That the eighth report of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, presented on Thursday, October 5, 2006, be concurred in.
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 Minister of Citizenship and Immigration and the Minister of Public Safety. 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 Prime Minister's 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 Prime Minister 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 Prime Minister 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 Prime Minister's 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 Prime Minister 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 Prime Minister 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 Prime Minister said.
There are three branches of our government: the executive branch, which is the Prime Minister 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 Prime Minister 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 Minister of Agriculture 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 Minister of Justice:
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!