attention is drawn to the legacy he has left us.
Front and centre is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
It is worth noting this part of Pierre Trudeau's legacy has
special importance for people with disabilities. When the
Charter was first proposed, it included a guarantee of equality
rights. However, this equality guarantee included no protection
from discrimination based on mental or physical disability. As
the Charter was debated in Parliament in 1980-81, Parliament held
public hearings. These provided an opportunity for the public to
express its views. Among the many issues brought forward at
those hearings, Canadians with disabilities called for the
proposed Charter to be amended to include equality for persons
with disabilities. With little time to organize, people with
disabilities also brought this issue to the public's attention
through the media.
The Trudeau government responded positively to this call. It
agreed to amend Charter section 15, the equality rights section,
in the winter of 1981, before the Charter was passed by
Parliament, to explicitly include constitutional protection for
equality without discrimination because of mental or physical
disability. This was the only new specific right to be added to
the Charter during the proceedings in Parliament leading up to
the patriation of our constitution. The disability amendment was
passed before the Charter of Rights was enacted. It made the
Canadian constitution the first constitution in any western
democracy to include an explicit guarantee of equality for
persons with disabilities.
Twenty years later, as people with disabilities in Canada
continue to move forward on the long road to equality, we can
reflect back on this important milestone on that road. It is but
one part of the Trudeau legacy that is the Charter of Rights. We
can also reflect on what we have learned from that experience,
and what we have learned since that experience, about the
capacity of people with disabilities to advocate effectively for
their needs in this country.