That the eighth report of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, presented on Thursday, October 5, 2006, be concurred in.
He said: Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure this morning to ask my hon. colleagues in this House to concur in the eighth report of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. This report is essentially comprised of the motion adopted on October 4 by a majority of committee members, which reads:
That, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage recommend that the government continue funding the Court Challenges Program at the fiscal 2005-2006 level.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that this recommendation or proposal was not adopted unanimously. It was adopted, however, by a majority of committee members. That is why, having given notice of this proposal, I hasten to put it forward this morning. I do believe that this is a matter of critical importance. So much so that I might suggest a possible connection with the government bill to amend the Criminal Code that was just introduced. This bill introduced by the government this morning could very well be challenged in court some day. It is highly likely that people will need financial assistance to assert their rights then. Initially, that is what the court challenges program was intended for.
Let us look at a bit of history. Hon. members might remember that, in the early 1980s, Canada established the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and patriated the Constitution, opening the way to a marvellous societal adventure. The subsequent decades saw the rights proclaimed at that time, rights enshrined in a charter which is the envy of many, be affirmed in our country. That is indeed what happened.
It has often been said that, on paper, the Russian constitution was probably the best in the world. But we have to go further than that and see to what extent people's rights and freedoms are respected on a daily basis. In that respect, Canada is a leader.
For over two decades now, we have upheld those rights. The Court Challenges Program of Canada has been an important part of asserting our rights and liberties. Our success as a country is due in large part to this program, which has enabled traditionally underprivileged groups and the poor to assert their rights and exercise their citizenship fully. A former Conservative government abolished this program, and the Liberal government reinstated it in 1994. I find it very disturbing that, once again, the Conservative government is targeting the court challenges program and, at the end of September, announced its intention to eliminate it.
I hope that a majority of the Canadian people's representatives in this House will choose to maintain this program because it is a social tool of vital importance. Many have said so. To those who indulge in exaggeration, who allege that this program encourages parties to challenge government actions in court, I would say that we must look to the facts. I know that the Calgary Herald published an editorial on July 16, 2006, stating that over 50,000 suits were brought against the government in court. That may be, but not all of these cases went through the Court Challenges Program of Canada.
As we know, charter law is a rather specialized area and most cases against the government would not even involve constitutional issues. The 50,000-plus cases the Calgary Herald editorial was referring to this past July are cases that individuals may bring against the government on whatever grounds, but in terms of charter cases, let us be clear.
This information can be obtained from the annual report of the court challenges program. Between 1994, when the program was re-established after the Mulroney government cut it, and 2005, the program has funded 375 equality rights court cases and 142 language rights court cases. Of those, 121 of the 375 equality rights cases were to fund interveners, not the original plaintiffs, and 44 of the 142 language rights cases were also to fund interveners.
That is the nature of what we are addressing. The cost of the program was slightly over $2 million, which of course we know is, in the grand scheme of things, a sum of money that the government and the country can afford. We will get to that in a few minutes.
So that people understand the nature of the program, I note that it does not even involve constitutional issues. It involves very specific issues of equality and language rights. It is restricted by contribution agreements between the non-profit organization that was created to manage the program and the Government of Canada. Therefore, it is all spelled out and directed as per the will of the government.
To say that it is a program that benefits only certain groups and certain people is not accurate. On that front, I would like to give an example. I can give this example because the people involved have given their permission to be quoted. Indeed, some of the cases are now before the court system.
There is a group from the linguistics side and also a number from the equality side.
On the official languages side, the Centre d'avancement et de leadership en développement économique communautaire de la Huronie believes that its rights to community economic development have not been respected. This case is before the courts.
In another case, Claudette Chubbs has challenged the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador in the court of appeal on the issue of the rights of parents of eligible children in the L'Anse-au-Clair, Forteau and L'Anse-au-Loup regions to have their children educated in French.
For its part, the Fédération Franco-TéNOise is taking a legal challenge to the court of appeal for clarification as to whether the Government of the Northwest Territories—and, by extension, all the territorial governments—is an institution of the Government of Canada for the purposes of section 20 of the charter.
The case of Raymond Robinson and Gerry Deneault is a legal challenge filed by parents of children who attend the Centre Jules-Léger in Ottawa, the only public primary or secondary school in Ontario that provides instruction in French for children with learning disabilities.
Despite court statements that have identified school management and control as important aspects of exercising the rights set out in section 23 of the charter, there are no mechanisms for consultation or cooperation between centre administrators and parents of eligible children. There are other similar cases and cases relating to equality.
On equality rights, we have a number of cases being funded by the court challenges program. I have to list a few so that Canadians have a sense of the scope and the importance of the court challenges program.
There is one case by the name of Amparo Torres Victoria v. Canada, in this case the and the . It is the case of a lady who was a trade union and human rights and political activist in Colombia and is now accused of terrorism. She is defending herself against the charges. In doing so, she is challenging sections 33, 34, 78 and 86 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, essentially because she is being charged in secret. We have just had a very famous case dealt with in this country in that regard and we ought to be very careful about this. This kind of case would indeed probe the legality and the constitutionality of certain sections of that law.
There is the case of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities v. Via Rail Canada Inc. This application was on the agenda for the panel's November 2006 meeting but cannot be heard. The appeal concerns the purchase by Via Rail of passenger railcars that are inaccessible to persons in wheelchairs.
We also have the case of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons v. Canada. The applicant is an organization representing elderly persons who wish to challenge paragraph 15(1)(c) of the Canadian Human Rights Act, a provision that allows for mandatory retirement. This is of rather significant importance.
There is also Le Front commun des personnes assistées sociales du Québec v. CRTC.
In this case, the applicant is challenging section 5(1)(b) of the broadcasting regulations as violating section 15 of the charter based on under-inclusiveness.
The Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic is involved in challenging provisions of federal immigration law that require sponsors to meet minimum levels of income or deny social assistance recipients' right to sponsor, something of significance to a number of Canadians.
I can go on. A number of cases are of great importance to the social fabric of our community. Some involve aboriginal Canadians, for instance the Fort Providence Metis Council, and some involve the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria.
This is a program rooted in our communities. I take great exception to the response when asked why his government did this to the court challenges program. He said two things, one of which was that he did not like funding “Liberal lawyers”. That is a great mis-characterization and is disingenuous at best, because this program funds our communities, our associations, our non-profit organizations and our individuals, rooted in Canada and their communities, who are fighting to make sure their rights are respected. They choose their lawyers. For the Prime Minister and some of his ministers to respond the way they did is not worthy of the offices they hold. I take great exception to that.
However, the second response given by the in his reasoning why the court challenges program was cancelled is frightening. The Prime Minister said something to the effect that his government intends to behave in a constitutional manner. I hope so. All governments and all executives should be expected to behave in a constitutional manner. It goes without saying. For the Prime Minister to think that he has to say his government intends to behave in a constitutional manner is rather outlandish.
Then the said in this House, “We do not intend to adopt unconstitutional legislation”. I have serious problems with that statement. First, not only does the court challenges program address proposed legislation, but it addresses existing legislation as well, legislation that has been on the books since the start of this country, legislation both here in the Parliament of Canada and in the provinces and territories. That is what is involved in the court challenges program. We have seen a number of cases in which we have had to reach back and where, because of laws passed before the advent of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, some sections of laws were struck down. That is the first difficulty I have with the response.
Another difficulty I have is that his statement implied that it only applies here for legislation passed by this Parliament and sanctioned by the Queen. That is not so. Some of the rights protected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms affect provincial legislation as well. Education is a case in point. A number of the linguistic rights cases that have been funded by the court challenges program fall under that category. For the to say we do not need this because the government will only adopt constitutional laws is disingenuous again, because it applies to the entire universe of laws that this Parliament has put in existence plus what is out there in the provinces.
There is another point about the saying that his government does not intend to adopt unconstitutional legislation. Two provinces have said that some of the bills introduced by the government are unconstitutional. There is a slight problem here. The Government of Quebec and I believe the Government of Ontario have said that in terms of legislation dealing with the other place.
