Ms. Yasmin Ratansi (Don Valley East, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to move concurrence in the 16th report of the Standing Committee on Status of Women which reads:
|| That, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), the Standing Committee on the Status of Women recommend to the government that it restore the Court Challenges Program, and that adoption of this motion be reported to the House.
What is the history behind this? As the chair of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, I have been listening to many women's groups and they have been absolutely dismayed at the wilful way in which the Conservative government treats women and minorities.
If we look at the history behind these cuts, in budget 2005-06, with $13.2 billion in surplus, the Conservative government saw fit to, as we say, stick it to women. Why?
The $1 billion funding cuts the Conservatives brought about were cuts for social programs for the most vulnerable. These funding cuts directly targeted women, aboriginals, those in need of affordable housing, and other groups for which the Conservatives have traditionally shown very little concern.
While the Conservatives continually claim to be standing up for Canada, the truth is they are only interested in standing up for those who already agree with their narrow policies: their core constituency of voters. Witness after witness has come before the Standing Committee on the Status of Women and advised us that they feel the Conservatives are governing on behalf of a very narrow base and if people do not fit their profile, then they are out of luck.
How can the majority of women, 52% of the voters of Canada, feel this way? What has led them to feel this way?
If we look at the cuts that came about in the 2005-06 budget there were $5 million to Status of Women Canada and $10 million eliminating the support to the Canadian voluntarism initiative. How could anyone cut $10 million from a voluntarism initiative when volunteers contribute approximately $6 billion to the economy and without them we would not be able to function?
The Conservatives eliminated $6 million from the court challenges program. If one looks at the court challenges program to figure out why that program is important and what it does, it provides a vehicle for marginalized individuals who want assistance. With the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we should not forget that the charter belongs to the people.
Within our system there are many archaic laws that do not comply with the charter and continue to deny citizens their justice. It is a travesty that the government refuses to eliminate such legislation. Hence, the court challenges program is a vehicle that can assist Canadians in this very urgent and important matter.
Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin stated that many men and women find themselves unable, mainly for financial reasons, to access the Canadian justice system. The court challenges program provides Canadians with this access.
The fact is that $6 million is not a lot of money when we look at the whole scheme of things in a budget of $200 billion. Therefore, we look at what the purpose is for the Conservatives wanting to eliminate it.
Leading Canadian non-government organizations are calling on the Prime Minister to restore funding to this program immediately because the court challenges program, which was created in 1978, provides funds to support test cases of national significance to clarify the constitutional rights of official language minorities and the right of everyone in Canada to live free from discrimination based on sex, race, disability, age, sexual orientation and other similar grounds.
It has provided the only access to the use of constitutional rights for most Canadians. What do the Conservatives have against official language minorities? What do they have against equality? What do they have against gender? What do they have against women?
Bonnie Morton of the Charter Committee on Poverty Issues said:
|| The cancellation of the court challenges program is an attack on the charter itself and the human rights of everyone in Canada. When a country such as Canada enacts constitutional rights, it takes for granted that residents, when they believe the government is violating their rights, can and will challenge any offending law or policy. If residents cannot ensure respect of their rights because of financial barriers, Canada's constitutional democracy is hollow. We turn the charter into a paper guarantee, with no real meaning.
That is a very important statement because if people do not have the financial means to support themselves, then they cannot be in a position to challenge any of those laws that violate their democracy. Hence, if we claim to be a democratic country, it is important that we restore the court challenges program.
Yvonne Peters of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities said:
|| Without the court challenges program, Canada's constitutional rights are really only for the wealthy. This offends basic fairness. And it does not comply with the rule of law, which is a fundamental principle of our Constitution.
Avvy Go of the Metro Toronto Chinese and South Asian Legal Clinic said:
|| Commitment to the protection of the Charter rights of disadvantaged individuals and groups is one of Canada's core values. [The Prime Minister] recognized this during the last election campaign, and he said then that if elected a Conservative government would “articulate Canada's core values on the world stage”, including “the rule of law”, “human rights” and “compassion for the less fortunate”. The cancellation of the court challenges program belies this promise.
Jean-Guy Rioux of the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada said:
|| Cancelling the program shows profound disrespect for the French-speaking Canadians who live outside of Quebec, the English-speaking Canadians who live in Quebec, and for all Canadian residents who may need the protection of equality rights. The CCP has notably given means to French-speaking minorities to ensure that their rights to education in their language are respected.
The beneficiaries of the courts challenges program are many, and we on this side of the House cannot understand why the government has chosen such a very narrow focus and has stuck to its neo-con ideology of not supporting the very marginalized who need support.
The beneficiaries of the CCP are individuals and groups who believe that laws and policies discriminate against them or deny them their language rights. They cannot go forward without lawyers to represent them, since constitutional challenges are legally complex.
Second, when a country like Canada enacts constitutional rights, it takes for granted that residents, when they believe the government is violating their rights, can and will challenge the offending law or policy.
If Canadians cannot use these rights because of financial barriers, then Canada's constitutional democracy is hollow. Governments must care that the rights they embrace are not meaningless and that the court challenges program has provided a simple and modest way of ensuring they are not. I am sure the government could afford the $6 million that it would take. With a $13.2 billion surplus, why would it choose to cancel a program that helps the official language minorities, people who are financially not well off and people who need to address these laws and exercise their rights.
We should emphasize that what the court challenges program provides is far from universal access to exercises of constitutional equality and language rights. It provides only limited funds for selected test cases.
We know the Conservative government, as a critic of the CPP, dislikes some of the cases that the court challenges program has supported: cases related to same sex marriage; cases related to the voting rights for federal prisoners; and cases related to the criminal law provision regarding hitting children.
The fact that some individuals or groups do not agree with some of the test cases funded by the program is not a reason to cancel it. No one among us is likely to agree with every test case that appears.
The point of a constitutional human rights regime is to ensure that diverse claims, perspectives and life experiences are respected and taken into account in the design of laws and policies. The equality guarantee and the language rights in the Constitution were designed to help minorities, whose views and needs may not be reflected by governments, to be heard on issues that affect them closely. Cancelling the court challenges program mutes their voices further and makes Canada a meaner, less tolerant society.
Many organizations have called on the government to restore funding because they believe that the court challenges program is an effective and accountable institution. The court challenges program of Canada has established a track record. It has been an effective and accountable institution which promotes access to justice.
The CCP, as it is called, has existed in a number of different institutions and has made remarkable contributions to the development of constitutional law and to the rights of Canadians over the last 28 years but there is more work that remains to be done.
Since 1994, when the court challenges program was established as an independent,not for profit corporation, it has done a lot of good work. To date, it has been funded solely through a contribution agreement between the Government of Canada and CCP. The CPP is fully accountable to the Government of Canada. It provides quarterly reports on its activities to the government and publishes an annual report with statistics on the number and types of cases that it has funded.
I would like to ask the government which of these cases that it did not like? When there is so much transparency and accountability in this program, why did it cancel it?
The CCP is also subject to some legal restrictions on reporting on funding in cases that are before the courts. This information is protected by solicitor-client privilege and cannot be released by CCP, in the same way that legal aid organizations cannot divulge information about their clients. The CCP's responsibility to protect this information was affirmed by a federal court ruling in 2000.
