Is It a Mess? Is It a Barrier?


Since 1993, the federal department designated to maintain the lead on disability issues has been Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC). As everyone now knows, HRDC’s grant practices were called into question last spring. Questionable lapses in HRDC’s grant provision activities were enthusiastically uncovered by the opposition and day after day, displayed for all to see in the House of Commons last spring. The scandal actually rated its own Auditor-General’s report.

Needless to say, this experience’s effect on the department was something less than positive. Overnight, low profile and inaction became outright paralysis. Now, all that matters at HRDC is one thing and one thing only: accountability.

For instance, there’s the accountability training that staff administering programs has had to undergo. From the outside at least, it appears that half the staff of HRDC is away on accountability training, and the other half is off on stress leave. Certainly the turnover of staff within HRDC’s Office for Disability Issues is substantial. We have no accurate way of tracking it down, but we have been told that this office currently has one of the highest staff turnovers of any section of government.

The reduction of support to community organizations like the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) has constituted the grim, if probably unintended, result of HRDC’s dive under its security blanket. From where we sit, this reduction has taken two forms: core operational funding has been frozen at the same level for another year; and project proposals have not been supported — or they’ve been approved so late in the year that good work is hampered by short timelines. It now takes the system about 16 weeks to approve a project. Some projects that CCD submitted to HRDC were even forwarded to other departments for consideration, departments whose programs are either totally inappropriate or do no such granting at all. HRDC must have lapsed significant funds at the end of the last fiscal year, simply because it was unable to process the applications, or was unable to make funds available to groups that have done, and could continue to do, good work.

The mess at HRDC has also meant that virtually nothing has been accomplished on the development of a National Strategy on Disability Issues. The Government of Canada continues to claim it is committed to a strategy, but progress to that end is hard to detect. There’s lots of evidence of busy work, but little in the way of results. The energies and resources of HRDC have all been siphoned off to deal with that all-crucial accountability issue.

Evaluation and accountability are necessary, of course. But you can wind up spending more on accountability mechanisms than you do on the actual work of programs or initiatives. A balance must be achieved.

Community organizations are supported by government because there is a general recognition as to the value of supporting the voluntary sector. The Government of Canada has just committed new resources to redefine the relationship between itself and the voluntary sector. Much that makes Canada the best place in the world to live stems from a vibrant, diverse voluntary sector that provides good programming, good service and good advice.

HRDC is one of the largest government departments; its mandate and responsibilities are significant, and when it becomes dysfunctional, the impact is significant, too.

If the problems within the department cannot be resolved quickly, then HRDC must be restructured. Within the federal government sphere, such restructuring must ensure:
– the designation of a minister with responsibility to advance disability public policy;
– a Centre of Responsibility for the coordination of disability policy which can operate horizontally (across departments);
– the development of a “disability lens” as a tool to ensure that new barriers for people with disabilities are not created in public policy;
– a program of financial support for the representative voice of people with disabilities; and
– an effective mechanism for consultation with the disability community.

Canadians with disabilities have been hurt by the scandal at HRDC. The continued paralysis of HRDC must not be allowed to continue.

(Laurie Beachell is CCD’s National Coordinator. For more information, contact the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, (204) 947-0303 (voice/TTY); fax: (204) 942-4625; or e-mail:


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