So which is it? Does the government not intend to adopt unconstitutional legislation? That brings me to the fourth and most important difficulty, a scary consequence of what the said.
There are three branches of our government: the executive branch, which is the and his cabinet; the legislative branch, which is us in this House; and there is the judiciary. By the Prime Minister saying that we, the executive, do not intend to adopt unconstitutional legislation, he is actually substituting the executive for both the legislative and the judiciary branches in this country. That is very scary.
As a legislator I am very concerned that the would have the attitude that he knows best, that his government, his executive, can decide what laws are to be adopted. First of all, that is the prerogative of the legislature. The Prime Minister should know that especially in a minority situation. Then, that the judiciary would not have a say, as a legislator I am concerned. As a citizen I am scared.
If that is the attitude that is coming from this government, then I understand why it cut, eliminated, and slashed the court challenges program. I think the will of this House should be listened to by this government. Where the country is going now is not very good.
In effect, we are starting to see here a bit of an advocacy chill. We are seeing a government that is trying to shut down systematically those who would speak in ways that do not please the government. The court challenges program is very much a case in point. It is not the only one.
We have seen what this government has decided in terms of funding for women's groups in this country. The government has actually taken advocacy off from what the groups could do in order to receive money. The groups can no longer advocate. If they do, they are not eligible for subsidies. If that is not an advocacy chill, I do not know what it is.
The is getting into the game. He has put out a directive that the Wheat Board cannot use its resources to promote itself. If that is not an advocacy chill, what is it?
Canadians are starting to see a pattern here. This government is not even prepared to listen to another point of view. It is still a minority government. I guess that is the reason why polls are indicating that Canadians have no appetite to give this government a majority. Canadians are starting to be very concerned about the consequences of that.
If my colleagues think that I am the only one here, there are a number of people in our society that have made comments. I would like to take a few minutes and read a couple of quotes from people who have been following this issue. The national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Paul Moist, said:
When we look at just 2 of these program cuts $5 million from the Status of Women and $5.6 million from the Court Challenges program, a clear message is being sent. The government is essentially saying that any voice given to addressing gender inequality in this country will be further silenced--furthermore any voices wanting to challenge the current status of the laws of this land will be muzzled.
Marcus Tabachnick, president of the Quebec English School Boards Association, had this to say in a letter sent to the :
The pertinence of the Court Challenges Program of Canada has been recognized by the Canadian Bar Association. Important decisions on minority-language schooling, access to services and key issues regarding freedom of expression have been rendered after interventions funded by the Court Challenges Program. Many of those interventions would have been impossible to initiate without the program's support.
Jean-Guy Rioux, president of the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada, says:
These program cuts announced by the government [of the Prime Minister] go against the commitments made by the Government of Canada and represent an attack on the francophone and Acadian communities...Accountability demands that the government consult us, which it did not do. We have therefore filed a complaint with the Commissioner of Official Languages.
Audrey Johnson, executive director of the Women's League Education and Action Fund said in a media release:
This is a devastating loss to Canada's most vulnerable groups. Without the CCP it means that “ordinary citizens” will be less able to protect or restore their rights when they are infringed by laws or actions of the state.
The last quote comes from Jean-Robert Sansfaçon in his editorial in Le Devoir on September 27:
On the whole, these Conservative cuts are in no way intended to reduce waste. Their purpose is simply to eliminate programs that clash with the convictions of some Conservative ministers or even to throw obstacles in the way of volunteer organizations or activist groups that could hurt the Conservatives. What a lack of generosity, what small-mindedness!
Mr. Speaker, it is with great honour I rise today as a Canadian citizen and a member of Parliament.
It is a privilege to speak to the House, a House that has long been a symbol of fairness and equality. It is in the House that the laws which protect us have been crafted and the bills that defend each of us have been passed. It is in this chamber that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms emerged and this is 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 and race. It is our system of Parliament which has served as the foundation of our way of life. It will continue to shape and mould the way we live as we evolve together as a community and a nation.
Canada's system of Parliament stands as a model for countries around the world, striving to achieve equality and justice for our own 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 reflects the values of all Canadians. We believe in creating laws that promote diversity and equality. The government believes in the democratic process and that 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 elect to the House. We believe that public policy should be driven by the will of the people. We believe it will be best expressed through publicly elected officials who sit in debate in the halls of Parliament and 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 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 interests 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 new Canadian government is committed to ensuring that laws are fair. We are committed to the review and update of those laws, which no longer reflect the values of Canadians. The government is working directly with disadvantaged groups to improve conditions so they may participate fully in society. The government is committed to ensuring that minority groups are guaranteed access to social, economic and cultural rights.
The new Canadian government, through serious action, has proven its advocacy toward the most vulnerable citizens. The ministers of the government work together to identify problems and work in concert to devise solutions for the benefit of minority groups and disadvantaged citizens.
Let us take a look at the last 10 short months of this government and what it has done more to protect the rights of vulnerable citizens than the previous government in its full term of office.
The new Canadian government acknowledged the injustice that was committed against aboriginal children through the residential school program. In May of this year the hon. along with the hon. approved a final Indian residential school settlement agreement and the immediate launch of an advanced payment program with the hope of fostering reconciliation and healing among all Canadians.
It must be noted that this is in the face of the fact that the previous Liberal administration had this file on its desk for the full term and it did nothing on this file. In less than six months we resolved the issue where the previous government took 13 years of inaction to do nothing.
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. In June of this year Canada's new government officially apologized. The hon. along with the were instrumental in working with the Chinese community to begin the healing process. The issued an official apology for the head tax imposed on Chinese Canadians and the government announced 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.
What had the Liberals done on this file? Absolutely nothing. In less than six months we resolved that file, which was a blight on the conscience of Canadians since the 1900s. We did it in six months.
The government acknowledged the unjust treatment of victims who contracted hepatitis C from the blood system before January 1, 1986 and after January 1, 1990. 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. The along with his parliamentary secretary and hon. members such as the member for , the member for and the member for spearheaded the movement to finally address this injustice, an injustice the former government had refused to recognize.
I recall very clearly sitting on the other side of the House when our party was pushing on this issue. We actually got the Liberals to agree that this was a complete travesty and injustice to those who had suffered from hepatitis C. What did they do? They agreed only so they could get out of the House with their heads up because they wanted to get across the street. Then they had to put their heads back down again. We got them to supposedly move on this issue of public interest and they did nothing.
Our government has set aside nearly a billion dollars in a special settlement fund which sole purpose is to provide compensation to the pre-1986 and the post-1990 hepatitis C victims. Hepatitis C victims have said thank goodness for the new Canadian government.
The government acknowledges the plight of aboriginal women, who are struggling with marital breakdown and are faced with overwhelming barriers in securing a future for themselves and their children. Just a few weeks ago, the government took the initiative and began to work to secure fair and equitable on reserve real matrimonial property rights. The hon. has begun consultations across the country in hopes of establishing on reserve matrimonial real property solutions to first nation communities.
What had the Liberals done in the full 13 years when they were on this side of the House? Nada, nothing, on this absolutely vital issue. We take no lessons from the Liberals on issues of social fairness and social justice.
The members of the government are proud to act as advocates for vulnerable citizens in our country. The 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, not the self-serving special interest groups. The government is committed to ensure that legislation passed is legislation that is good for Canadians.
It is very interesting that the member brought forward this concurrence motion today. He will be aware of his own intervention yesterday, and I agreed with the member. The heritage committee will listen to people who will tell us the good things of the court challenges program. I have to state to the House, in fairness to the member, he agreed that people who were denied access to these funds should also be given the access to the committee so they could have their say as well. I commend the member for that.
This is all about the fact that the situation is out of the control of accountability of the House. Why have these people been funded? I do not know. On what basis have these people had access to these funds on what basis? I do not know. The difficulty is there are many people who have felt they should have had access to these funds in order to bring forward their own cause. Yet the individuals who make the decisions as to who should receive the funding are not accountable. We have no reason why they make their decisions.
