Canadian Human Rights Tribunal Decision Safeguards Access on Voting Day
People with disabilities want to exercise their fundamental right to vote. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), a human rights organization of people with disabilities working for an accessible and inclusive Canada, has a long history of promoting access to the electoral process. Most recently, CCD assisted Rev. Peter Hughes’ efforts to improve access for voters with disabilities.
On March 17, 2008, due to inaccessibility at the St. Basil’s Church polling station, Rev. Hughes, a voter with a physical disability, had to go down a set of stairs “on the seat of his pants” in order to cast his ballot in a federal by-election. The St. Basil’s polling station is located in the downtown riding of Toronto Centre. To add insult to injury, when Rev. Hughes complained to Elections Canada, they dismissively said it was not their problem and that he was in error. Elections Canada took no steps to address accessibility issues.
Once again, on October 14, 2008, during the general election, Rev. Hughes experienced barriers at the St. Basil’s polling station. Rev. Hughes made a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission against Elections Canada about the barriers he encountered. At the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal hearing, Rev. Hughes testified about crawling down the stairs at St. Basil’s and the humiliation and safety concerns of pushing his walker through the snow to exit the polling station via “a backdoor ramp used for freight and garbage.”
Dr. Catherine Frazee, co-chair of the Ryerson RBC Institute for Disability Studies, was an expert witness for Rev. Hughes. The Tribunal said that Dr. Frazee was “eloquent in articulating the barriers people with disabilities face in our society, structurally and attitudinally.” She said that “there should be no hierarchy of citizenship when it comes to voting in Canada: no second-class voters.”
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal granted Interested Party status to CCD. Ivana Petricone of ARCH Disability Law Centre acted as legal counsel for CCD. CCD shared with the Tribunal its views on remedies that would benefit voters with disabilities in future elections.
On February 12, 2010, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal agreed with Rev. Hughes, ordering nationwide remedies. The Tribunal stated that:
[I]t is disappointing that in the disability rights/accessibility-heightened time in which we find ourselves living as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, that Mr. Hughes would have had to experience the humiliation and indignities of those two voting events, followed by the tardy investigation, inaccurate conclusions and poor handling of his verbal and written complaints.
In the decision James Peter Hughes v. Elections Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered Elections Canada to “cease from situating polling stations in locations that do not provide barrier-free access.”
“CCD regards this decision as a victory, because the Tribunal’s order compels Elections Canada to keep access considerations front and centre as it conducts elections,” states Marie White, CCD chairperson.
Additionally, the Tribunal ordered Elections Canada to alter a number of its practices related to consultation, leasing, policies and guidelines, signage and training. For example, Elections Canada has been ordered to revise “its standard lease for polling stations to include the requirement that the leased premises provide level access and are barrier-free.”
The Tribunal also ordered Elections Canada to implement “a process for receiving, recording and processing verbal and written complaints about lack of accessibility.” The number of complaints received about accessibility will be publicly reported via Elections Canada’s CEO’s post-election report to Parliament. “In addition to training, monitoring elections and evaluating accessibility outcomes are critical,” states Jim Derksen, a member of the CCD Human Rights Committee.
Elections Canada will be consulting with CCD as it implements the Tribunal’s decision. At the end of April, Rev. Hughes, CCD, Elections Canada and the Canadian Human Rights Commission will meet. The Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Canada will be in attendance.