Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston has apologized to people in the province with disabilities for years of "historic, systemic discrimination."
The apology was part of a video greeting Houston delivered to a recent conference looking at the future for people with disabilities in Nova Scotia.
"It is how we collectively treat our most vulnerable citizens that defines us as a society," the premier said in the video.
"In particular, vulnerable people rely on their government to level the playing field and we have failed Nova Scotians living with disabilities in this regard. What has happened is deeply shameful. It is wrong. It is not what Nova Scotians stand for and I am sorry."
Houston said that for decades people living with disabilities in the province have not been given the right to choose where they live, who they live with or how they're supported.
"They have long been denied the choice that exists for other Nova Scotians. Their basic human rights have not been honoured, nor respected."
The apology follows a remedy the province agreed to earlier this year as part of a legally binding settlement with the Disability Rights Coalition of Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. That remedy will see more than 400 people with disabilities living in institutional settings moved into communities and eight institutions closed in the next five years.
Stephanie Carver, president of Inclusion Nova Scotia, said hearing the apology was an emotional moment that gave her goosebumps. No one was expecting the apology, she said.
"I think it was absolutely the right thing," she said in an interview.
"It shows real leadership, to be honest, and it really sets a tone for the remedy to the human rights findings and to a future for people with disabilities and their families.
Stephanie Carver is the president of Inclusion Nova Scotia. (CBC)
Carver said the government already had a court order and mandate to fulfil obligations to people with disabilities and their families. Houston's apology "acknowledges out loud" the wrongs done to people with disabilities, she said.
"It's really impactful to hear it out loud. People in the disability community were texting each other and going, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe that just happened.' It was quite, quite significant."
Tova Sherman, the CEO of the reachAbility Association in Halifax, agrees. She said Houston's apology is a step toward shifting away from a society where people with disabilities are viewed as broken.
She said she wants to ensure that the government continues to take action, beyond the one remedy of closing the institutional facilities.
"We must keep the pressure on because policies need to come from this point on and we want to see them go much broader than just this one — very important and not to be put aside — issue, but the overall approach to how people with disabilities in our community are treated, how we can equalize the playing field, because people do not come with instructions," Sherman told CBC Radio's Mainstreet Halifax on Wednesday.
Houston told reporters at Province House delivering the apology was "the human thing to do."
"The video is a sincere representation of the way my government feels," he said.
Provincial government officials have previously acknowledged that making good on the remedy will be a challenge, but Houston said there will be more money in the next provincial budget to help the effort.
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