The court challenges program, which is subject to a full independent evaluation of its activities every five years, has been there for 28 years and has been evaluated three times. On each occasion, independent evaluators found that it was meeting the objectives set by the government as a cost effective and very accountable institution and they made unqualified recommendations that the court challenges program should continue to carry out its mandate.
Our justice system sometimes fails radically when individuals and groups whose constitutional rights are violated and are denied access to justice and the court challenges program plays a very important role in ensuring it.
We on this side of the House are seeking concurrence on this very important matter. We would like the government to reinstate the funding to the court challenges program.
Mrs. Joy Smith (Kildonan—St. Paul, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to stand and address this issue. It is a great honour to rise as a Canadian citizen and as a member of Parliament. It is a privilege to speak in the House, a House that has long been a symbol of fairness and equality.
It is in this House that the laws which protect each of us have been crafted and the bills which defend each of us have been passed. It is in this chamber that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms emerged and it is in this chamber where they will stay, protected and guarded by the representatives of the people of Canada.
Canadian society has been shaped by the collective values of its citizens who with thought and conscience proudly participate in the democratic process by choosing representatives to be their voice, to stand up for the rights and freedoms of all individual citizens and to ensure a society that accords dignity and respect regardless of gender or race.
It is our system of Parliament which has served as the foundation for our way of life, and will continue to shape and mould the way we live as we evolve together as a community and as a nation.
Canada's system of Parliament stands as a model for countries around the world striving to achieve equality and justice for all its citizens. We are considered a leader in the promotion and preservation of human rights and freedoms. It is imperative that we ultimately protect this process from those who wish to reject our democratic system, preferring to advance their cause through legal research and court costs paid by Canadian taxpayers.
The government believes in creating legislation that is constitutional and that reflects the values of all Canadians. We believe in creating laws that in themselves promote diversity and equality. The government believes in the democratic process and believes Canadians should be rewarded for practising that right and to experience their hopes and beliefs become reality through laws that are created and passed by those they elected in the House. We believe public policy should be driven by the will of the people. We believe that will is best expressed through publicly elected officials that sit in debate in the halls of Parliament and who commit themselves to standing up for all Canadians.
The Canadian court challenges program is inherently flawed in that it promotes and encourages special interest groups to advance causes that do not reflect the view of the majority of Canadians. It allows special interest groups to use hard-earned Canadian tax dollars to promote a public policy agenda that is not always in line with the majority of Canadian voters. This manipulation of the system is neither transparent nor is it accountable.
The Canadian court challenges program is not required to reveal which groups it chooses to fund or how much money these groups get. In today's political environment this just is not acceptable.
Government funded protest is an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars. Government should have the foresight to enact laws that are responsible and fair and that protect and support the interest of minority and disadvantaged groups. Public money should be used in practical ways to directly support the population through social programs that meet the needs of the citizens.
The government is committed to ensuring that laws are fair, and we are committed to the review and update of these laws which no longer reflect the values of Canadians. It is working directly with disadvantaged groups to improve conditions so they may participate fully in society. The government is committed in ensuring that minority groups are guaranteed access to social, economic and cultural rights.
The government through serious action has proven its advocacy towards its most vulnerable citizens. The ministers of the government work together to identify problems and they work in concert to devise solutions for the benefit of minority groups and disadvantaged citizens.
In 10 short months the government has done more to protect the rights of vulnerable citizens than the previous government did in its full term in office. The government acknowledged the injustice that was committed against aboriginal children through the residential school program. In May of this year, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, along with the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Status of Women, approved a final Indian residential schools settlement agreement and the immediate launch of an advance payment program, with the hope of fostering reconciliation and healing among all Canadians.
The government acknowledged the injustice that was done to Chinese Canadians in the early 1900s. The Chinese head tax was a blatant form of discrimination and earlier this year Canada's new government officially apologized.
The hon. Bev Oda, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Status of Women, along with her parliamentary secretary, were instrumental in working with the Chinese community in order to begin the healing process. The Prime Minister issued an official apology for the head tax imposed on Chinese Canadians, and the government announced that it would make ex gratia symbolic payments of $20,000 to living head taxpayers and to persons in a conjugal relationship with a now deceased head taxpayer.
The government acknowledged the unjust treatment to the victims who contacted hepatitis C from the blood system before January 1986 and after July 1, 1990, I believe. In July of this year the government recognized that all victims who contracted hepatitis C through contaminated blood suffered equally and were liable for compensation. This was so important. I had a constituent in my riding who was waiting for this compensation.
The hon. Tony Clement, Minister of Health and Minister for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario—
Mrs. Joy Smith:
Mr. Speaker, I was focused on the content of this very serious issue rather than names. I apologize to the House for that.
The hon. Minister of Health and Minister for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario, along with his parliamentary secretary and the hon. member for Cambridge, the member for Kitchener—Conestoga, and the member for Halton spearheaded the movement to finally address this injustice, an injustice that the former government refused to recognize. As I said previously, I had a constituent in my riding who was waiting for this very important announcement. The government set aside nearly $1 billion in a special settlement fund, the sole purpose of which was to provide compensation to the pre-1996 and post-1990 hep C victims.
The government acknowledges the plight of aboriginal women who are struggling with a marital breakdown and are faced with overwhelming barriers to securing a future for themselves and for their children. Just a few weeks ago the government took the initiative and began working to secure fair and equitable on reserve real matrimonial property rights. The Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development began consultations across the country in the hope of establishing on reserve matrimonial real property solutions for first nation communities.
Members of the government are proud to act as advocates for the vulnerable citizens of this country. Members of the government are proud to stand up for the rights of minorities and the disadvantaged.
The government believes that public policy should be made by parliamentarians. Debates on equality and rights should focus on the individual and not the self-serving special interest groups. The government is committed to ensuring that legislation passed is legislation that is good for all Canadians.
I speak on behalf of all my colleagues when I say that Canada's new government is committed to repairing the neglect of former governments through policy and legislation and to move the country forward with values of equality and justice for all, for which we all stand.
Quite honestly, it is very important that all parliamentarians in the House, instead of going on a political agenda, ensure that all legislation is fair and equitable and that all legislation, like the Federal Accountability Act, is implemented. There were some real inherent flaws in the court challenges program. It did not address the inequality of the poor. Nor did it address our most vulnerable citizens.
I have listed a few of the many programs in which our government has taken a leadership role. We are getting the country on its right footing to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens are addressed.
Mr. Maka Kotto (Saint-Lambert, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I rise in the House today to reiterate comments I have already made in the past during a similar debate about a report tabled by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage on the same topic.
I also rise to say that the Bloc Québécois supports the adoption of the 16th report of the Standing Committee on Status of Women, which recommends that the government reinstate the court challenges program. Why do we support it? Because we feel that this government has room to manoeuvre, given that it has the luxury of a surplus of billions of dollars, and that it should have cut operating expenditures rather than programs affecting the most disadvantaged citizens.
We all know that the Conservatives have made what are generally called ideological cuts, and it is not impugning their motives to say so. They target the disadvantaged and minority groups. In England, Mrs. Thatcher taught us a great deal and left a rather interesting legacy in this regard.
The Conservatives target programs that provide checks and balances to the government, programs that facilitate the expression and practice of democracy in a country that calls itself free, sophisticated and developed. It refuses to consider possible savings at the Department of National Defence, for example. I wonder why. I do not know. The question must be asked.