I am very proud of our government. We do stand up for the vulnerable in our society. As we are made aware of things, we act and we act expeditiously. Our government is very proud to stand up for all Canadians.
Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the hon. member for for presenting this motion, which follows the tabling of the eighth report. It is quite incredible. It is hard to fathom the government's intentions; basically, they are doing everything to target the most vulnerable, to weaken those who truly need the government's assistance.
It seems that Conservatives believe in social contract. However they believe in it when everything is going well, in times of prosperity when there is no need to rely on solidarity.
Who would have thought that a government could be so low, so irresponsible, so servile and petty—to use words that are parliamentary—as to abolish a program that calls for total spending of almost $3 million, because that is what it comes down to for the court challenges program?
I have been here since 1993 and one of the stupidest things I have heard in my life as a parliamentarian came out of the mouth of the Prime Minister. I truly could not believe my ears when he justified himself in answering a question from the leader of the Bloc Québécois, the hon. member for . The member asked why the government was abolishing the court challenges program, and what was the 's response? In all his wisdom and enlightenment, the Prime Minister said that the government had no intention of introducing unconstitutional legislation.
Can you imagine the stupidity of such a statement, which is all the more worrisome coming from a head of state, a , a man who has major responsibilities when it comes to the value of equality?
Of course, governments never introduce unconstitutional legislation. When a submission is made to cabinet, the must ensure that the content of the bill is compatible with various human rights mechanisms. In the Canadian example there is the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Diefenbaker's Canadian Bill of Rights, adopted in 1962, the year of my birth.
But that is not the substance of the debate. The substance of the debate is that certain rights are denied today. The law is in fact a changing thing. Our view of the law is subject to a certain evolution, for morals change. We no longer define indecency as it was defined in the 19th century.
Take the death penalty for example. It was partially abolished in Canada in 1977, and definitively in 1982. Ultimately, it can be called cruel and unusual punishment in light of the Canadian Charter.
So how can a head of state, in this instance the , say that his government does not intend to table unconstitutional legislation?
We will be returning to the Conservatives’ record on human rights. However, it is true that when a bill is tabled in this House, it has been evaluated by the Department of Justice.
Nonetheless, that is not what we are talking about. The court challenges program is primarily a means of verifying the scope of rights. Moreover, the fact that a right is not recognized by the Supreme Court in 2006 does not mean it will not be recognized in 2012. I have some examples.
First, we know that the Conservatives are not fond of homosexuals, not fond of people of the homosexual orientation: they have exercised a policy of institutionalized homophobia. I am not saying that individually they are homophobes.
I am not saying that. I will give some examples.
Since 1993, each time they have had the opportunity, the Conservatives, as a group, have voted against the rights of gays and lesbians. That is called institutionalized homophobia. I am not claiming that, as individuals, they are homophobes.
Imagine if the Bloc Québécois had voted nine times against the rights of aboriginal people. Imagine if the Bloc Québécois had voted nine times against the rights of women. Imagine if the Bloc Québécois had voted nine times against the rights of the cultural communities. Well, on nine occasions all of the Conservatives, with about five exceptions, none of whom unfortunately are current members of this House, voted that way. Those are the facts.
There was the first bill I tabled, on recognition of common-law spouses, which was supported by Mr. Lucien Bouchard and almost all of my caucus. This was in 1995. I remember that the vote on my bill was held on a Monday morning, and Alfonso Gagliano was the Liberal government whip. That was the only time in my life I voted on a Monday morning, and it was concerning my bill. Now, Sheila Copps was the only Liberal cabinet minister present at the time in this House. She represented the generous, humanist left wing of the Liberal Party. That Monday morning in 1995, however, other hon. members, 55 in all, supported that sole member of the Liberal cabinet present in the House.
So the Conservatives have voted against the rights of gay men and lesbians nine times. That is not insignificant.
In 1995, when the motion I had introduced regarding same-sex common-law partners was voted on, Allan Rock amended the Criminal Code to add sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination in section 718.2.
This was referred to as a provision relating to violent crimes motivated by hate. In imposing a sentence, the judge may look to a number of provisions under which he may find that there is an aggravating circumstance.
In the second vote on Allan Rock’s bill, all of the Conservatives voted against it.
The same was true when former minister Anne McLellan introduced a bill dealing with recognition of same-sex common-law partners. Obviously she introduced a bill because she was well aware that the federal government had little hope of winning the foreseeable court challenges.
The Conservatives introduced a motion saying that homosexual unions were not real families.
They voted against Svend Robinson’s hate crimes bill.
In committee, they voted against an amendment I proposed relating to access to new reproductive technologies by lesbians.
Twice they voted against a motion relating to marriage introduced by the Conservatives, and against a bill relating to marriage introduced by the previous government.
And so on nine occasions, the Conservatives, as a parliamentary caucus, have voted against the rights of gay men and lesbians.
In 1995, a couple who had lived together for 40 years challenged the provisions of the law relating to the old age pension income supplement that is paid to people who have not reached the age of 60 or 65 years. They had been living together for 40 years, but one of them was not eligible because same-sex common-law couples were not recognized. At that point, the Supreme Court said that sexual orientation had to be added to section 15 of the Canadian Charter as a prohibited ground of discrimination.
There is an example of a case which allows the Supreme Court, whose responsibility it is to bring about progress in the law, to take an updated look at our important legislation and the management of public funds used to assist minority groups in challenging laws.
I will say it again, when the rose in this House to say that his government did not intend to introduce unconstitutional legislation, that was one of the stupidest things I have heard in this House. Of course the government does not introduce unconstitutional legislation. It is the courts that bring about progress in the law, in some circumstances.
I have cited the example of minority groups in terms of sex, but could we not say the same thing about minority groups in terms of language?
Once again, what is it about the court challenges program that the government is afraid of?
This is not the first time that this problem has arisen. Remember that this program was established in the 1970s. It is worth recalling that under Brian Mulroney, who was in fact more progressive than conservative, in their next to last year in power, the Conservatives wanted to abolish the court challenges program. In fact, they did not want to abolish it, they abolished it. It was only when the Liberals returned to power, in 1993, that the program was reinstated.
Obviously, there was great indignation over the elimination of the program. All the human rights activists made their opposition known. This is typical of the current government. It has no sympathy for the most vulnerable people. It is not sensitive to minorities. A government really needs to be low to slash literacy programs. It really needs to be low to attack the status of women.
I would agree if a government were to say that a part of its responsibilities is to periodically evaluate how effective programs are in light of their objectives. We are not against program reviews and evaluations. But this government cut the court challenges program because it thinks that minorities do not need government assistance.
Do they know how much it can cost to go to court? This is not a gratuitous criticism of lawyers; everyone has a right to earn a living. When a good lawyer wants to challenge some legislation and it goes all the way to the Supreme Court, he has to write statements of argument and must be very well prepared in order to back up his challenge. The legal fees for all this can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Let me say parenthetically that two of my fellow citizens, Michael Hendrix and René Leboeuf, were the first to challenge the lack of equality when they were refused a civil marriage. They relied on the court challenges program because section 15 of the 1982 Canadian charter provides for equal treatment. What equal treatment means is not specified in the act. It is the courts that have defined what equal treatment is.
Does anyone think that we would have made the great legal strides in minority rights without the court challenges?
It is terrible to see what is happening now. It is terrible to see this lack of sensitivity on the government’s part.
Maybe we need to look into whether the court challenges program is well managed. Maybe it should not be administered by a non-profit agency. We are open to this kind of discussion. But that is not what the government wants to hear. The government says that this program is not needed because it will not introduce any unconstitutional legislation.
This government is extremely dangerous insofar as human rights are concerned. The Conservatives’ agenda is of deep concern to anyone who is a member of a minority, to anyone who believes deeply in equality, and to anyone who believes that minorities deserve to be helped to defend their rights.
