Mr. Speaker, I move that the second report of the Standing Committee on Official Languages, presented on Wednesday, December 12, 2007, be concurred in.
I am pleased today to support my colleague by moving adoption of a very important report of the Standing Committee on Official Languages. This report is the result of many meetings with many witnesses over a considerable length of time, which led the committee to make two main recommendations.
Before I read the two recommendations, I would like to mention some of the witnesses who appeared. This is important, because it shows the quality of the work the committee did on the Conservative government's wrong-headed and unjustifiable decision to eliminate the court challenges program.
Gisèle Lalonde, who is known in the area and even across the country, appeared before the committee as an individual. She is the former president of the SOS Montfort movement, and she spoke very eloquently. The committee also heard people from the Quebec English School Boards Association, the Association des parents fransaskois, the Canadian Bar Association, the Centre for Cultural Renewal, the Commission nationale des parents francophones, the Fédération des associations de juristes d’expression française de common law and the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada. We received other representatives of the Montfort hospital and the administrators of the court challenges program: Noël Badiou, Guy Matte and Kathleen Tansey, who was vice-president of the board of directors. Representatives of the Société des Acadiens et Acadiennes du Nouveau-Brunswick and the faculty of the University of Ottawa, as well as jurists and constitutional experts from the University of Moncton and McGill University, also testified before the committee.
Basically, the committee heard everyone who really wanted to be heard. The committee's conclusion is very simple, and it made two recommendations. I will read the first recommendation from this second report of the Standing Committee on Official Languages:
That the government clearly explain to Canadians its reasons for cancelling the court challenges program.
This recommendation is very clear and very simple, and provides the government with an opportunity to explain this decision. It has tried to do that several times. In the beginning, when it announced the abolition of the court challenges program, among others, the government told us there were four categories of abolition. That was the announcement made by the President of the Treasury Board at the time, the member for Ottawa-West—Nepean, and by the Minister of Finance, who were bursting their buttons with pride for having abolished the court challenges program. They classified that decision under the heading of useless expenditures, or even a waste of public funds, a description that was insulting to the public and the people who had benefited from the program.
What was even more insulting that it was an amount of less than $3 million that produced extraordinary results, not only for minority language communities but also for minority communities all over Canada. Moreover, this was only a tenth of what was spent that year on surveys and focus groups. Yet, the government called the court challenges program a waste. That was nonsense.
Later, when we started to ask questions in the House, because we could not accept the decision or the alleged reason for it, the Prime Minister and some other ministers of his government tried another tack. They claimed that the bills they were introducing in this House would respect the Constitution. That is an interesting argument but it is totally false. It is not up to the government to determine the constitutionality of its proposed legislation.
In our legislative structure, two parties determine the manner in which Canadians are governed: the courts and the legislature.
When the government comes before the House and introduces legislation, it is not the government's place to determine whether its bills are constitutional or whether they respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
We always hope that the government does its homework and verifies with the appropriate authorities that its legislative proposals would meet the Charter test—to use a legal expression—but it is not up to the government to determine that. It falls first to the legislators, all of us here in this House and in the other place, the upper house, and, finally, the courts.
When the government rises in this House and says the reason it abolished the court challenges program is because it will not introduce any legislation that goes against the Constitution, it is, in the final analysis, ridiculous and unacceptable.
There are other reasons in addition to the fact that it is not up to the government to decide. The objectives of the court challenges program are not limited to bills being introduced by a government. It also applies to all existing legislation. We are talking about laws that have existed for more than 125 years. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been embraced by the country and it has been hailed for 25 years now. The evolution of our legal and legislative system has moved forward because of the decisions of the Parliament of Canada and the judgments of the Supreme Court of Canada. For that reason, it cannot be claimed that, because the government says it will introduce bills that respect the Constitution, we do not need a court challenges program. All the other existing laws are subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is why the court challenges program is still necessary.
That is not all. There is all of the provincial legislation, because the Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains language rights and equality rights that apply not only to federal legislation, but also to provincial legislation. There is the whole body of provincial legislation that comes under this aspect of court challenges. Even if the government were truly careful to introduce only bills that, in its view, were consistent with the Constitution, there remains all the other federal and provincial legislation.
And that is not the worst part. Even the bills that this government has presented after canceling the court challenges program are being challenged under the Constitution by other levels of government. In this category there is legislation that has been presented by the government that would change aspects of the Senate and that is being challenged in the courts by the provinces.
All down the line, the government’s arguments for eliminating the court challenges program do not stand up, whether because of existing federal legislation or because of provincial legislation.
There is yet another factor that I can cite to demonstrate that there is no justification for eliminating this program: the question of decisions. Decisions that are made by governments often deserve to be challenged. I can give several examples, in fact, that involve decisions made by the Government of Canada or the governments of the provinces.
One of the most famous examples, to my mind, is the decision in the case of Arsenault-Cameron v. Prince Edward Island. Prince Edward Island has signed the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and enjoys the language and education rights that result from them. The province, however, for some reason, refused to provide schools for its francophone community. The francophone community won its case by bringing the matter before the courts, with the assistance, although not exclusively, of the court challenges program.
