Mr. Speaker, it is with pleasure that I rise today to applaud the government's decision to reinstate the court challenges program.
The original court challenges program began in 1978 when the Secretary of State and the Minister of Justice announced the establishment of a fund to provide financial assistance for legal expenses of litigants seeking clarification of the scope of protection afforded to official language minorities under either section 93 or 133 of the Constitution Act of 1867.
Following the proclamation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 the Secretary of State and the Minister of Justice reaffirmed and updated the court challenges program. The program was expanded to include sections 16 to 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 1985 section 15 of the charter came into effect and the court challenges program was expanded to include equality rights protected under that provision. At the same time, administration of the program was assigned to an arm's length organization, the Canadian Council on Social Development, which administered the program until 1990 when the responsibility was transferred to the Human Rights Research and Education Centre of the University of Ottawa.
The termination by the previous government of the court challenges program was severely criticized. It was seen by many as an attack on human rights. Former Supreme Court Justice Bertha Wilson wrote to the Minister of Justice at the time, expressing here dismay and distress over the cancellation of the program. She wrote, in part: "I have on numerous occasions publicly expressed the view that it is totally illusory to confer rights on people who do not have the means to enforce them".
The program has been commended for making the critical difference between access to charter rights and no access, and this government is committed to ensuring access for Canadians to a judicial system that would otherwise be beyond reach.
We agree with Madam Wilson that rights for people who do not have the means to enforce them are totally illusory.
The program funds precedent-making cases that are national in scope. While it subsidizes individuals and groups, it is concerned with issues that affect many Canadians. It is not a general legal aid program. To guarantee impartiality of decisions on cases with financial implications, the government has transferred responsibility for the program to independent organizations.
Since its founding, the program has been unique in Canada and has attracted praise from outside the country as well. It bears witness to the fact that enshrining rights in legislation has no impact if the people they are supposed to protect lack the means to enforce those rights.
In fact, people have been very critical of the Charter because it is not accessible to the average Canadian. In the past, the Court Challenges Program has ensured access to the courts for all individuals who want to defend their language or equality rights.
The program has made it possible for all Canadians to be full participants in the Constitution of our country. It has been instrumental in making charter rights accessible to francophone parents, aboriginal women and the disabled, to name only a few.
In addition to language and equality rights, the new court challenges program will fund test cases of national significance involving challenges to fundamental freedoms as outlined under section 2 of the charter.
These basic freedoms are as follows: freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other communications media, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.
I am also pleased to say that the program, as reinstated, will continue to provide financial support for legal tests that are national in scope and concern federal and provincial statutes covered by sections 93 and 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867, section 23 of the Manitoba Act, 1870, and sections 16 to 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The program will also continue to provide financial support for court challenges of federal statutes, practices and policies, under sections 15-equality-and 28-gender equality-of the Charter, or when an argument relating to section 27 of the Charter- multiculturalism-supports arguments based on section 15.
The new program will be administered independently by a non-profit agency, whose board of directors will include representatives of the Canadian Bar Association, non-governmental organizations and universities.
Proposals and discussion papers on the new program have been received from a number of groups. Officials are reviewing these carefully as they continue to work on the modalities of the program. A number of parties have expressed an interest in working with the department to ensure the expedient reinstatement of the program.
This government recognizes and values the experience of individuals and groups involved with the former court challenges program. It is committed to seeking their views prior to making a decision on the legal structure and operating principles of the new program.
As a result of the broad range of interest, experience and expertise which will be taken into account by the government, I am confident the program will be implemented as quickly as possible in a manner accountable to the government and the people of Canada.