I cannot name one person in their cabinet or even their caucus who is an advocate for minority rights. I believe that two Conservative members may be somewhat more sensitive to the issue. I cannot name them, but the parliamentary secretary to the senator who has not yet been elected has some sensitivity.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board is moving ahead, but has not yet fully matured in similar files. He is giving me a sign, and we will see how he votes when his government introduces a motion to revisit the issue of civil marriage for same sex couples. The member is nodding his head and gesturing. I would like to assume that he is concerned about minority groups, but I am curious to know how he will vote when the time comes. If memory serves, he is not among the short list of Conservative members who supported the bill introduced by the former Liberal justice minister concerning marriage rights.
It is a rather sad state of affairs when we begin bargaining with minority rights and when we hear that $1.1 billion has been cut, even though there is a budget surplus of $15 billion.
I saw the President of the Treasury Board on television, quite happy to be on camera to sign a $15 billion cheque. Meanwhile, our constituency offices had received the list of programs that were cut. Surprisingly, the programs cut were the programs that helped those less fortunate through literacy, housing and status of women.
Proof that this government in not interested in hearing public debate on human rights is that, in addition to cutting the court challenges program, it also abolished—yes, abolished—the Law Commission of Canada. True, the commission was known to question governments and to recognize, in its opinions, that the current state of rights may not be generous enough towards a certain minority group in our society. Nevertheless, a government that is proud of its minorities is one that gives them the tools they need to assert their rights.
I will close by stating that it is possible to support the court challenges program without necessarily supporting institutional bilingualism in Quebec. I hope that the member for will agree, although I doubt it. We all have an interest in helping the francophone community outside Quebec, for example, to become as dynamic as possible. In a minority language situation, one has to constantly fight for access to institutions. The governments did not just wake up one morning and decide to ask what they could do to improve the situation of minorities. It was the court challenges program that made it possible for linguistic minorities to gain access to educational institutions and to manage their own school boards. Just remember the fight that was waged on behalf of the Montfort, a French-language hospital.
Finally I would like to say that this government will pay dearly for its insensitivity towards minorities, no matter which ones. The Bloc Québécois, and the other opposition parties, will never condone this lack of sensitivity towards minorities. On behalf of my Bloc Québécois colleagues and all the members of this house, I say shame on this government. One day its representatives will have to explain their gross neglect of minorities. We will never be a party to abolishing the court challenges program, a valuable program that defends human rights. And if this government has any sense of responsibility and honour, it will restore the budget of the court challenges program, which strongly supports human rights.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today in this House to speak about court challenges. Although I say I am pleased to rise in this House, I think this is a sad day. The Conservative Party, the government, has decided to cut the court challenges program. By doing so, the minister has said, here in this House, that it was not right to give money to groups so that they can challenge a government that has created the laws. It is not right. If not, then the Supreme Court of Canada should be abolished. If it is not right, the provincial courts should be abolished.
An hon. member: They will do it.
Mr. Yvon Godin: If it is not right, then we should live with a dictatorial government. Let us not forget that the ministers and members of this government cannot even talk to the press. Is that the kind of Canada we want?
I can give examples of the contribution that the court challenges program has made to minorities, and the support they have drawn from it. In New Brunswick, an attempt was made to move the food inspectors from Shippagan to Moncton, in the Dieppe and Shediac regions, and the Association francophone des municipalités du Nouveau-Brunswick, thanks to money from the court challenges program of Canada, brought a court challenge and won its case. This decision was then brought before the Supreme Court by the Liberal government of the time, which contested the decision of the Federal Court of New Brunswick. At least the municipalities had some tools at the time to defend the minority communities.
Did they think that one person, an individual on his own, the Shippagan food inspector on his own, Mr. Gauvin and his colleagues, would have had the money to appeal to the Supreme Court? No.
That is what the Conservative government wants. It wants to lay down laws, it does not want citizens to defend themselves; it is depriving citizens of the right to bring a court action against the government. It is setting itself up as a saint, it believes it is perfect, it thinks it is establishing good laws which citizens must respect.
If that were the case, the government should not have to be afraid of investing in court challenges, for it would win in court. However it is shameful to remove the democratic tool that allows citizens to defend themselves in Federal Court, in the Supreme Court of Canada and in the provincial courts. The Conservatives should be ashamed. I do not know how they can sleep at night.
Let us consider the RCMP in New Brunswick, which was not providing service in both languages. Once again, New Brunswick organizations, through the SANB, received money from the court challenges program to go to court, and they won. At the time, the Liberals in power decided to contest this decision up to the Supreme Court. At least the organizations had the money to keep defending themselves.
If citizens and organizations cannot receive money through the court challenges program, to be fair the government should not have the right to take taxpayers’ money to fight citizens in court. That would be a bit more fair. Yet the government takes in money through taxes—whether citizens like it or not, taxes are deducted from their pay—and uses it to fight an individual in court. At the same time, it says it will not give the community the chance to benefit from this money in order to reach a happy medium, a balance of power. It is undemocratic to deprive citizens of such a tool.
The government machine is too big for the individual. That is what the Conservatives want, an American system where the individual feels all alone in life and has to manage all alone without any help.
In my opinion, the same is true of the status of women. The reason that women have made it to where they are today is because funding has been granted to create groups so that women are able to show what they can do and are recognized even here in Parliament.
Equality between men and women must also be recognized. Equality was not achieved as a result of the wishes of a single person who stood up one fine day and said that he or she wanted equality between the sexes so that women would be respected and government would support this. There were battles fought and there are organizations that worked hard to achieve that objective.
As for literacy, we are told that we do not want to spend money on older people, we want to fund young people instead. So we are being told that when we get to be 40 years old we are no longer citizens, we are no longer human beings? What kind of attitude is that, Mr. Speaker? The attitude that the Conservatives are taking today toward these people and these organizations is disgraceful. They are going to realize that there are people working in these organizations and that those people talk to one another. At this moment, those people are protesting and a big wave will be hitting Ottawa, telling them that they are not right and they do not deserve to be leading this country. They have taken things away from us that are fundamental to our country.
If you can imagine, two days before the literacy cuts the wife of the of Canada took part in a march for literacy, all the while her husband, right here in the House of Commons, was cutting the funding for literacy training. I hope that she will talk to him this evening and tell him that what he has done and what the Conservative government has done is not right.
We know people who worked at the same company until they were 40 or 50 years old and who always worked at the same job. With all the cuts going on in industry today, we have to help the workers and equip them with the skills they need so that they can find new jobs. And yet the Conservatives are telling us that there will be budget cuts for the organizations that do this, cutting the fat, they say.
So someone will have to go to the library in Bathurst by himself or herself to pick up a book. That person will go home and study independently, with no help from anyone, no teacher, no local organization. The same will be true in Timmins, Ontario, or in Regina, Saskatchewan, or in Edmonton, Alberta. People in Alberta love it when people from our hometowns work on their oil wells. What these cuts mean is that we will not give the people in our hometowns a hand so that they can learn to read and write. These are people who started working when they were very young and never had a chance to go to school. Are we going to let all these people fall by the wayside?
You know, Mr. Speaker, I did not come to the House of Commons yesterday. How many times have we heard it said in committee that we have to do something for minorities? And then came the question of how much it is going to cost us.
The Standing Committee on Official Languages has never travelled across the country to visit minority communities. Who has objected to that? Always the Conservatives. Do not tell me that it is not true, because it is true.
Last year, I was forced to make a proposal to the effect that if the Standing Committee on Official Languages did not travel, none of the committees would travel. If we can send 12 people across the country to see where seals live, we can send the Standing Committee on Official Languages to anglophone and francophone communities to find out what people need.
The had said that we should perhaps look at the system in Belgium, and he suggested that Quebec look after the francophones and the rest of Canada look after the anglophones. I was born in New Brunswick, on the Acadian Peninsula, and I am Canadian.
I want to obtain services in both official languages, like any English- or French-speaking Canadian. Anglophones should be able to obtain service in their mother tongue where they live.
Someone has said that no one was asking all the anglophones to learn French and all the francophones to learn English. People were asking the government to offer service in both official languages. It is not hard.
