Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The sound of the axe falling on minority rights in Canada

Do you hear that sound? That wheezing noise in the background is the sound of our rights being pulled out from under us. On the surface, the Conservative government's announcement of $1 billion in cuts may seem benign. If you were half asleep while watching the news last night, the gravity of the situation may not have hit you. But I know that I sat up in bed and couldn't sleep all night.

Why, you may ask? Budget announcements generally don't provoke fear in the hearts of writers like me. Since Paul Martin's devastating slash-fest in the mid-90s, we've become used to seeing social programs axed. And since Harper's thin victory, we've seen entire government departments completely enviserated (remember Climate Change Canada? The One Tonne Challenge? Sigh ...)

But as of yesterday afternoon, Canadians just lost a gem of a program called Court Challenges. Many people in the queer community may not know it, but this program has had a direct impact on all of our lives, and without it, our rights will be under serious and well-calculated attack.

I've linked to the Court Challenges website here, although I wouldn't be surprised if the PMO took it down by day's end. For those who don't know about the program, the logic does seem a bit absurd. Since 1994, Court Challenges has provided funding to equality-seeking groups to pay for the legal costs associated with suing the government.

I know that this very idea sends the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation into a frothy rage. But there's a reason why this program has benefited all Canadians. The theory was that Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms had yet to be tested. We all had all sorts of human rights in theory, but the only way to test and ensure those rights is by taking cases to court, and asking judges to clarify the interpretation of the Charter. But that placed the onus on individual citizens and cash-strapped advocacy groups to pay tens of thousands of dollars (sometimes hundreds of thousands) to take cases to court. While some of these groups were able to find lawyers to take their cases for free, there are still some very high fixed costs associated with going to court. Basic stuff like ordering transcripts, paying for travel for witnesses, etc. That's where Court Challenges filled in the gap.

There is no arguing against the fact that no other group in Canada has benefited from the Court Challenges program more than the gay and lesbian community. That's why the program has always been a thorn in the side of the Conservatives (especially the religious nuts). I will post a more extensive list of court cases that were successful because of Court Challenges, but here's quick sampling:

1. Egan case (1995) Gay men Jim Egan and Jack Nesbit sued Ottawa for the right to claim a spousal pension under the Old Age Security Act. The Court ruled against Egan and Nesbit, but all nine judges agreed that sexual orientation is a protected ground and that protection extends to partnerships of lesbians and gay men.

2. Gay adoption case (1995) -- An Ontario court judged ruled that is was contrary to section 15 of the Charter of Rights to deny gay and lesbian people the right to adopt their partners' children.

3. M v. H (1999)-- the groundbreaking case where one lesbian sued her partner for spousal asupport after their relationship broke down. The Supreme Court ruled that Canada's Family Law Act was unconsititutional, and ordered all of the provinces to "read in" same sex equality rights into their provincial laws. This was the case that established legal recognition of same sex common law relationships.

4. The Marc Hall case (2002) -- Later made into a cheesy TV movie called Prom Queen, in this case, an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled that a gay student had the right to take his male partner as a date to the prom at his Catholic High School.

And of course, there have been all of the court battles over equal marriage for same sex couples -- all funded in part by Court Challenges.

It was good while it lasted. But don't believe for a minute that this program was cut for anything other than ideological reasons. I would also argue that there was a more strategic agenda at play here. First of all, the Conservatives announced these cuts during a time of unprededented economic security (Canada had a $13.2 billion surplus last year!!!). And second, it seems that they took their marching orders directly from the whackos over at Focus on the Family and the R.E.A.L. Women of Canada (look here for more background on those groups). Anti-feminist and anti-gay groups have been lobbying for years to get rid of Court Challenges. And while it may take them a few more years to get rid of those pesky abortion and gay rights laws, the government has just given them a big nod, validating their intolerant and extremist views.

And just one more thought ....

If Harper decides to pull a fast one and use the Notwithstanding Clause to change the definition of marriage back to "one man, one woman," the queer community will have to go it alone in the courts. Even though dozens of constitutional lawyers recently rendered a legal opinion that there is no constitional way that Harper could possibly overturn gay marriage without using the Clause, he might decide to move forward anyway, and dare us to sacre up the resources to fight him in court -- on our own dime.

Welcome to the Harper revolution, folks.

What are you going to do about it?


Shelle said...

Oh damn!

Do you mind if I link you to my lj? This is good - I'll have to read it again.

And he is going to re-visit the marriage clause! I happen to know someone who works in government who gave me a heads up. I'm not a happy camper.

oscah said...

Wow, and I'd always thought Canada was this bastion of rights and freedoms.

Salanth said...

Goddamn it, Harper gets worse and worse the more I hear. Why, oh why were we cursed so badly? :( Him and his creepy eyes...knew they weren't trustworthy...ugh.

Grim-away said...

Damn that raddishwad jerkface. Why is it when we vote for someone else that would support our rights we end up with jackholes like him? Is it rigged or do people really hate us?
I dispise Harper. I never liked him when he was going on and on about gun laws and wanting to be more like the USA.
We deserve rights just like everyone else does. We don't need to be singled out by him.

~ Mind you, I'm young, and I dislike Harper a great deal... ~