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Pierre Trudeau's Legacy

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: David Lepofsky is Chair of the Ontarians With Disabilities Act Committee. He is a noted Canadian lawyer who lives in Toronto, Ontario. This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on October 4, 2000 and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

As our country mourned the death of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, our attention has been drawn to the legacy he 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.

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