It was sad when Senator Jean-Robert Gauthier had to introduce Bill three times. The bill amended section 41 of part VII to make the obligations therein enforceable rather than declaratory. It applied to federal institutions, and the Bloc Québécois voted against the bill on the grounds that the government had no right to interfere in Quebec's areas of jurisdiction. However, at issue were areas of federal jurisdiction.
I am sorry, but we cannot rely on Quebec alone to defend francophones outside Quebec. Quebec showed in that instance that it had not defended them. This is a federal law that applies to federal institutions.
In committee I said to the Conservatives that I would have liked them to vote against Bill and then come and say to us that they support francophones. But even though I told them to vote against the bill they voted in favour. Now they think that, since they voted in favour of this bill, they can take away our right to appear in the various courts. That is what they did. They took our tools away from us.
Take the example of the Montfort Hospital, here in Ottawa. It was not just because someone was sick and bedridden at the hospital that they won that case. It was because organizations got together to fight for it. They used money from the court challenges program. That is when the case was won, thanks to the support and desire to help.
The government is a big machine and can become a dictatorship. It has the army on its side, the police on its side, it has everyone on its side in order to enforce the law. But in our democracy citizens get a chance to attend court. They are entitled to go to court and obtain judgment. Is the government right or not?
I will give some other examples. Take the example of electoral boundaries. In my riding this has caused some problems. They wanted to send some of the francophones from to Miramichi, where 70% of the constituents are anglophone. Thanks to a court decision, that did not happen. In the history of Canada, that was the first time a boundary was changed by the court. The association of municipalities managed to do that with money from the court challenges program. Without that money, which boat would we have missed, what direction would we have taken?
Here is another example. This morning at the Standing Committee on Official Languages we tried to pass a motion recommending that the government give back the money to the court challenges program. The only party that voted against this was the Conservative Party.
This is unbelievable and unacceptable! Let us hope that it will change and that Canadians recognize it.
We have a beautiful country. But we must not deceive ourselves—it is not just about francophones and anglophones; it is about power. That is the problem. It is dangerous to give too much power to a government. It is dangerous not to challenge its decisions, its interpretations or the directions it takes.
To say that Liberal lawyers make a lot of money from that is wrong, completely wrong. How much work has Michel Doucet, a professor at the University of Moncton, done for us? How much responsibility has he taken on to defend francophones and minorities, without charging them anything?
It was only for the court costs. How many hours of volunteer work did Michel Doucet of the Université de Moncton give freely? Thank you, Michel for what you have done on behalf of these communities.
Today the Conservatives want to do away with that but we are not going to sit here in our seats without speaking out. We are going to fight for this. We will not accept that here in our country we cannot defend ourselves after laws have been passed, laws that are badly interpreted and not respected.
They are not compelled to misinterpret legislation. If they do not respect it, if they do not do anything, the law and the courts give us the tools to force the government to do something. The fact of having services is just as significant for anglophone minorities in those places where francophones form a majority. It is not asking too much to be able to speak with your doctor in the language of your choice when you are sick. If you are having your appendix removed, it is to be hoped that the doctors will not remove your spleen. We must have access to these services. This morning at the Standing Committee on Official Languages we talked about the importance of ensuring that patients can receive services in the language of their choice in our hospitals. It is not too much to ask.
As I have said, we are not asking that all anglophones become francophones, nor that all francophones should become anglophones. We are asking that services be provided, that the Official Languages Act of our country be respected, and if it is not respected, we want the tools to go before the courts, before judges appointed by the government. We want to ask for the opinion of the court. That is democracy. What would it be without access to the courts?
We are sending out soldiers to fight in Afghanistan to promote democracy, and in our own country we are abolishing it. It is a disgrace. In our own country we are cutting funding for the status of women but we are going into Afghanistan because we want Afghan women to have rights. We cut funding in Canada. Is that not hypocrisy?
It is an insult, as the member for properly described it earlier. We went to Romania for the summit of la Francophonie. How could the Prime Minister stand up and say that he supports the Francophonie? At the same time he was cutting all the existing powers that enable minority communities in Canada to live the Francophonie.
The wife of the Prime Minister of Canada took part in a walk in support of people with literacy problems. Two days later, her husband cut off funding for literacy. Where does that leave us?
The communities are hurting. We are getting phone calls about that. We are meeting people back home. Anyone who has not contacted Conservative MPs yet should know that there are toll-free numbers they can use. They can phone them; those numbers are at their disposal. If people are happy with all that is happening and want an American-style system, let them rejoice because it is on the way, well on the way. Once it is done, they will wonder why.
I know that the Conservatives will insist that they are not like that, that they invested money everywhere. The fact is that they are individualistic.Take what they did with child care. To keep the public quiet, they announced they would be providing a $1,200 benefit. But there is still no child care system. The American style is making its way into Canada. Whatever people say, this is a Bush-league style of work.
If Canada were problem-free, there would be no need for the Francophonie and official languages department and its minister. Besides, that portfolio was not even given to a person who speaks both official languages. That is adding insult to injury. When the time came to appoint a parliamentary secretary, it took the government three months to appoint one. This shows how important official languages are to this government.
Nevertheless, this is our country, and we have to show one another respect; anglophones and francophones have to show each other respect. We are all human beings. We are just passing through on earth and we should be able to get along. There are countries where people speak five or six languages and they respect one another much more than we do here, in this country. In some countries, the battles are apparently about religion or race; here, they are about language.
We should set all of that aside and work together toward making our country a better place to live, one of the greatest in the world.
I sat here stupefied listening to the parliamentary secretary, the member of Parliament for , state today during the debate that the government believes in creating laws that protect the constitutional rights of people. He said that the constitutional court challenges program is inherently flawed in that it encourages special interest groups to promote issues not supported by the majority of Canadians, that the court challenges cases are a misuse and wasteful use of taxpayers' money, and that this new Canadian minority Conservative government has proven its commitment to protect the rights of vulnerable Canadians.
I would like us to look at these statements that were made by the member for Parliament for on behalf of this new Canadian minority Conservative government. Let us look at the facts.
When the government and the state that the moneys that are used by the court challenges program is a misuse of Canadian funds and it is money that is used simply to finance Liberal lawyers, what are the facts? I have a letter dated October 2, 2006 written to the of Canada by a whole series of organizations that I will list. One of the points they make is as follows.
The has questioned the accountability of the court challenges program. This is not a sustainable objection. The court challenges program has an established track record as an effective and accountable institution that promotes access to justice. 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 CCP’s website: www.ccppcj.ca. It has been evaluated on three separate occasions by independent evaluators, most recently in 2003-2004, and received an extremely positive report each time.
The CCP is subject to some legal restrictions on disclosing information about 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.
I want everyone in this House and those watching this debate on television to hear this: the court challenges program’s responsibility to protect this information was affirmed by a Federal Court ruling in 2000 in Hirondelle v. The Queen.
The claims that the program is not transparent, that public servants or those in charge of the program are hiding information, but he is the one hiding information from Canadians because he is not telling the whole truth. He knows full well, as the Attorney General and , that a Federal Court ruling has established when the program can disclose information and when the program cannot.
That is not all.
The member of Parliament for claimed that the court challenges program is inherently flawed in that it encourages special interest groups to promote issues not supported by Canadians. Let us look at the statement the parliamentary secretary made on behalf of his government.
Let us look at the partial list of organizations in Canada that are making their voices heard to save the court challenges program: Action Canada for Population and Development; Action ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes; African Canadian Legal Clinic; Alberta Association for Community Living; Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians; ARCH Disability Law Centre; Association des juristes d'expression française de la Colombie-Britannique; Association des juristes d'expression française du Nouveau-Brunswick; Association of Chinese Canadian Lawyers of Ontario; B.C. Human Rights Coalition; B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities; Brain Injury Association Network; Breast Cancer Action Montreal; Canadian Arab Federation; Canadian Association for Community Living; Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies; Canadian Association of Law Teachers; Canadian Association of the Deaf; Canadian Auto Workers Union; Canadian Bar Association; Canadian Council for Refugees; Canadian Council of Muslim Women; Canadian Federation of Students; Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action; Canadian Hard of Hearing Association; Canadian Health Coalition; Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic; University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law; Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women; Canadian Union of Public Employees; Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 2204 and Local 3260; Canadian Women's Health Network; Canadians for Equal Families; and Canadians for Equal Marriage.
