OTTAWA – The Liberal government has been quietly looking at the possibility of adding a third official language: Sign language.
Raising signing to the level of official language would be a major recognition, given that the use of sign language in Canada was “widely discouraged and even forbidden in classrooms” in the not-too-distant past, federal officials wrote in a briefing note to Disabilities Minister Carla Qualtrough.
Earlier this year, officials in Employment and Social Development Canada looked over sign language legislation in New Zealand, Scotland, Finland and Sweden as part of research about how the government could enact a similar federal law here.
The details are part of a briefing note The Canadian Press obtained under the Access to Information Act.
Such legislation, if enacted, would require federal information and services to be provided in English, French and sign language. In Canada, there are two types of sign language used by people who are medically deaf, hard of hearing, or prefer to sign: American Sign Language and la Langue des Signes Quebecoise.
“We know that Canadians with communication barriers and Canadians who are deaf and hard of hearing face these additional hurdles to being included in our society and our workplaces and our communities,” Qualtrough said in response to questions Thursday.
“I’m very keen to make sure that culture, that language is protected in some way.”
Canada ratified a UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities in 2010. The declaration includes a call for countries to ensure that services can be delivered in sign language and enshrine it in law as an official language.
The Liberals are currently consulting on proposals for a wider accessibility law, with the goal of having legislation in place by the end of next year, or early 2018.
Qualtrough suggested Thursday that the government is looking to give public officials the ability to proactively crack down on future violators in the public and private sector, crafting a law that would have some teeth.
The change would be a shift away from the current Canadian human rights model, which prevents federal officials from getting involved until someone complains.
Qualtrough said the current process is onerous, cumbersome and expensive for those who go through it.
A proactive law would mirror the model used in the United States. In separate briefing notes to Qualtrough obtained by The Canadian Press, officials wrote that Canada could consider aspects of the American model, including a centralized complaints process, a decentralized enforcement system and a range of enforcement tools, from educational outreach to fines.
“What we want to do with our accessibility legislation is proactively address barriers to inclusion faced by Canadians with disabilities and functional limitations,” Qualtrough said.
“We have heard loud and clear from people across the country that there has to be some kind of teeth to this, that there has to be some kind of enforcement mechanism. It has to be aspirational for sure, but it also has to set some kind of expectation whether it be in the form of standards or guidelines.”
Qualtrough announced Thursday the government was starting the process to enact an optional part of the UN declaration that would allow Canadians with disabilities to file a human rights complaint with the United Nations and let the international body launch investigations into systemic issues in Canada.