Why is it that there were no cuts to the Department of National Defence when it is one of the departments with the largest budgets, about $14.7 billion in 2005-06?
During the election campaign in January 2006, we saw the Conservative Party slowly progressing like masked turtles. I did not come up with this image; it was provided by someone else. But I thought it was appropriate because we could not see the true face of the government. We did not yet know it as we do today.
The masks have been set aside. We have a tendency of pointing that out. It happens every day when we debate and defend positions and values in this House.
With all these cuts, the Conservative government—as I have already said here—is stirring up a lot of discontent in Quebec. If the members of the Conservative caucus are incapable of seeing this, I can only say that they are out of touch with reality in Quebec. The values of the Conservative Party are not the values of Quebeckers.
Quebec is about solidarity in all areas of life. That is the very essence of the soul of the Quebec nation: solidarity, mutual aid and compassion. I defy anyone here in this House to convince me that the measures taken by this government, whether using its machete, sabre or chain saw to slash programs such as the court challenges program, are in any way in line with the values I just mentioned.
The Conservative government, as I have already said, is directly attacking the disadvantaged and minority groups. I will give other examples, in addition to the elimination of the court challenges program, which, incidentally, gave a voice to linguistic and gender minorities, which would include women and homosexuals.
Furthermore, we know that the court challenges program funded groups that challenged the positions taken by current members of this Conservative government. Was cutting this program—the question must be asked—an unhealthy sign that all groups opposed to this government's ideology are in danger of being gradually silenced?
Perhaps our potential insensitivity to this ideology would soon cause these groups to disappear or become weaker. Fortunately, we are here. To respond to some of the foolishness across the floor, I would say the Bloc Québécois is here to denounce this dangerous ideology.
I spoke earlier about other programs that are at risk or are going to disappear, including the Canada volunteerism initiative, and the program that advocates for women and women's rights, a fight that is far from over. Those involved in the women's movement in Quebec, who have been fighting for years and for generations, know what I am talking about.
We may be far removed from the values that this government stands for, but it is not taking a strong stand. It is unable to say without circumvention and hypocrisy that women and minority groups have to make do with what they have. Women, minority groups and those who are unable to read—the illiterate—have to make do with what they have.
If the Conservatives would use clear speech, if they would be transparent and have the courage to be upfront and take a strong stand, I think the entire population of Canada—not just in Quebec, because in Quebec we have made up our minds, there is a clear consensus—would wake up and chase the Conservatives out of government.
Now I would like to address those who are watching us on television today. Wake up. There is still time. You have seen what they are capable of as a minority government; imagine what they would have done if they had formed a majority government.
Mrs. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am splitting my time with the member for Acadie—Bathurst.
The truth is that changes to the mandate of Status of Women Canada and the termination of the court challenges program are a travesty.
The court challenges program of Canada provided access to justice in languages and equality rights. It provided a constitutional test. To be meaningful, rights have to be exercised. Without the court challenges program in place to provide this assistance, the interpretation and application of constitutional rights will only be available to those with deep pockets.
In a constitutional democracy like Canada, constitutional rights litigation is an essential part of democratic dialogue and the exercise of citizenship. Constitutional test cases examine the meaning of rights and their limits. As a society we suffer when constitutional wrongs go unchecked.
However, the government has no interest in these ideals nor in the needs of women, needs such as child care, economic security, affordable housing, fair immigration policy, the rights of aboriginal women and pensioners. There was nothing in the recent budget that specifically referred to the government's funding plans to address women's inequality and to address their needs.
The Conservative child care plan does not address the child care needs of working women. Twelve hundred dollars a year does not even come close to covering the cost of child care. Families in my riding of London--Fanshawe have made it very clear that what they need are child care spaces, not a taxable $100 a month.
The Conservative budget did not provide funds to create more child care spaces until 2007-08. Just last week we saw the results of such a travesty in the city of Toronto. A child, a baby just over a year of age, was injured because of inadequate child care. Now we see that the number of child care spaces are in decline. We need to invest in our children now. To invest in our children is to invest in our future.
The government shows very little support for women and their children and has made it very clear that they are simply not a priority. The priorities lie elsewhere. The minister responsible for the status of women claimed in the House that the government would stand up for the equality of women. She said:
|| I can assure the member and all women in Canada that this government will stand up for the equality of women and their full participation.
By the government's actions, actions like ending the funds for court challenges, ending funding for literacy programs, for Status of Women Canada, for museums, for summer youth programs, the government has shown that it is not interested in these very interesting words. Neither the Minister of Justice nor the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Status of Women has stood up. It is clear that women are not a priority
In order to comply with its international obligations and truly advocate for women in Canada, the government needs to fund research, legislation and programs in order to address the 26 recommendations made by the United Nations committee, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. It needs to fund the court challenges program. Funding for Status of Women Canada according to the estimates has stayed relatively stagnant, except for about $1 million in transfer payments to the Sisters in Spirit initiative through the native women's network to raise awareness of the alarmingly high rates of violence against aboriginal women in Canada.
Status of Women Canada needs more funding to address women's issues, especially those outlined in the CEDAW recommendations, not just for projects but to address the systemic causes of inequality. According to the estimates, the promote public policy program is being cut by approximately $5 million, while there has been an increase of about $6 million for the build knowledge and organizational capacity on gender equality. The large cut to promote public policy program will prevent the development and implementation of federal initiatives that narrow the gap between women and men and expand opportunities for women. This cut in funding also means that there is only $2 million to address the CEDAW recommendations.
The amount of $21 million is dedicated to develop the knowledge and capacity of a number of stakeholders so that they are better informed and able to address gender based issues of significance to Canadian society in a coordinated manner. Of this money, $10 million is dedicated to grants.
While women's organizations need funding, the large adjustment between the two programs indicates that the government would rather have a hands-off policy when it comes to promoting women's equality instead of funding federal programs with direction and cohesion. Again the government shows that women are not a priority. Clearly it does not believe that government should promote women's equality. Instead, responsibility is passed over to the non-profit community, or in some cases, the for profit community.
The Government of Canada continues to ignore that Canadian women need Status of Women Canada to achieve equality. Addressing the symptoms of systemic discrimination against women, as the government's actions do, will not eliminate the inequalities that women face.
If the Conservatives truly cared, they would make sure that the $100 million for Status of Women Canada was available to meet our international obligations. They would reverse the closure of 12 of 16 Status of Women Canada offices across the country and reverse the cancellation of the independent policy research fund. They would also reverse the restrictive funding mandate of Status of Women Canada and reverse the cancellation of the court challenges program. They would truly address violence against women, provide core funding for women's groups and increase funding to the women's program at Status of Women Canada by at least 25% for investment in women's groups and equality-seeking organizations.
If the Conservatives truly cared, there would be better parental benefits. There would be proactive pay equity legislation and a commitment to safe, affordable, regulated child care.
Women across this great nation deserve that. They deserve the basic human rights that this country says it intends to guarantee: safety and protection. No one should be denied these rights. We need the court challenges program.
We need to have a government that respects and supports the women of this country. We do not have one yet; we are still waiting. We demand a government that respects women and will restore the programs that bring them equality, the equality they deserve.