The list also includes the Centre d'aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuel, North Shore region; the Centre d'aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuel, CALACS, in Rimouski; the Centre de communication adaptée; the Centre de femmes l'Éclaircie; the Centre d'éducation des femmes; the Centre Entre-Femmes de Rouyn-Noranda and the Centre québécois de la déficience auditive.
The list includes: CFT French Legal Aid Services; Charter Committee on Poverty Issues; Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada; Child Care Workers of Eastern Ontario; Chinese Canadian National Council, Ottawa Chapter; Coalition of Persons with Disabilities; Community Advocates Network; Community Business and Professional Association of Canada.
Also on the list is the Confédération des organismes de personnes handicapées du Québec.
The list includes: Congress of Black Women of Canada, Manitoba Chapter; Council of Canadians with Disabilities; Cross-Disabilities, Genders, and Sexualities Working Group; Dalhousie Legal Aid Service; DisAbled Women's Network, Ontario; DisAbled Women's Network Canada; Disabled Workers' Complex Case Network Inc.; Dundurn Community Legal Services; East Toronto Community Legal Services Inc.; Egale Canada; Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, Bluewater Local; Elizabeth Fry Society of Manitoba; Ethno Racial People with Disabilities Coalition of Ontario; Excalibur Learning Resource Centre Canada Corp.; Family Alliance Ontario.
In addition, the list includes the DisAbled Women's Network of Ontario; the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada; the Fédération des associations de juristes d'expression française de common law inc. and the Fédération des femmes du Québec.
Also on the list are: Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C.; Feminist Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador; Feminists for Just and Equitable Public Policy; Front d'action populaire en réaménagement urbain; Greater Vancouver Association of the Deaf; Grey-Bruce Community Legal Clinic; Halton Community Legal Services; Hamilton Mountain Legal & Community Services; Income Security Advocacy Centre; Institut canadien de recherches sur les femmes; Jamaican Canadian Association, Toronto; Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice; John Howard Society of Manitoba Inc.; Justice for Girls; Kamloops and District Elizabeth Fry Society; Kelowna Women's Resource Centre; Kenora Community Legal Clinic Suite; Kensington Bellwoods Community Legal Services; Kitchen Table Collective.
Also on the list are the Table régionale des organismes volontaires d'éducation populaire de la Montérégie and the Association multi-ethnique pour l'intégration des personnes handicapées.
Included are the Law Office of Mary Eberts and the Law Union of Ontario.
The list also includes the Centre francophone de Toronto; the Official Languages Committee of the Ontario Bar Association; the Front commun des personnes assistées sociales du Québec; the Mouvement action chômage Pabok Inc.; the Regroupement des comités logement et associations de locataires du Québec; the Centres d'accueil Héritage in Toronto; and Les Frères et Sœurs d’Émile Nelligan.
The list includes: Let's Teach About Women; Low Income Families Together, LIFT; Ligue des droits et libertés du Québec; Mad Student's Society; Maison l'Océane; Malaspina Faculty Association; MATCH International; Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic; Mokami Status of Women Council--
The list also includes the Mouvement d'éducation populaire autonome de Lanaudière and the Mouvement d'éducation populaire et d'action communautaire du Québec.
Also on the list are: National Action Committee on the Status of Women; National Association of Women and the Law; National Council of Women of Canada; National Eating Disorder Information Centre; Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women; Nipissing Community Legal Clinic; North Bay & District Labour Council; North Bay Network for Social Action; Northern Society for Domestic Peace; Nouveau Départ National--
And the list goes on: Okanagan Advocacy and Resource Society; Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants; Osgoode Hall Law Union; Pacific DisAbled Women's Network; Parkdale Community Legal Services; PEI Council of the Disabled; PRAXIS Conflict Consulting.
The list continues: Promotion handicap Estrie Inc.
Also on the list are: Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services of Saskatchewan; Provincial Council of Women of Manitoba, Inc.; Public Service Alliance of Canada; Quebec Community Groups Network; Quebec English School Boards Association; Quebec Native Women.
In French, this is Femmes Autochtones du Québec.
Also on the list are: Refugee Law Office, Toronto; Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario.
The list also includes the Regroupement des centres de femmes du Québec; the Regroupement des femmes de l'Abitibi-Témiscamingue; the Regroupement des associations de personnes traumatisées cranio-cérébrales du Québec; the Regroupement provincial des maisons d'hébergement et de transition pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale; and the Regroupement québécois des centres d'aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuel.
Also on the list are: Response: A Thousand Voices; Roach, Schwartz and Associates; Saskatchewan Voice of People with Disabilities; and Selkirk College Faculty Association.
Mr. Speaker, I have two other pages of groups that have voiced their support of maintaining the court challenges program and its funding in all its integrity. These are what the member for calls special interest groups that promote issues not supported by Canadians.
Let us look at that as well. Let us look at the issue of whether or not the cases which are funded in part by the Canadian court challenges program touch on issues which are of interest to the majority of Canadians.
Let us look at the case of R. v. Prosper in 1994. In this case, the Supreme Court of Canada considered whether an impoverished accused upon arrest had a right to state funded counsel. An intervener in the case argued that depriving poor people of access to counsel would result in inequality in access to justice that would be inconsistent with section 15 of the charter. The court held that where an arrested person requests counsel, the police must desist from attempting to obtain a statement until counsel has been provided. Justice McLachlin, who is now the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, in a concurring judgment noted:
--the Charter right to counsel cannot be denied to some Canadian citizens merely because their financial situation prevents them from being able to afford private legal assistance. The poor are not constitutional castaways.
I ask the member for who is a parliamentary secretary, I ask the , I ask members of his cabinet, I ask the government which is so proud to call itself the new Canadian government but in fact is a minority Conservative government, how they can deem the right of someone who does not have the financial means to secure counsel upon arrest once that person has been arrested, to state that they are constitutional castaways? The chief justice of the Supreme Court has said they are not constitutional castaways.
I would like to go to another case. This will be a case of great interest for those who know that there still exists bias within our society. Most Canadians abhor bias, bias in our legislation and bias in decisions by government officials who have, in many cases, a great deal of discretionary authority and power under various legislation.
R v. S, 1997 is an important case about judicial bias. At issue were remarks made by a black Nova Scotia judge in considering the credibility of both a police officer and R.D.S., an African-Canadian youth. The police had charged the youth with a number of criminal offences relating to an altercation between the police officer and the boy. The youth and the police officer each gave a very different account of the events leading up to the charges.
Judge Sparks weighed the evidence of the two witnesses. She then determined that the youth should be acquitted as the evidence raised “a reasonable doubt as to the youth's guilt”. In her oral reasons, Judge Sparks observed that in some situations, “Police officers do overreact, particularly when they are dealing with non-white groups”. The Crown challenged her remarks as raising a reasonable apprehension of bias. In the view of the Crown, a reasonable person would think she had prejudged the case without giving proper consideration to all of the evidence.
There was a court challenge on that. The Supreme Court of Canada decided that Judge Sparks had not acted in a biased manner. Moreover, Justices L'Heureux-Dubé and McLachlin, and I remind members of the House and the new minority Conservative government that Beverley McLachlin is now the chief justice, determined that by paying attention to the racial dynamic in the case, Judge Sparks was simply engaging in the process of contextualized judging. As they stated, “It is perfectly acceptable for judges to take into account not only the facts of the case but also the social and psychological context within which the case arises”. They recognize that judges are members of communities, have particular knowledge of such communities and are often guided by this knowledge. Consequently, as a person familiar with the racial dynamic of Halifax, particularly where police are concerned, it was reasonable for Judge Sparks to apply this knowledge.
