Steelcitygrit [in exile]

Ruminating on all things Canadian and political.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

RIP Court Challenges Program

[If this post seems particularly formal, it is because I stumbled ass-backwards into a weekly politics column at McMaster's The Silhouette. My pieces appear complete with a vaccuous, mouth-breather headshot and everything. I'm nestled in amongst all the "what's the deal with facebook?" type columns. It's embarassing. Anyways, this is installment 3.]

Consider it a formal introduction. Stephen Harper reminded Canadians what conservatism in government truly means on Monday, with the announcement of spending cuts across the board. Treasury Board President John Baird exhumed a tried and tested cliché not heard since Mulroney’s 80s: “We are trimming the fat and refocusing spending on the priorities of Canadians.”

Baird assures us that the cuts were done strategically; the programs that suffered were those that generated little returns. A closer examination will find that half of that is true. These cuts were strategic indeed. One stands out particularly – one that speaks volumes about this government’s true agenda.

On Monday, Stephen Harper quietly engineered the elimination of the Court Challenges program. What is Court Challenges? It is – was – an arms-length institution that provided financial backing for rights claims. Essentially, through this program the government funded disadvantaged groups to challenge it on rights issues.

The program was introduced in 1978. At that time, it was intended to protect minority language rights exclusively. Later, it was expanded, so that it applied to all equality rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It’s been an essential tool in many landmark equality cases. Certainly, without Court Challenges we would not yet have same-sex marriage. It provided considerable support to the gay rights organization EGALE. Its subsidies allowed EGALE to manage massive legal costs while pursuing its equality claims in court. The eventual result was a Supreme Court decision that the current definition of marriage was unconstitutional.

Aboriginal groups, too, have relied heavily on the program. Land claims, residential schools reparations, racist legislation: First Nations have an endless need to access the court system. However, endemic poverty makes this extraordinarily difficult. Without financial aid, pursuing Charter rights is simply impossible.

It’s no wonder that far-right organizations have called for the disbandment of the program. Theirs is not a concern for fiscal responsibility. Gwen Landoldt, vice-President of the anti-gay, anti-abortion REAL Woman of Canada makes her point with gusto:

“You have homosexual and radical feminist activists doling out funds to their own activist organizations without the slightest public accountability

Iain Benson, a lawyer that often represents the religious Right, says the program was susceptible to “…blatant favourtism… It’s the politically correct groups that get the funding.”

The program would not generate such vitriol if it had not been successful in bringing about equality rulings. We begin to read new meaning in Harper’s decision. It is presented as a cost saving measure – the lesser of the conservative evils, as it were. But it underscores a far more odious design.

Harper’s aversion to minority and Charter Rights is no secret. He has mused publicly about invoking the notwithstanding clause – so that he might override rights in, say, repealing same-sex marriage. Here is a far simpler, softer option. There is considerable political capital at stake when a prime minister engages the constitution in open battle, after all. Harper intends, instead, to use the back door. If Canadians are unable to access the Charter, via the courts, then it is rendered effectively toothless. Where previous governments paved a road from the disadvantaged to their Charter justice, Harper is now tearing up the tarmac.

The Conservative defence is not as reassuring as it intends to be. Baird argues that “…if the government thinks that laws are unconstitutional, it should change them. They shouldn’t be providing subsidies to lawyers to do their work for them.” He would have the legislators solely responsible for challenging the laws that they themselves pass. This begs the question that why would a government pass laws if it deemed them to be unconstitutional?

The message, at simplest, is “just trust us.” Are we to heed this advice? Are we to bow our heads in deference, content that our government will look after all of us all the time? This defies the very purpose of having a constitution. Our Charter was enacted so that all citizens would be able to challenge their government and could not be ignored. This is an ability we should protect zealously.

There is more afoot in Ottawa then the mere pinching of pennies.

- Mike (SCG)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's also bad is that Flaherty and Baird used the same "show and tell kiddie time" unveiling the cheque press conference that they used when they were in the disastrous Harris government.

So, I wonder, what is all this show and tell and constant press conferences with announcements and advertising costing the Canadian taxpayer?

Why isn't the Canadian Taxpayer Association whiners looking into this?

10:33 AM  
Blogger Miles Lunn said...

Well said. Most of the cuts made here (I looked through the entire list) I probably support since program reviews is something all governments do regularly. Even the Liberals did this on a regular basis too. However the decision to cut the Court Challenges Program was definitely a mistake in my view. This seems more about pandering to their social conservative base than economic conservative base. If they were interested in pandering to the economic conservative base I think they would have gone after different programs. I for one think business subsidies should have been on the chopping blocks if you ask me where the axe should fall first. Those who can fend for themselves is who should have their funding cut, not the weak and the vulnerable.