Mr. Yvon Godin (Acadie—Bathurst, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today about court challenges, the status of women and the problem we face because of what the government has done. The government has gotten us into a situation that will affect our country's future. Allow me to explain.
Canada had the court challenges program. It was eliminated by Brian Mulroney's Conservatives, who governed from 1984 to 1993, and was later reinstated. What did the court challenges program allow people to do?
Earlier, one of our Conservative colleagues talked about legal aid. I think he completely missed the mark, because legal aid and the court challenges program are two completely different things.
A previous government and Parliament gave us the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In cases where the charter was violated, the court challenges program gave people the opportunity to go to court and seek a court ruling.
When we look at the court challenges program, it was used a million different ways. For example, in New Brunswick in 2003-04 when the electoral boundaries were changed, part of my riding of Acadie—Bathurst was put in Miramichi. It is because of the court challenges program that the boundary was reinstated.
The regions of Allardville, Big River, Tetagouche, North Tetagouche, and South Tetagouche around Bathurst that were part of the riding of Acadie—Bathurst were reinstated because of the court challenges program. That is how my riding was saved.
We say that francophones are a minority in Canada. Even in Bathurst the anglophones were saying that in the region of Acadie-Bathurst the anglophones were a minority. By putting more anglophones in Miramichi it gave the Conservatives a better chance for a minority.
Constituents were arguing that Big River, South Tetagouche, North Tetagouche and Little River, all the small areas around Bathurst, had to stay in Acadie—Bathurst. It is through the court challenges program that we got back the riding. If it were not for the court challenges program, we would never have gotten it back. I am thankful to the program for it.
Francophones still have their own schools in Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia thanks to the court challenges program. The program was used not only in the maritime and Atlantic provinces, but in Ontario as well. Here in Ottawa, the Montfort Hospital still exists today because of the court challenges program.
People in Toronto and Sudbury also benefited from the court challenges program. Francophones at Collège Boréal were able to go to court for the right be served in their own language in their province. There were similar cases in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The court challenges program was used across Canada.
This Conservative government has even told this House that one of the reasons it abolished the program was that the program benefited friends of the Liberals by giving them the chance to make money on court cases.
I do not know if there has been an investigation into whether friends of the Liberals indeed benefited. Nonetheless, in our region, people fought hard for the court challenges. Michel Doucet, a lawyer and professor at the Université de Moncton, did pro bono work defending the rights of francophones.
Today, we see we have to fight again in New Brunswick, a bilingual province, to have bilingual service from the RCMP. We had to take our case to the Supreme Court of Canada because the previous Liberal government decided to appeal. Today the federal Conservative government is pursuing the appeal at the Supreme Court. My hat goes off to Michel Doucet, a lawyer who is not earning any money fighting for the rights of francophones. He should be commended.
Furthermore, I do not accept the claim that the court challenges program was used to make lawyers richer since most of them are not getting paid. Only the legal fees are covered. The money was used to cover the legal fees.
On September 23, 2006, at the summit of la Francophonie in Romania, it was sad. More than 50 French-speaking nations were at the summit. Instead of talking about la Francophonie, the Prime Minister of Canada talked about the war between Israel and Lebanon. While we were in the midst of participating in the summit of la Francophonie in Romania, the federal Conservative government announced that it was taking away the tools that allow us to challenge legislation and government procedures, the tools that allow us to go to court to get justice.
Senator Gerald Comeau, who was at the summit of la Francophonie, said he did not accept these cuts. Senator Andrée Champagne did not accept these cuts by her own government. I can assure you that this had little impact on the Conservative Party, which is not progressive, but an amalgamation of the Canadian Alliance Party and the Reform Party. That is where it comes from. It has not changed. It does not want to do anything for the communities or the status of women. There was a time in this House when a woman could not even become a member of Parliament.
At one time, women could not even be members of Parliament in this House. They had to work hard. The Status of Women has done a lot for the women of our country and this government is taking away all its tools and cutting its funds.
What is the government scared of? Is it scared that for once women could have equality with men? Is that what it is scared of? Does it not want them to be treated as equal persons in our country, that they have money to challenge that when it is not done?
The government should be ashamed of itself for what it has done. It cut literacy programs when we have people in our country who do not know how to read and right, and we had groups working hard in that respect.
The government went further than that. The Conservative Party even cut the association for volunteers. The volunteers who work so hard and who put in so many hours for our country have an association that the government has cut. It has taken the money away and that is a shame.
I could hear the Liberals saying “Bring it down”. What? When we look at the cuts, it is totally unacceptable. I believe that people will remember what the government took away from the people, what it took away from the minorities in our country. When we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms with no tools to go to court and challenge a bad decision, we might as well not have one. The little people who want to challenge the government will never have the money to go to the Supreme Court of Canada. That was done through the court challenge program. That is what the Conservative government took away from them.
Mr. Yvon Godin:
Mr. Speaker, that is where my colleague got it wrong.
Let us take a look at legal aid. For example, at no time will the people of New Brunswick be able to get legal aid, even if the money goes to the province, to challenge the Government of Canada or Elections Canada or the Electoral Boundaries Commission for the changes that have been made to electoral boundaries.
Legal aid will never pay to go to court against the government for the RCMP not being bilingual in New Brunswick. Legal aid is not there for that. There cannot be legal aid for that.
The court challenges program was used when Canadians challenged the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Legal aid did not pay for that.
There is nothing at all on the books saying how they will get paid. That is what the government has taken away. It took away the rights of those organizations.
For example, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency had offices in Shippagan. Those people were transferred to Dieppe. They went to court using the court challenges program and won back their right to be in Shippagan. Legal aid would never pay for that. It has nothing to do with legal aid.
This is about respecting the minorities of our country. Legal aid does not pay for that. It would never pay for that. It is not on the books. When the government took away the court challenges program, the Conservatives said in the House, “Why should we pay people to take us and the government to court?”
However, I think it is fundamental in a democracy that we be able to do that. I raised this question with the government. If a simple citizen goes to court and wins his case, will the government not use taxpayers' money to appeal it? Will the government say that the citizen wins?
Why would the government use taxpayers' money to go to the Supreme Court of Canada when Canadians do not have a program to help the little person to go to the Supreme Court of Canada and win for the collectivity, as was done for the minorities of our country? That is what we had through the court challenges program.
That is how the Montfort Hospital in Ottawa won back its hospital. It was done through the court challenges program. Legal aid did not help the Montfort Hospital in Ottawa. The hospital did not qualify for legal aid. Even if it would have had all kinds of money, it would not have come through legal aid.
Hon. Andrew Telegdi (Kitchener—Waterloo, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to enter into this debate, but before I start, I think it is important that we put this into context. The member for Wellington—Halton Hills made some comments that I think deserve a response. He talked about the proud tradition of Conservative governments.
There has been a proud tradition of Progressive Conservative governments, governments that still exist on the provincial front, but not in the House of Commons. As Danny Williams, the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, said, he sees himself as “a progressive Conservative” and the Prime Minister of this country as a “regressive Conservative”.
It is important to talk about that. The present government is not the party of the bill of rights of John Diefenbaker. The present government is a neo-conservative government, ideologically driven, based in the religious right, and it has done everything in its power to divide Canadians, to attack minorities, and to attack disadvantaged groups.
