'Your rights get taken away,' P.E.I. committee weighing decision-making bill is told

Members of the P.E.I. Coalition for Supported Decision-Making are sharing their concerns about a draft law, saying it needs significant changes if it's going to protect the rights of people affected by disabilities and cognitive impairment.

Coalition says draft legislation could silence the voices of people at the heart of it

Richard Gallant of P.E.I. People First gave a powerful presentation to MLAs on Wednesday, sharing the stories he hears from members of his community. (PEI Legislature )

Members of the P.E.I. Coalition for Supported Decision-Making are telling legislators a draft law outlining who gets to make choices for other Prince Edward Islanders will not make life better for people affected by disabilities and cognitive impairment. 

The legislation was sent to the standing committee on health and social development shortly after it was introduced in the spring sitting, after advocacy groups began raising concerns. 

On Wednesday, coalition members told MLAs that nine key areas should be addressed before the bill moves ahead. 

At the heart of their concerns: the definition of "capacity" being used to determine who can enter into a supported decision-making agreement. 

The coalition said the bill, as it is written, would exclude many of the people with whom coalition members work from being involved in decisions — about their health, finances or living arrangements, for example. 

"P.E.I.'s draft legislation says a person is presumed to have the capacity to make decisions until the contrary is determined," said Julie Smith, executive director of the P.E.I. Association for Community Living. 

"We feel that statement is not providing an equal right to exercise legal capacity. Instead, it is saying that the right to capacity is tenuous, and can be taken from a person at any time."

Powerful stories

The coalition wants the draft legislation changed so that anyone on P.E.I., regardless of disability or cognitive impairment, can identify someone they trust to support them with decision-making.

Richard Gallant has been a member of the coalition for more than 10 years, representing P.E.I. People First. He gave a powerful presentation to legislators, sharing the stories he hears from members of his community. 

Richard Gallant has been a member of the P.E.I. Coalition for Supported Decision-Making for more than 10 years, representing P.E.I. People First. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

"Bad things can happen when you don't get help with making decisions for yourself," Gallant said. 

"Your rights get taken away. Sometimes other people make decisions for you. Sometimes they don't ask you or talk to you."

Bad things can happen when you don't get help with making decisions for yourself—Richard Gallant, PEI People First

"When your rights are taken away, you feel low — like you're not being wanted or respected. You feel less than a person. You feel left out."

Gallant said he has heard stories about Islanders not being allowed to open a bank account without a parent present, or being told they need a parent or guardian's agreement in order to apply for a piece of identification. 

In March 2010, Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which asserts that "persons with disabilities shall enjoy legal capacity on an equal basis with others in all aspects of life."

The coalition said Prince Edward Island's draft legislation does not offer that equality.

The Autism Society of P.E.I. is also a member of the coalition, and took part in Wednesday's presentations to the standing committee.  (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

'It's vital'

Rosalind Waters, representing the non-profit P.E.I. Citizen Advocacy, said the coalition was consulted by the Department of Social Development and Housing while the legislation was being drafted. 

However, she said the group was caught off-guard when members read the language around capacity in the draft legislation. 

"It's [the] Department of Justice that brought down the hammer, it appeared to us, and they didn't consult with us at all," Waters told the committee.

"They're just old-fashioned and don't want to change. It's vital. We have to keep up with current ideas about people's rights."

The committee of MLAs from all three elected parties has the power to recommend changes to the legislation before it comes back before the P.E.I. Legislature for a vote.


Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.


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