I conclude in showing--
Mr. Speaker, I would like to take a few moments to join in the debate because it is important for Canadians. It is important for the laws of this land to be constitutional and that governments treat Canadians with the rights they have guaranteed under our Constitution and in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Sometimes, whether it is intentional or not, those rights are trampled on and Canadians, whether they are wealthy or average, need a vehicle available to them to go before a court, obtain an explanation of the rights they are allowed, if there has been an infringement, and have an announcement by the court at the end of hearing facts.
We do not have infallible governments. I do not care that this is characterized in a partisan way. It is not a partisan issue. I do not think any government is ever infallible on every aspect in which it engages.
I go to the guide section of the court challenges program. Right off the bat it states:
THE CANADIAN CONSTITUTION, INCLUDING ITS CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS, PROVIDES FOR STRONG PROTECTIONS OF EQUALITY RIGHTS AND LANGUAGE RIGHTS. HOWEVER, RIGHTS IN LAW BOOKS DO NOT AUTOMATICALLY LEAD TO RIGHTS IN REALITY.
I think that is understood. Individuals or groups can find themselves in situations where governments refuse to respect their constitutional rights and in those situations people may have to take their governments to court. Courts have the power to force the government to bring its laws, its practices and its policies into accord with our charter, but we know that court action is expensive. It is often far more costly for those very individuals or groups whose rights are not being respected or they themselves belong to marginalized groups.
The role of the court challenges program is to provide the financial support to people who want to use the courts to have those rights respected but lack the funds to do so on their own and, more specifically, it provides financial support to test cases that help to protect and advance the language and equality rights guaranteed under the Canadian Constitution. Aside from funding these cases, the program also funds activities that increase the awareness of the constitutional equality and language rights which fall under the program's mandate.
There are applications. Not just anybody gets it. There is a process of screening. There are funding criteria for the program. Federal laws, policies or practices could be challenged. It has to ensure that it is a test case and not already one that has been decided.
Some examples of equality cases that have been funded were, first, the first nations people when they opposed a section of the Indian Act that prohibited them from voting in band council elections if they lived off reserve; second, same sex couples seeking the same rights to certain benefits and deductions under the Income Tax Act that are accorded opposite sex couples; third, parents of children with disabilities who sought employment insurance for periods when they must be off work to provide care for their children; and fourth, the legality of the current laws that restrict the courts from admitting evidence of prior sexual activity on the part of sexual assault complainants.
What can the program not fund? It does not fund any case that covers an issue already funded by the program or that is already before the courts. It does not cover challenges to actions taken by provincial governments, complaints under the Canadian Human Rights Act, challenges to provincial laws, policies or practices and public education, community development lobbying or political advocacy.
We should be very concerned when a government thinks it is appropriate to cut funding. The words I have heard are, “We just don't want to pay people to sue us,” or comments of that nature.
I could understand that if this minority Conservative government took great care with the constitutionality of the pieces of legislation that have been brought here, but I am very concerned, as I think all opposition members are, that this government has shown a lacklustre concern, shall we say, for constitutional issues. If something is challenged down the road and a few people's rights are trampled on in the meantime, that seems to be good enough for the government.
It is not good enough on this side of the House. Somebody has to take responsibility for protecting people's constitutional rights and protecting their rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is true that we are getting a large number of pieces of legislation coming forward, but does that equal a deliverable law and order agenda, for instance? Or does one put questionable pieces of legislation before this House and then take away the very funding that some of the marginalized people under those pieces of legislation perhaps would have access to with the court challenges program, in order to question their government when they feel the government has gone over the line?
These are not new thoughts. This is a program that was established in 1978 to provide access to justice in relation to minority rights. In 1982 Canada received the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and it came into force. In 1985 the program included funding for equality rights cases under section 15 of the charter. We know that in large part the historically disadvantaged groups in our society have been the ones to utilize this program. They are not the only players in the system, but in large part we have those people who are being challenged in many other ways being able to bring their cases for a proper determination before the courts.
I will quote the parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Rights and the Status of Disabled Persons, which said, “This program has made a critical difference in bringing constitutional rights within the reach of francophone parents, aboriginal women and persons with disabilities”.
The court challenges program guide tells us that the program is happy to support “test cases that help to protect and advance the language and equality rights guaranteed under the Canadian Constitution”.
We need these funds because this funding is not going to come from any other place. We have to know that the clarification of the linguistic aspects of freedom of expression is an important right where we have official languages in more than one language. We have minority language rights in nearly every province and territory in this great country of ours.
We are not talking about great sums of money here. Far greater than the sums of money involved are the great principles involved. We have been proud of this as a country and when we Liberals were the government we made sure this program continued and was funded.
I have been receiving letters from across the country, as have many of my colleagues. Some of them are copies of letters sent to the or the or the , but some come directly to us.
We know that sometimes their words are better than our own words. I will go to one letter from a lady in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. She talked about a resolution of the Canadian Bar Association urging the government to continue funding for the program. She said:
In fact, the CBA placed so much value on the impact of the Court Challenges Program with regard to protecting the rights of marginalized and vulnerable groups, that it saw an urgent need to increase funding--not cancel it.
The CCP clearly plays a fundamental role in upholding our Constitution. It brings Charter protection within the means of all citizens. Groups that currently access the Court Challenges Program play a vital role in ensuring that economic barriers do not deny Canadian citizens their rights.
Clearly, without the Court Challenges Program it will be much easier for governments to violate the Constitution. This program gives a voice to those who otherwise would have no practical means through which to challenge the courts. Without the ability to challenge--constitutional rights can become meaningless.
I guess that is so unless we have enough money to hire our own lawyer each and every time and we are constantly tracking this, but it is for those who are most vulnerable in our society that we need such a program.
Let us go to some of the other letters that I have had, one from members of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa and professors of law. They sent a letter dated September 25 that talks about the court challenges program, “a national non-profit organization...to provide financial assistance for important court cases that advance language and equality rights guaranteed under Canada's Constitution”.
They were concerned because they were hearing news reports that the government was considering cancelling the program. They sent a letter in urging the federal government to continue the important program. They again referred to the Canadian Bar Association's resolution to “increase its funding in order to ensure its long-term...stability”. Certainly the government does not listen to these people who have a lot of experience with the program.
The letter went on to say:
The Court Challenges Program serves a vital function in our constitutional system. The CPP plays a fundamental role in our system of constitutional governance ensuring government accountability, insisting on the rule of law and ensuring equity and access to justice for Canadians.
The Court Challenges Program has made possible some of our most important Charter cases. It has been praised by United Nations bodies. It contributes to Canada's international reputation as a just and democratic society. It is an important mechanism to ensure that constitutional rights set out in our Constitution are meaningful--
The writers mean not just words on paper, but “meaningful”.
--to all Canadians. It deserves strong support.
This was signed by people who are professors of law at the University of Ottawa here in the capital region.
The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians sent the minister a letter dated September 23 and said to him that it was:
--writing to you to express our grave concerns over press reports that the Court Challenges Program...is being reviewed, and in jeopardy of being de-funded by your government.
That is the new government. The letter continues:
--achieving coverage under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms represented an important milestone for all equality-seeking groups and individuals. Nevertheless, Canadians with a disability still face numerous barriers to the achievement of our goal of full participation and equality in all aspects of Canadian society. Today, people with disabilities remain among the poorest of the poor living in Canada.
Going to court is expensive. It is critical that groups such as ours have the resources to enforce our hard-won rights under the Charter. The Court Challenges Program plays a critical role in providing resources to our community to make needed litigation under the Charter possible. This litigation has also provided our community--
I am talking about the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians there. The letter continues:
--the opportunity to clarify for governments their obligation to protect such rights.
A right which does not include recourse to a legal remedy amounts to no right at all. Having rights without the resources to enforce them will inevitably result in serious setbacks to the progress made by people with disabilities in Canada.
The AEBC strongly recommends the Court Challenges program continue to receive funding from the Government of Canada.
The letter is signed by the president of the association.
The Quebec English School Boards Association sent a letter dated September 22 to the . The president of that association talks about the rumoured cancellation of the court challenges program by the Conservative government, saying:
As the association representing Quebec's nine English school boards, QESBA speaks on behalf of a universally-elected level of government that answers directly to the members of Canada's English speaking linguistic minority community. In that capacity, we call upon you to confirm publicly that your government will maintain the Court Challenges Program.