I am going to give the House an example so that we can understand that the court challenges program was much more than some debate that does not have an impact on ordinary Canadians. As the House knows, right now we are involved in a debate in the citizenship and immigration committee, and we have been for quite a number of years, and that debate deals with the whole issue of citizenship rights.
Very recently it became public that upward of 400,000 Canadians who thought they were Canadians are losing their citizenship rights and their citizenship for various reasons. I am going to focus my comments on one particular group, that of war brides and their offspring, because there are tens of thousands of people who fall into this category.
I am going to cite the case of Mr. Joseph Taylor because this particular case is very relevant to the discussion that we are having here today. It shows the very human nature of what we are talking about when we are talking about the fight for rights.
As we all know, we have had a lot of debates in this House on how we honour our veterans, the men and women who served to keep this country safe in the past and who did a great service for us in the world wars and other conflicts abroad. I am going to take the case of Mr. Joseph Taylor because he happens to be the son of a Canadian veteran. His father, Joe Taylor Sr., fought for this country during the second world war.
Joe Taylor Sr. went to England, where he was stationed, and, like thousands of Canadians who were in similar situations, many of them single, became involved with a woman from Britain. He met his English Rose and they fell in love. They found out that she was pregnant. Mr. Taylor told his commanding officer that he wanted to get married so the child would be considered legitimate versus being born out of wedlock. The commanding officer informed Mr. Taylor Sr. that Canada was not in the business of producing widows and orphans and essentially said they could not get married.
Mr. Joe Taylor Sr. went off to France to fight. Fortunately for his wife and child he survived the war in France. He went back to England, at which point he married his wife. He was very happy to be reunited with his new wife and son.
Canada had a program related to war brides and their children. The program was that those war brides and their children were allowed to come to Canada and as soon as they landed in Canada they all would become Canadian citizens.
Mr. Joe Taylor Sr. and his family set up house in British Columbia. Unfortunately, the marriage did not work out, so subsequently his wife and son went back to England. Mr. Joe Taylor, upon turning 18 years of age, decided that he would try to find his father, a veteran of the second world war. Mr. Taylor Jr. was told back then that he was no longer a citizen and would not get Canadian assistance in finding his father.
Back in the 1990s, Mr. Taylor once again decided he would come to Canada to try to find his father. Unfortunately for Mr. Joe Taylor Jr., he found out that his father had died. He is buried in a cemetery in Port Alberni.
Mr. Joe Taylor Jr. also found out that he had seven half-siblings living in British Columbia, with whom he reunited. He decided that he would retire in Canada, seeing that he has more family in Canada than he has in England. He bought himself a condominium in Victoria and comes back on vacations. He now is semi-retired in Britain and comes to Canada for his vacations. He spends time in Victoria.
Mr. Joe Taylor once again tried to get his Canadian citizenship. Once again the Department of Citizenship and Immigration refused him his citizenship. Mr. Taylor went to Federal Court over that decision.
The government, in denying Mr. Joe Taylor his citizenship, his rightful inheritance from his father, who fought for this country in the second world war, opposed his citizenship on two grounds. One was because Mr. Joseph Taylor was born out of wedlock. Second, the government opposed his citizenship on the grounds that in the 1947 act there is an obscure piece in the legislation which states that if people leave the country for any prolonged period of time they have to apply to keep their citizenship. Mr. Joe Taylor was not aware of that so he could not do so.
He took his case to the Federal Court. The Federal Court justice, Judge Luc Martineau, released his decision on September 1, 2006. In his decision, Mr. Justice Luc Martineau found that to discriminate against a person because he or she was born in or out of wedlock violated the equality section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which says that we cannot discriminate against people because they are born in or out of wedlock.
On the question of not reapplying to keep that citizenship, Justice Luc Martineau ruled that this infringed section 7 of the charter, which talks about basic legal rights. Two sections are very important for this discussion. Section 7 of the charter states:
|| Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof, except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.
Section 15 of the charter deals with the equality section and states:
|| Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disabilities.
It is very clear that nobody, no government would want to have legislation that violated that section of the charter, but what do we have? This decision came down September 1. I asked the then minister of citizenship and immigration a question as to why the government would want to appeal that decision.
The government opposite appealed the decision after it got rid of the court challenges program. It is incomprehensible to me that anybody, that any party and certainly the Government of Canada, would so dishonour the sacrifices made by our veterans as to fight against the rightful citizenship of their offspring.
In the case of Mr. Joe Taylor, he is not a rich man. He has a comfortable life, but he is not rich. For him to take on the government and pursue his case before the court to fight for his rights, and rights that affect thousands of other offspring of veterans whose rightful citizenship is being denied, it costs money and in the case of having gone to Federal Court, that cost Mr. Joe Taylor $30,000 and even though the judge ordered costs against the government, Mr. Joe Taylor recovered only $10,000.
The government made the decision, after it got rid of the court challenges program, to appeal Mr. Taylor's victory in the Federal Court. When it applied to the Federal Court of Appeal, it also informed the Federal Court that if it lost in the Federal Court, it would take the case to the Supreme Court.
How meanspirited can the neocons get when the government says to Mr. Joe Taylor, and people like him, that if he wants to fight for his fundamental rights, which a justice of the Federal Court has ruled to be unconstitutional for infringing the legal section and the equality section of the Charter of Rights, an individual, the son of a Canadian veteran, and there are thousands like him, that he might be right, but if he wants to fight for his rights, he will need lots of money, while the government will use the taxpayer money to fight him to the end.
For Mr. Joe Taylor to get his hearing before the Supreme Court, if it goes there, it would cost upwards of a half million to a million dollars. What the government has done is so very shameful.
Let me read a letter that Mr. Joe Taylor received from the court challenges program on October 31, 2006. It deserves to go in the record.
|| Case Funding Application E-1885.
|| We are writing in response to your application received in our office on October 16, 2006, in which you applied for Case Funding from the Court Challenges Program with respect to opposing the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration's appeal from the Order of Mr. Justice Martineau.
|| We regret to advise you that the Court Challenges Program of Canada is no longer in a position to consider your application for funding. The Federal Government of Canada announced on Monday, September 25, 2006 that it would cut funding available under the existing Court Challenges Program effective immediately. Consequently, there are no longer any funds available for new applications under this Program.
|| We understand and appreciate how this decision will negatively affect your ability to bring your equality rights case forward, and we wish you all the best in your efforts to advance your equality rights.
|| If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me...
It is signed by the legal policy analyst.
It is an incredible disgrace for members of the Conservative Party to stand and say they support their military, the men and women in uniform, and then treat their offspring as shabbily as they have by cutting the court challenges program, appealing the decision and saying that they will appeal it to the Supreme Court. It is a disgrace and something for which they should hide their heads in shame. As more Canadians learn about this, the more outraged they will become.
I mentioned earlier that hundreds of thousands of people fall into this category of citizenship rights. For the government to eliminate a $6 million line item in a $200 billion budget is a total disgrace. However, this regressive Conservative Party, as the Premier of Newfoundland called it, has a long history on this. Therefore, this is nothing new and we should not be surprised.
In 1995 we had the hate crime legislation and Reformers, the predecessors to the Conservatives, were totally in opposition to it. They did not believe that gays should be protected, along with other groups, against hate crimes. That party is the government now. Those members fought against anything to do with gay rights, just as they fought against same sex marriage, and used it shamelessly for perceived political advantage.
