Cancellation of Court Challenges Program a Step Back for Equality Rights

Monday, July 26 2010

For Immediate Release, September 27, 2006: OTTAWA - The Conservative government's elimination of the Court Challenges Program will strip minority groups of the ability to challenge legislation that infringes on their rights, says the Liberal Opposition.

"This program was meant to support those groups and individuals who can't afford the costly legal battles that result when one is fighting for equality in our society," said Liberal Justice Critic Sue Barnes. "The message sent by Prime Minister Stephen Harper through eliminating this program is all Canadians may have Charter rights, but only those who can afford it can defend them."

The Court Challenges program, re-established by the Liberal government in 1994 after being scrapped by Brian Mulroney's Conservatives, provided financial assistance to individuals and groups who were pursuing legal action to advance language and equality rights under Canada's Constitution. Issues such as the use of Security Certificates, allowing Sikhs to wear kirpans to schools, stopping the closing of Ottawa's only French-language hospital, and the right to same-sex marriage are prime examples of cases that have been brought before the Supreme Court thanks to the Court Challenges Program.

The program provided Canadians with the means to challenge laws or legislation that may otherwise go untested. It has provided opportunities to groups who may not have been able to afford to appeal to the judicial branch on their own.

Ms. Barnes was joined by Heritage Critic Mauril Bélanger, Status of Women Critic Maria Minna, Social Development Critic Bonnie Brown and MP for Mississauga-Erindale Omar Alghabra in protesting the government's cancellation of the $5.6-million program as part of the government's $1-billion in program cuts, announced earlier this week.

"Our democratic system has to support the fight for equality rights," said Ms. Minna. "Minority language groups, immigrant groups, religious groups, disability groups, same-sex rights groups, women's groups - they all need the resources to ensure their arguments are heard when they feel their rights have been trampled on."

Mr. Bélanger said that it was particularly offensive that Prime Minister Harper has made financial resources a factor in determining the extension of Charter rights.

"These groups can not be silenced simply because they don't have the money or resources. That rights-only-for-the-privileged concept is not how a democracy should work. It is not the Canadian way," said Mr. Bélanger.

Mr. Bélanger added that the program has a small budget relative to other programs - $5.6 million a year - but offers significant social and legal value to Canadians.

Ms. Brown continued, saying "Canadians enjoy individual rights and freedoms that are among the most clearly defined in the world, but equality has not yet been achieved. We need to make sure that these cases continue to be brought forward."

Mr. Alghabra said that by cancelling the program, the Prime Minister is ensuring that the courts' role in testing government action against minorities is diminished.

"During the last election, the Conservative leader said that because the courts are stacked with so-called 'liberal' judges, the judicial branch would act as a check on him as Prime Minister. Yesterday, Stephen Harper made a decision that would ensure the Supreme Court played a lesser role in checking his authority," said Mr. Alghabra.

The MPs pointed to numerous letters written by third party groups in support of the Court Challenge program and urged Canadians to support the program by writing to Conservative Justice Minister Vic Toews and Heritage Minister Bev Oda.

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