We take as a given that your government respects and recognizes its legal and moral commitment to preserving and developing Canada's linguistic minority communities. Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms is the cornerstone of that commitment. The Court Challenges Program is an essential tool allowing our communities access to Canada's Courts to ensure that the rights and protections we are afforded in the Charter are upheld, understood and respected by all elements of Canadian society.
The pertinence of the Court Challenges Program of Canada has been recognized by the Canadian Bar Association. Important decisions on minority-language schooling, access to services, and key issues regarding freedom of expression have been rendered after interventions funded by the Court Challenges Program. Many of those interventions would have been impossible to initiate without the program's support.
Not hard to initiate, says the association, but “impossible to initiate”. The letter continues:
Quebecers are particularly exposed and sensitive to minority-language questions, both those affecting our communities and those affecting francophone communities in the rest of the country. Any move toward the elimination of the Court Challenges Program would surely be greeted with much opposition in my home province.
The president then respectfully asks the Government of Canada “to do the right thing and announce promptly the continued support of the Government of Canada for the Court Challenges Program”. Let us imagine the disappointment of the writers. Let us imagine their surprise.
On this side of the House, we know that the right thing to do is to put those funds back. We know that we had a $13 billion surplus and we know that this is a question of priorities. There are many, many good programs seeking funding from this House. There are very, very few programs that help those who are less advantaged in our society have access to the courts to make sure their voices and those whom they represent can have a say in obtaining rights that are theirs.
We did not say, when we gave this country its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that only wealthy people who could afford lawyers would be able to have access to their rights. We said that this was for one and all. We said that this was for Canadians, that it was something to celebrate. Most of us in this House celebrate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Most of us in this House know that legislation has to meet constitutional tests.
I personally do not understand why this program would have been targeted. I do not want to impugn motives to people on the other side. But the reality is that they have cancelled an important program. The reality is that we have equality issues in this country. The reality is that minority language rights have to be upheld throughout the country. And the reality today is that the Conservative government has limited access to the courts through the cancellation of the funding for this program.
These are facts, indisputable facts. Why has the government done this? Because it got great advice from Canadians saying they hate the program? No, that is not the reason. This is ideological. The government is either saying it is perfect and has it right all the time, or it is saying to heck with constitutional rights. If somebody wants to spend their own money, not government money, not taxpayers' money, not in our value system as a nation together, then they can do it on their own time and their own penny. What does that say about the thinking of the current government? What does that say about how it values the access and equity issues among the most disadvantaged Canadians?
I note your signal, Mr. Speaker. I have other letters here. My colleagues and I have lists of organizations that have contacted us. I must put on the record that I have not had one phone call or received one piece of correspondence saying, “Hurrah for the government. It cancelled the program”. Not one. I have not seen that.
I think that is important. It is not only this area that has been cut off. I see a pattern developing. I see my friends on the other side getting ready to pounce, so I will put it on the record now. I see a pattern developing in which the government is telling Canadians it is protecting law and order in this country just because it is piling up legislation. But as members will know, people are working in this House every day on legislation. Members of the justice committee whom I work with every day are working through legislation. In fact, we just added another weekly meeting to our agenda to be able to work through legislation, and we will make sure that it is constitutional.
Mr. Speaker, I will try to make the most of what little time we have left, but I do appreciate the opportunity, on behalf of the NDP caucus, to enter into the debate.
I would like to recognize and pay tribute to my colleague from for bringing the issue to the floor of the House of Commons today by moving a concurrence motion to a report from the heritage committee. It is timely. He is doing a service to the country by bringing this fulsome debate to the House of Commons today.
This is an issue that the government clearly wanted to slip in under the wire, with very little fanfare and very little notice. We are not prepared to let this issue go under the table. We will not let the government slip it under there without having a full scrutiny debate in the House of Commons and without a vote in the House of Commons. We want to shine the light of day on what really is going on with this issue so the government does not get away with it, not if we can help it.
The federal government would have us believe that it is eliminating the court challenge program because it is somehow frivolously funding every Tom, Dick and Harry to sue their own government over legislation that it puts in place. Essentially this is the answer we heard in question period when the was pressed on this issue. We were pressing the minister for the business case. We were pressing him for some reason, some rationale as to why this heavy-handed move was justified. This is a deliberately simplistic and misleading overview of what the court challenge program does.
The one thing that the member for has done for us is spell out, not just what the federal court challenge program does, but the things that it does not do. It certainly does not provide funding to anyone who wants to sue the federal government. There are very rigid tests. The bar is set very high as to what type of challenges qualify for any support under the court challenges program.
It is a matter when legislation, by omission or commission, offends the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or the Constitution of Canada, or it somehow is applied in such a way that a legitimate group of Canadians feel that they are not being treated equally by their own Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The highest duty of a member of Parliament is to ensure that all Canadians are treated equally.
I am proud to say that this is one country in the world where equality is our main objective, which is not the case everywhere in the world. In Canada we have very meticulously written in to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms the assurance that Canadians can count on being treated equally as far as the application of services, benefits or anything provided by the government. Therefore, it is not a nuisance to the government to have Canadians or organizations test the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by these regular court challenges. It strengthens our rights. Our rights are made more secure by these challenges.
We should keep in mind that the Canadian Constitution is not a rigid document. It is a living, breathing, evolving document that can benefit from these rare and infrequent tests and challenges.
We should at least start from the same base level of information as we ask Canadians to concern themselves with this debate. They should go into this with their eyes open. Clearly the government has tried to sneak this through in a flurry of other activity and other cutbacks, hoping no one will notice this relatively small budget line. Let us be fair. This is a very small amount of money on the global scale of things. Let us also ensure that misinformation is not what is guiding us here. We have to challenge comments from the when he says that all the money just goes to Liberal lawyers anyway.
My colleague from Windsor pointed out that these challenges are often collaborative efforts by non-profit groups and NGOs. They find lawyers to work pro bono. The court challenge money they get, or the enabling money, is often used to pay for court costs, expert witnesses, research, et cetera.
Having laid that foundation, I challenge the veracity of both of the excuses given by the President of the Treasury Board. I think we could then begin to have a proper debate about whether or not we need this assistance in our judicial system.
Let me point to one case to illustrate how valuable this program can be. It is my own personal experience. In Winnipeg Centre the Community Unemployed Help Centre deals with people who are having trouble with their employment insurance. On behalf of one client, Kelly Leisuk, the centre launched a Federal Court challenge sponsored by the court challenge program . The centre maintained that the EI act does not treat women equally, that women suffer a gender imbalance with the application of EI as it was evolved by the Liberal government.
When the EI system went from a weekly based system to an hourly based system, women were disproportionately and negatively impacted in that more women worked low wage part time jobs and so women qualified less often for any EI benefits than men did. The empirical evidence was fairly straightforward. Frequent appeals to the federal government bore no satisfaction at all. We made the case to the federal government that the EI program was affecting women negatively, but the government of the day was deaf to this gender imbalance. The only avenue of recourse was to make a charter challenge under section 15, the equality provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that the EI act as contemplated by the Liberal government offended the charter.
Where else would a non-profit workers' organization go? Its total budget, and I know because I sat on its board of directors, is $250,000 a year. That funded four staff to advocate on behalf of people having trouble with their employment insurance. Where would an organization like that go to launch a massive Supreme Court challenge if not to the court challenge program?
When viewed in that light, it is an issue of natural justice, in this case on behalf of Canadian women. They would not have a voice and would not be able to have legal representation in this compelling matter were it not for the court challenges program. It is not unlike legal aid. We do not allow defendants to go into a courtroom unrepresented. They are given legal aid. No one argues if that is fair. It is a natural justice issue. In that same context, from time to time we need to test the veracity of our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and thereby strengthen it by these court challenges by legitimate groups within Canada.
I condemn the government for cutting the court challenges program. I thank my colleague from for giving us the opportunity to voice those concerns in the House today.