That party had a family issues critic say that he believed it was a mistake to have legalized it, referring to homosexuality. That party has consistently made harmful statements about minority groups.
When we talk about the ideological perspective of that party, as I mentioned earlier, it is tied into religious rights and it has shamelessly used religious rights. Nothing better reflects it than its support from the Real Women of Canada. That group hated the court challenges program. It does not believe in same sex marriage, rights for homosexuals or that anybody who has a right should be able to challenge government.
That party calls minority groups special interest groups, but it embraces the gun lobby, the worst special interest in the country. It embraces the oil barons. That party does not call them special interest groups.
You were in the chair, Mr. Speaker, and you have seen the evolution of the Reform ideology. The Conservatives have been hiding it, but every once in a while it comes to the fore. There is no better example than when we bring up the court challenges program.
The Liberal Party is the party of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, something the Conservatives hate. What are the Conservative roots that they refer to back in 1985 to 1993? What did we have? Eighteen members of Parliament and cabinet were charged and convicted of breach of trust. We saw none of that under the previous government.
I want to make it very clear, and everybody except the Conservatives in the House agrees, that they do not have a right to compare themselves to other Conservative parties in the country. As Premier Williams said, “I am a Progressive Conservative; they are regressive Conservatives”. And once again, by removing funding from the court challenges program, they have proven it.
Mr. Derek Lee (Scarborough—Rouge River, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Churchill.
We are debating a committee report dealing with the court challenges program. I have always, as a member, supported the court challenges program from a distance, in the sense that the program was operated and administered well outside of Parliament, well away from the government and managed by people who had legal expertise and a good perspective on our Canadian laws and institutions.
It was not an expensive program. It was actually quite cost effective. It was a program that looked toward the effective functioning of our laws and our administration.
Set out in our Constitution and in our Charter of Rights are legal rights, equality rights and language rights. However, I should make a quick distinction here. Not all the rights we are talking about here are charter rights. Bundles of rights are contained in our original Constitution and the charter, which was enacted in 1982, 25 years ago, reflected some of those and enhanced others.
However, the point is that the court challenges program was meant to be out there to allow the little guy in Canada, the person who maybe did not have the full clout of having a lawyer on the other end of the phone, to join with others and challenge the current law or administration in Canada for the purpose of complying with those very noble objectives of our charter and our Constitution.
I for one did not get a chance to see the court challenges program work up close and most Canadians did not get a chance. The probable reason is that most Canadians take the general quality of our laws and administration for granted. They tend to focus from time to time on perhaps what they do not like rather than all the stuff that is out there that is working quite functionally and serving us well. In the case of the court challenges program, it was actually doing a pretty good job.
Some people might not like the decisions that the courts eventually came to on cases that were brought by the court challenges program but that is a completely different issue than whether or not the court challenges program was working effectively, and it was. It took care of a lot of people. It was a fine-tuning device that was out there that, from time to time, would challenge the big guys in government, the decision makers in government who refused to budge when they were challenged on fairness in the law. By fairness, I mean fairness connected to the equality rights, the language rights and the legal rights that are in our Constitution.
I will point to two cases that have come to me as a parliamentarian but I will not mention any personal names. I am of the view that the two particular cases will require a court challenge. I am not suggesting that they should have been part of the court challenges program but it is a fact that not every component of our government is functioning perfectly and in compliance with the law.
No matter where we look, we will find flaws. We are all human and our government administration is run and operated by humans. People dig their heels in and some people make mistakes. We probably make mistakes in and around the House here too but I cannot point to any right now.
In any event, there was the case of one individual who had not obtained his Canadian citizenship after having lived in Canada for several years. He heard his mother was very ill so he rushed back to his home country. His mother recovered within three or four weeks. This person had left Canada without all the documents. He left fairly quickly because he was told that his mother was on her deathbed. He then had to go to the embassy and get papers to return to Canada. Lo and behold, the embassy decided that he could not get a visa to come back because he was inadmissible. This person was a permanent resident of Canada who went back home to check on his mother and the embassy decided he was inadmissible.
Granted there was a basis for the alleged inadmissibility but our laws also contain provisions that enable him to be treated as a permanent resident abroad and he was not. I am looking at this and I know that the administration of that particular section of the immigration law is ultra vires. It is wrong. It should be challenged and that may happen.
In another case, we have a collaboration between the Canada Revenue Agency and Canada Post to circumvent a privacy law enacted by Parliament. Parliament has decided that personal mail under 30 grams in weight may not be opened for inspection. The CRA generally has the ability to inspect mail coming into Canada but it does not have the right to open and inspect mail that is under 30 grams.
What does the agency do when it has one of these little envelopes? Canada Post and the CRA will keep it. They then send a letter to the Canadian telling the person that they do not have the right to open his or her mail because it is under 30 grams but that they would like the person's consent. They then tell the person that if he or she does not give consent, they will send it back to the sender outside the country and mark the letter as undeliverable.
That is a lie. Of course it is deliverable because Canada Post and the CRA were able to send a letter asking for consent in the first place. Under the Canada Post Corporation Act that mail is in the course of post and Canada Post has a legal obligation to see that it is delivered. Just because CRA cannot open it and inspect it does not mean it cannot be delivered.
In any event, CRA could open and inspect that letter if it went to court and got a warrant. However, the procedure that CRA is using is illegal. It circumvents what Parliament has laid down for our personal privacy when it comes to mail.
One of these instances occurred under the Liberal government and the second occurred under the Conservatives. It is not the government itself that I am challenging here. It is the administration that I am challenging. I am saying that in both of these instances, the immigration department, the CRA and Canada Post are seriously off side in terms of the enforcement and the administration of the law.
I hope these incidents will be challenged. The court challenges program was a wonderful, effective and efficient institution. I regret that it is not currently being funded by the government.
Ms. Tina Keeper (Churchill, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, it is a privilege for me to speak to this motion today.
I have been a member of the heritage committee for the last year. As parliamentarians we have had the privilege of hearing from people who support the re-implementation of the court challenges program and who are adamantly against its elimination. We also heard from people who were against the court challenges program. It was a very interesting process.
I would like to speak about the program and about some of the stuff that we heard at committee. It is absolutely critical for Canadians to know that we have heard from witnesses. We heard from people who felt that the court challenges program represented the spirit and the law of this country at its best. They told us about the incredible impact it had on their lives.
We heard from witnesses who talked about the fact that their lives changed dramatically through an injury or an incident of some type. They had different needs and all of a sudden found themselves at a disadvantage. Their rights under the charter were not being met. We also heard from officials of the court challenges program itself.
We heard from many members who have spoken today, from the Liberal Party, the NDP and the Bloc, and about the concept of justice. The concept of justice necessarily includes access to justice. This is what the court challenges program was about.
At its conception, the court challenges program was related to official language rights under the charter and Constitution, and equality rights guaranteed under the charter involving federal laws, policies and practices. It was meant to provide access to justice for Canada's historically disadvantaged and those most vulnerable to marginalization and exclusion from full participation in Canadian society.
Canada's official minority language groups were also trying to claim their full and proper place in Canada. Without this access to justice, these disempowered groups and individuals no longer have a voice in their efforts to seek equality and recognition.