In point of fact, the francophone community of Prince Edward Island now has schools because the courts had to rule and state that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies and its scope has been defined. The government of Prince Edward Island has had to get on board and ensure that the francophone population of the province has access to its own schools.
That is a very famous case. It revolved around the absence of a decision, that is, a government decision not to build. That decision was challenged and ultimately we won the case. We could cite the example of the famous case of Mahe v. Alberta. That is a very important case in the development of the right to manage schools in Canada.
In Mahe v. Alberta, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the rights of parents who belong to an official language minority group to manage minority language educational facilities.
I have another example of a decision we are all familiar with. In this Parliament, I have the privilege of representing the electoral district of Ottawa—Vanier, where the Montfort Hospital is located. In that case, the Government of Ontario, the Mike Harris government, decided to close that hospital, the only francophone teaching hospital , the only one that offered training. It was not the only francophone hospital; there was also the hospital in Hawkesbury, we must not forget. Montfort Hospital, however, was the only teaching hospital. In that case, we were faced with a bad government decision that would have done enormous harm to a community. We won that case as a result of a hard-fought battle in the courts, waged over six or seven years, in which the court challenges program played a role in helping the litigants to make their case. Other decisions also played a part in this outcome.
It is interesting that this decision makes reference to two other decisions by the Supreme Court. One was related to the reference re secession of Quebec, where the novel principles underlying the Constitution, including the protection of minorities, were written down for the first time—I believe. In the decision that saved Montfort Hospital, there was a reference to yet another ruling where the Supreme Court recognized the basic rights of the French language community in Canada.
I have just listed a series of reasons why it is useless for the government to say that it will not introduce unconstitutional bills. But that is not the real issue. The issue is that we need a court challenges program that will help enforce the law and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
We wondered if it was because of poor administration. The Standing Committee on Official Languages, and also the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, asked if it was because the program had been badly managed or if there had been conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest. After hearing witnesses and examining the way the court challenges program was managed, we came to the conclusion that such was clearly not the case. All evaluations and audits concluded that the program was well managed, that there was no conflict of interest and that the program had been structured in a way to avoid all risk of conflict of interest.
We must then conclude that the Government of Canada, the Conservative government, decided—in fact for the second time—to abolish the court challenges program for purely ideological motives. That is disturbing. That is why the committee asked the government to give some explanations. We are still waiting for those explanations.
The other recommendation is interesting. It reads like this:
That the Government of Canada re-establish the Court Challenges Program under the terms of the contribution agreement that was in effect before its cancellation was announced on September 25, 2006.
While it is a bit technical, there are reasons for that recommendation. First, it deals with the full program and not just the language aspect. The court challenges program consisted of two elements. About one-third of the money, slightly less than $1 million, was spent on language cases.
The other two-thirds, a little less than $2 million—I believe it came to about $800,000 in one case and $1.6 million in the other—was devoted to equality cases. It is extremely important to take that into account. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary for Official Languages, the member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell had tabled a resolution in the House seeking to restore a type of language challenge program. That is troubling because it shows the real reason why the government eliminated this program.
During the first session of this Parliament, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage did almost the same thing as the Standing Committee on Official Languages. The committee met with a number of groups, not only on language issues but on issues of equality rights between men and women and issues of discrimination based on race or sexual orientation. Groups representing persons with hearing impairment and those with disabilities solemnly vouched for the undisputed value of this program. They had some success right after the program was abolished. It must be said that the case was already before the courts. They told us that VIA Rail, an agency of the Government of Canada, was not respecting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because they operated railway cars that people using wheelchairs could not use. That is a very solid case. It is not theoretical; it is real. It is about people’s lives. There are also issues of equality. Other cases that were supported by the court challenges program before the courts involved aboriginal women and pay equity.
We suspected that the reason the Conservatives abolished the program had something to do with same sex marriage. Indeed, the courts had ruled that the current law does not respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That upset the most “conservative” members of the party. We suspect it was the reason behind the abolition of the court challenges program. That was truly heart-breaking because this was an exemplary program, not only at the national level but internationally. Canada had been congratulated by the United Nations and by many countries for its forward-looking constitutional approach in creating a court challenges program that helped citizens to defend their rights in their country’s courts. Why are they so mean-spirited?Why did they abolish the court challenges program? It breaks our hearts.
However, I am pleased to be able to say the Leader of the Official Opposition has made a commitment to restore the court challenges program when we form the next government. We will not only restore the program; we will double the funding.
I hope we can restore the program in such a way that, 30 years from now, if there ever is another Conservative government, they will not be able to abolish it a third time. I also hope we can make it independent because the Canadian Constitution is not carved in stone; it is a document. I believe that the members of the Supreme Court themselves have described it as a “living tree”. If we want to maintain and nourish this living tree, we have to feed it. The food for our Constitution, for our rights, for our way of doing things in this country, came in large measure from the court challenges program.
I find it absolutely shameful that the Conservative government, out of obstinacy,because of a mean and narrow spirit, has decided for a second time to abolish this program. They refuse to explain their reasons because there are none. On behalf of my colleagues in the official opposition, I can promise that we will restore this program and that we will continue to defend the rights of Canadians.