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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11:15 AM  
Blogger wilson61 said...

Every province has it. Google it and see. The Court Challenges Program was an overlap of services already provided provincially.

12:30 PM  
Blogger SteelCityGrit said...

Provincial legal aid is less able to support comprehensive, landmark group-based courts challenges - the particular mandate of Court Challenges. Civic legal aid, anyways, is suffering a chronic lack of funding almost across the board. That's according to the UN and comparisons with other liberal democracies.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Great post. One more for the people who say with a minority he can have no effect and we were running a smear campaign.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Jack said...

This is a good post and presents one side of the argument well.

What it doesn't do is explain to Canadian taxpayers why we should continue to fund people who want to sue us.

I may be a bit short-sighted so I'm going to post this entry tomorrow in my "Daily Blogger" spot and we can then get the other side of the argument (if there is one).

Take care...

4:17 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Jack, "we" believe in the rights of everyone in this nation and that means if their rights are being infringed we should want that to stop. That is why we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That is its purpose, to protect the citizen from the government, so this is not radical. Unless you don't agree with the charter. But of course the answer to that is we have it because our elected representatives, fully representing us, and realizing themselves as not infallible, layed down certain basic rights that every Canadian is deserving of.

And as far as "suing us" goes, if they are going to win, then that means the government has not obeyed the law, the constitution, the most basic law of the land. In that case, is this not a good thing, that this be stopped? Should the government operate with impunity?

There is no one-sidedness to this. Since my friend here was operating on the assumption that Canadians accepted the principle of the charter as well as the rule of law in Canada, he disregarded the opposite. That's a pretty safe assumption. The only other side, that taxpayers money is being wasted, was adressed. He felt it is not, you feel it is, but he mentioned that by pointing out this program was chosen specificaly, not just to save costs, as your argument , relying on more than just the expenses, proves.
I don't know what your daily blogger means.

6:05 PM  
Blogger decoin said...

What has the world come to when the federal governmant fails to spend taxpayer dollars funding lawsuits against itself. When will the outrages end? Thank God progressive Canadians will restore this program and resume suing themselves. Jiminy it feels good to be on the progressive, correct side of every issue - why the hell are we not in power?

8:53 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Decoin, was there some error that had you posting your comment before reading mine? Because I already debunked that nonesenseical "we're suing ourselves" argument. If the cases are all losing then you have a point...however, you don't make that distinction. And if they win, then they were right and the law was not being upheld. So Conservatives are are arguing that it is okay for government to flout the law? And this is the party that ran on "accountability?" Hmmm

9:57 PM  
Anonymous enough said...

When you say nonsensical you assert that you are correct. You may be correct, you quite likely are incorrect.
We have layers of appeals to work through, not all judges agree on any one subject, judges themselves are not all impartial and have been stacked in one direction over the last 30 years.
The feds will often not appeal a decision and other interested parties have to raise money for themselves while CCP participants have large sums given to them.That in an inherent unfairness.
Nonsensical is in the eye of the beholder.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Yes the one aspect I considered mentioning but thought I wouldn't was this judges are bad philosphy. Alright go run with that, but try selling it to the public. You won't, Conservatives won't. Because it sounds like paranoid ideologues running wild, and tories know that. That's fundamentally dishonest.

I am certainly not as clearly incorrect as you say. The point being made remains nonesensical, as for one it is not the point you have made. What I said that about was the contention that it is clear we shouldn't "sue ourselves." That is not what is happening. So it makes sense to say we agree the law should not be met? No of course not. When Conservatives are using rationale such as "not funding people to appeal liberal causes," clearly the worry is not on the ineffectiveness of the system (in fact you suppose it so ineffective as to basically be obsolete, quite a scary charge) but the nature of the complaint. I'll side with impartiallity of judges over a "tough cookies" approach to the "powerful" interests of societal heavyweights like the gay and lesbian community and other minority groups.
I will note the key point is that this program kept a francaphone hospital afloat, is that a liberal cause, or a liberal judgement? No it is enforcing the constitution. You would think for law and order conservatives that would be a good thing.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

But I've had enough of this tired old debate. This issue is not judicial independence, it is quashing funding for interest Conservatives don't care for, whereas I see them as interests in all of our interest.

12:45 PM  
Anonymous burlivespipe said...

I love the big novelty check-signing op... Can't you see Harpor carting one of those around for those special moments, where a few dozen cameras and a friendly (read: secret Tory check kiter/donor) merchant present him with a chance to open up the wallet and buy a cup of coffee.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Harpor use this program back when he was head of the Nazional Citizens Coalition ? something about private organizations' rights to advertise during an election?
If its true, ain't that the ol' Harpo-crite we know and loathe...

11:45 PM  

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