I would also like to mention that Canada had an international reputation. The court challenges program was one of the instruments for which Canada was recognized by the former UN high commissioner for human rights. She commented on the wonderful work of the court challenges program and its uniqueness. That program and our commitment to human rights have given Canada a place on the world stage.
This program cost $5.6 million a year. That is not a very substantial amount of money. We heard many criticisms by the people who were against the court challenges program and they often echoed some of the Conservative sentiments. We heard today that Liberal friends were recipients of the money, that they were the lawyers.
In fact, we had the opportunity at committee to question people, to question individuals or organizations that utilized the court challenges program about whether they even knew the party affiliation of their lawyer. This is not a partisan issue. It really is about Canada. It is about the spirit and it is what makes Canada great.
The other accusation that we heard today was that the program was not worth the money, not worth its value. In fact, the then President of the Treasury Board, when he made the cut to the program, did in fact say that these initiatives, including the court challenges program, were not meeting the priorities of Canadians or providing value for money. That is indeed what the President of the Treasury Board said about the program, but in 2003 the court challenges program was reviewed and the review was very positive.
The evaluation period was from 1998 to 2003. The evaluators noted that the court challenges program was consistent with the objectives of the Department of Canadian Heritage and most of the individuals and groups consulted stressed that the CCP provided for the clarification of equality and language rights, and afforded greater access to the justice system.
I would also like to mention that, as was found in the evaluation of the CCP and as we have heard from Conservative members and others, it is not value for money because it does not represent, as the minister said, the priorities of Canadians.
What we heard often was that people felt this represented special interest groups. Interestingly enough, the people who often made the accusations were not from a historically disadvantaged group and there were accusations that the court challenges program simply represented special interest groups.
I must argue that we have heard on this side of the House from over 170 organizations from across Canada. Together they submitted a letter asking for a reinstatement of the court challenges program. There are 170 groups, including: Alberta Association for Community Living, Brain Injury Association Network, Canadian Council of Muslim Women, Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, Canadian Health Coalition, Canadian Women's Health Network, and the Charter Committee on Poverty Issues. I could go on and on because there are 170 groups listed.
What I am saying essentially, as we heard at committee time and time again, is that the court challenges program was indeed a program that represented the values of Canadians.
I want to finish by saying that on this issue of special interest groups, we did hear the member for Winnipeg North mention Kevin Rollason, who presented his daughter Mary's story. One of the things he said is that his life did change with the birth of his daughter. He said, “Little did I know my decision would spark a constitutional battle against the federal government and its employment insurance laws”.
He talked about the change in his life from being a Canadian who felt that he had equality to somebody who was disadvantaged and needed to fight on behalf of his family and the court challenges program allowed him to do that.
Ms. Nicole Demers (Laval, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I am especially pleased to participate in this debate today. As a matter of fact, we moved a motion in the Standing Committee on Status of Women that was reported here last week by the chair, and which also called for the court challenges program to be restored. We had several reasons for doing so.
This afternoon, I would like to dedicate my speech to a new Conservative candidate from the Drummondville area, Mr. Komlosy, to show him the importance of being familiar with the cuts his party has made, and also the importance of the consultations we do to understand the needs of the public. I dedicate this speech to him.
We know that the court challenges program, as our Conservative colleague said, dates back to 1978. It has made a remarkable contribution to the development of constitutional law and to the rights of Canadians and Quebeckers over the last 28 years, but more work remains to be done. This program is fully accountable to the Government of Canada. It provides quarterly reports on its activities to the government and publishes an annual report with statistics on the number and types of cases that it has funded. The annual reports are public documents and are available on the court challenges program’s website. This is not some small, ad hoc program. The program was very well laid out and respected.
The court challenges program was subject to full and independent evaluations of its activities every five years. Since 1994, the program has been evaluated three times. On each occasion the evaluators found that the court challenges program was meeting the objectives set by the government in a cost-effective manner, and made unqualified recommendations that the court challenges program should continue to carry out its mandate.
This program was very important to the Fédération des femmes du Québec because it was crucial to financing precedent-setting legal action brought by groups and individuals to dispute federal policies and legislation that violated their constitutional right to equality. With the support of the court challenges program, women's organizations and other groups fighting for equality were able to access the legal system and introduce progressive interpretations of the legislation. Thanks to this program, women, gays and lesbians, people with physical disabilities and other disadvantaged groups now enjoy greater equality.
This is not the first time a Conservative government has abolished the court challenges program. The first time was in 1992. The public protested so vociferously that the government was forced to back down. During the 1993 elections, all of the federal parties said that if they were elected, they would reinstate the court challenges program for good, which is what the Liberal Party did in 1994.
When they take action without knowing the root causes of a problem, ignorance is a plausible excuse, but when they take action knowing full well the consequences of cutting a program like this one, they have to be acting in very bad faith if they would have us believe that their cuts have no impact on people's rights, on the rights of women and the disabled. They have to be acting in very bad faith.
The court challenges program subsidized the women's legal education and action fund in a case that challenged the use of sexist myths in rape trials. LEAF took the Ewanchuk case—in which the accused alleged that the way a woman dressed for a job interview could indicate her willingness to have sex with a potential employer—to the Supreme Court of Canada. Fortunately, the Supreme Court agreed with LEAF's arguments and rejected the defendant's sexist arguments.
The United Nations has repeatedly recognized the vital role that the court challenges program played in the respect and promotion of human rights in Canada. In January 2003, the CEDAW committee acknowledged the importance of the CCP in the struggle to end all forms of discrimination against women. Furthermore, in May 2006, the U.N. Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommended that the court challenges program be expanded, not eliminated, to fund test case litigation against provincial laws and policies that violate constitutional equality rights.
I have here an article written by Mr. Batiste Foisy on November 2, 2006:
|| Cancelled in September by the Conservative government in its efforts to “cut the fat” and “eliminate wasteful programs”, the court challenges program (CCP) was, for many minority groups, the ultimate tool to ensure the respect of their constitutional rights. It was a Heritage Canada agency that provided funding to individuals and organizations challenging the constitutionality of legislation before the courts or taking action against a government for failing to meet its constitutional obligations. Most cases supported by the CCP dealt with the rights of linguistic minorities, equality of women, or the rights of minorities such as homosexuals, aboriginals or immigrants. The court challenges programs cost the Canadian government 18 cents per person per year.
It cost only 18 cents a year for each Canadian and Quebecker. Eighteen cents. They eliminated a program that worked, that was internationally recognized as a program that helped people maintain and assert their rights, for only 18 cents per person per year.
Naturally some organizations were pleased. You will not be surprised to hear that Real Women of Canada was one of the organizations that said that the program had financed only left-wing organizations which, with taxpayers' money, led to social restructuring through the courts and that eliminating the program promotes the advancement of democracy in Canada. We should remember that Real Women of Canada is a group of women opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion and divorce.
Mr. Roger Lepage has defended and won a number of cases—particularly with regard to access to French-language education in western Canada—with the help of the court challenges program. My father and his family moved to western Canada in 1920, when he was two years old. On Sundays, his mother was forced to hide and to take the children to the barn to teach them their first language so they would not forget it. That was in Dollard, Saskatchewan. She ran the risk of being arrested if discovered.
