Premier Tim Houston walked back on plans Thursday to limit public appearances before the legislature's law amendments committee to in-person or written presentations after disability advocates raised concerns about accessibility for all Nova Scotians.
Houston told reporters the all-party committee, which subjects every proposed law to public comment, will once again hear virtual presentations.
"It'll be a hybrid [meeting]," Houston said following question period at Province House. "I still think that in person is a powerful way to make a presentation [but] I realize that's not always possible."
Houston told reporters he was swayed by the opinions expressed by Gerry Post, who, until a year ago, was the bureaucrat in charge of leading the provincial government's accessibility strategy.
Post, a former executive director of Nova Scotia's Accessibility Directorate, called the decision to end virtual presentations surprising and perhaps "an oversight."
The previous Liberal government allowed for live video presentations to the legislature's law amendments committee last spring due to COVID-19 restrictions. This fall, however, the new Progressive Conservative government reverted to in-person presentations.
PC members used their majority to defeat an NDP motion calling for video presentations to be permitted at the first committee meeting of the new session.
The committee is unique in Canada and is a key part of the law-making process in Nova Scotia.
Disability advocate Marcie Shwery-Stanley welcomed the premier's change of heart. Earlier on Thursday, she described the decision to ditch video appearances as unacceptable.
"I am very, very sad," the Sydney resident told CBC News.
"We have an accessibility act — one of only three provinces in the country [to have one] — and we have an accessibility act nationally, so, I mean, this is not acceptable."
Houston previously described removing the option to present remotely as simply a return to the regular procedures at Province House.
"Part of return to normal in this building is that the law amendments [committee] operates such that when you have something to say to legislators, you are entitled to say it," said Houston. "You just have to come here and say it."
Travel difficult for some
But that's easier said than done according to the two activists who use wheelchairs and need to book special transportation ahead of time to travel any distance.
"Say you're from Sydney, it'll be two days of time and loss of income as well," said Post. "Some persons with disabilities need to travel with an attendant, so it's a second person that's impacted as well.
"It's very expensive for people from outside and I think there's been a lot of criticism over the years about government being too Halifax-centric."
Shwery-Stanley, who sometimes needs an attendant, agreed.
"I cannot drive to Halifax, or have someone drive me, " she said. "It's too long of a trip.
"I have juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and I'm in a wheelchair, so I would have to fly. What's the cost of an airline ticket?"
'Your voice is not heard'
Shwery-Stanley said not allowing people to appear virtually would stifle different points of view.
"If you are not at the table when these things are taking place, then your voice is not heard," she said. "If your voice is not heard, your concerns that are important and passionate to you ... will not be addressed."
Post said he sees no reason for the government to block virtual presentations.
"I think there may be a concern that if you open it up generally that they may be overwhelmed with requests for presentations, but I'm a proponent of democracy and I think that would be wonderful to have greater participation by everybody," said Post.
Speaking to reporters outside the Red Room, the venue for the law amendments committee, Houston alluded to the possibility of limiting who might be able to present remotely.
"If there are people with disabilities of course we want to make sure it's accessible to them," he said. "We'll try to work with the opposition parties to strike a balance to make sure that the intentions of the law amendments committee [are respected].
"We don't want some anti-vaxxer from some far away jurisdiction to rally a bunch of people to flood the Nova Scotia law amendments committee."
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