Progress has been made since then. We have obtained the right, even in the western provinces, to speak French and to be educated in French. Why? How? Thanks to the court challenges program which has served many causes. Members may recall the story of Montfort Hospital, which was almost forced to close its doors even though it was the only French-language hospital in the region. The people wanted to keep and protect it. They were very afraid of losing their hospital because then they would not have had access to services in their mother tongue. This program was very effective and served many good and noble causes.
Mr. Roger Lepage said that a minority is not in a position to exercise democratic power because it does not have demographic weight. We must remember this: a minority does not have demographic weight. Since they cannot count on parliamentarians, who speak on behalf of the majority, minorities must turn to the judiciary when their rights are violated. It is clear that the rights of a minority are not very popular with the majority. By cutting the funding available to minorities, the Conservative Party is attempting to return to a primitive democracy where the strict majority dominates.
He has experienced this primitive democracy. Like so many other Franco-Saskatchewaners of his generation, he knew a time when he had to hide his books on the way to school because French education was prohibited.
The Fédération des associations de juristes d'expression française intends to take legal action against the government to overturn this decision. In a letter addressed to the Prime Minister on October 4, 2006, the coalition called on the government to overturn its decision. Lawyers Nathalie DesRosiers and Wayne McKay wrote the following on behalf of the coalition:
|| Canadian law is not perfect. Those who criticize the imperfections in order to live in equality with others deserve to be heard. By cancelling the court challenges program, your government has indicated that those people will not be heard and do not deserve to be.
The Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, known as FAFIA, believes that eliminating the program will slow down the promotion of Canadians and Quebeckers and be a setback for real equality. The co-chair of FAFIA, Shelagh Day said:
|| This program has provided Canadian women with their only access to the use of their constitutional equality rights.
That word, equality, has been dropped from the Conservative Party's vocabulary. Ms. Day continues:
|| Equal rights have no meaning in Canada if women, and other Canadians who face discrimination, cannot use them.
It is all well and good for the government to say that this was a good decision, that it was trimming fat, but it was actually trimming right to the bone. When the government wants to trim fat, it will cut things like military aircraft that cost billions of dollars but do not provide our soldiers with the necessary support. When the government wants to trim fat, it will cut things that will make a huge difference in people's lives.
Bonnie Morton of the Charter Committee on Poverty Issues said, “The cancellation of the court challenges program is an attack on the charter itself and the human rights of everyone in Canada”. I would add, “and everyone in Quebec”. The organizations affected are not little groups out in the backwoods somewhere. They are organizations across Canada and Quebec, serious organizations with a solid track record, credible organizations.
Yvonne Peters of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities also said:
|| When a country like Canada enacts constitutional rights, it takes for granted that residents, when they believe the government is violating their rights, can and will challenge any offending law or policy. If residents cannot ensure respect of their rights because of financial barriers, Canada’s constitutional democracy is hollow. We turn the Charter into a paper guarantee, with no real meaning.
|| Without the Court Challenges Program, Canada’s constitutional rights are real only for the wealthy. This offends basic fairness. And it does not comply with the rule of law, which is a fundamental principle of our Constitution.
Avvy Go of the Metro Toronto Chinese and South Asian Legal Clinic said:
|| Stephen Harper recognized this during the last election campaign, and he said then that if elected a Conservative government would “articulate Canada’s core values on the world stage”, including “the rule of law”, “human rights” and “compassion for the less fortunate”. The cancellation of the court challenges program belies this promise.
The Bloc Québécois has always supported causes that affect minorities, women, children and seniors. This cause affects them directly. When we can no longer defend our rights, when we no longer have access to a process that enables us to assert our rights, we become even poorer. There is enough poverty here, there is enough in Canada and there is enough in Quebec.
Poverty exists and we must fight it with any available means. The impoverishment of human rights is an even more important issue. It makes me even angrier because it leaves individuals without any resources and without any support; then they give up. Does this government want its citizens to be so subjugated that they no longer have the desire to live, to fight, to stand up for themselves? That seems to be the case. I am sorry to have to say it but that does seem to be the case. It could be said that this government wants to ensure that individuals will no longer have the ability to defend themselves.
The Bloc Québécois will not accept this. We will go on. That is why Mr. Komlosy can rest assured that, in Drummondville, we will continue to consult the public, to meet with the people, to meet with women, groups and individuals interested in the problems caused by the Conservative government cuts. I can rhyme off all these cuts, but I will focus on the slashing of the court challenges program.
In conclusion, I will refer to the Conservatives' argument that they thought it was useless to have a program that challenges the merits of federal legislation when the government makes good laws. But everyone can make mistakes. We may well be legislators, we may well want to make correct, fair and equitable legislation, but sometimes we make mistakes. A law is one of our tools, and we must re-examine it from time to time to ensure that it still reflects reality and to ensure that we still have reason to want to use it. There are times when a law is no longer valid. It has lost its relevance because it no longer meets the needs of the people, the public. There are times when it is unjust to certain parts of the population or certain segments of the population.
By abolishing the court challenges program, the Conservative government also wanted to silence the opposition voices. The Bloc Québécois knows something about civil opposition.
At the same time, the eligibility criteria for the women's program were changed so as to exclude rights and lobby groups. Mr. Komlosy, if you are listening, this is about women's rights. Women's rights groups and women's lobby groups no longer have access to the women's program. I want this to be clear. It is on the record and it must be the truth.
Once again, by cutting this program, by making cuts to other programs, the government is trying to silence the voices of women, the disabled and minorities. This is what the Bloc Québécois will continue to condemn.
Hon. Mauril Bélanger (Ottawa—Vanier, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, since I see that another three minutes remain in the debate, I will proceed quickly.
I am pleased to speak here today, because the issue of the court challenges program is of enormous concern to minority language rights in Canada. As the member for the riding that is home to the Montfort Hospital, it is understandable how upset and disappointed the people of my riding were—as were most Canadians—when they learned that this new government was going to cancel the court challenges program. Afterwards, we were told not to worry, because the government would not introduce any unconstitutional legislation.
Since that time, however, we know that two provinces have challenged the constitutionality of proposed legislation. We were also told that this would apply only to new legislation. That is not the case, since the entire legal structure built since 1867 is subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Thus, Canadians have the right to verify if existing legislation applies and if the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does indeed ensure that these laws are set aside. In certain cases, this also means all provincial laws.
By telling us not to worry, the government is denying the existence of the whole legislative system of this country and the provinces. We have a problem with that. Earlier, a Conservative member from the Quebec City area asked what the loss of the program meant to francophone minorities and minority communities. My answer is that thanks to the charter of rights and freedoms and the court challenges program, Prince Edward Island was able to get French-language schools and Ottawa was able to keep a hospital in part. That is how the program helped minority communities.
The court challenges program proved its effectiveness time and time again, and linguistic minorities across the country were able to assert and win their rights under the charter of rights and freedoms.
It is supremely ironic that the government has just announced that it will pay $22 million to fund the operating costs of the Museum of Human Rights, when it has done away with the court challenges program, which cost $2.7 million annually.
I do not begrudge what the government will spend on the Museum of Human Rights, but the signs indicate that the court challenges program was cancelled for ideological rather than financial reasons. I know that the government will have to live with this decision and that the next time Canada goes to the polls, the government will pay for denying the least fortunate in our society access to a world-renowned program that recognized their rights.