Mr. Bob Corbett (Fundy-Royal):
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to be taking part in this debate on the hon. member's motion. It is an important motion and certainly deserves a lot of serious consideration.
Hon. members will be well aware of the tremendous gains made in equality in language rights since the Court Challenges Program began in 1978. This government has been and was an enthusiastic supporter of the program and there are numerous examples of court cases that attest to the program's successes.
I think my hon. friend will be quite interested in hearing about some of the programs and some of the very successful court cases the program has funded to advance the rights and freedoms we enjoy as citizens under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Let us examine equality rights. In 1989 the first case to reach the Supreme Court of Canada was brought by a British bom lawyer who was refused the right to practise law in British Columbia because he was not a Canadian citizen.
The Supreme Court struck down the requirement, citing section 15 of the charter. But the decision did more than permit non-citizens to practise law, it laid the foundation for the future interpretation of equality rights. The Supreme Court went on to make a series of decisions that have expanded the scope of human rights statutes.
All six judges who heard the case agreed that the citizenship requirement violated equality rights in section 15 of the charter. A four to two majority decision held that the law was not saved by section 1 of the charter, which allows reasonable limits on equality rights. As a result of the decision, we now have a clear understanding from the Supreme Court what equality rights mean.
Another example of an equality rights case funded by the program dealt with the denial of the right to vote. It challenged the section of the Canada Elections Act which denied the vote to persons unable to manage their property because of mental disability.
Just before the case was heard in Federal Court, this government agreed that the section violated the charter and should be struck down. One hour later the Federal Court agreed with the government and invalidated that section.
The result of this challenge by the Canadian Disability Rights Council is that many of our citizens with mental disabilities were able to vote in the 1988 federal election. As well, my hon. friend will be pleased to know that the case helped to challenge widespread assumptions that stigmatized persons with mental disabilities.
In another interesting case funded by the program, a man argued that as a natural father he should not be denied parental benefits under the Unemployment Insurance Act when those benefits are available to an adoptive father. The Federal Court agreed with him and ruled that the UI act violated section 15 of the charter.
The Court Challenges Program funded an Ontario children's rights organization representing a young offender who argued that the provincial government's failure to establish alternative measures programs for young offenders violated his equality rights under the charter.
In ruling in the young offender's favour, the trial judge said the Attorney General for Ontario had a duty to authorize alternative measures programs. The ruling was upheld by the Ontario Court of Appeal, but the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that his rights had not been violated and the court referred to the value of diversity in our federal system and the importance of federal-provincial co-operation.
The Court Challenges Program gave funding support to the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund so it could argue a case concerning the interpretation of the provisions of the Canada Pension Plan for credit splitting when a couple separates. The trial judge ruled that the husband was entitled to the full CPP benefits so his estranged wife appealed the decision to the Ontario Divisional Court. It ruled that the Canada Pension Plan cannot be interpreted in such a way that it waives credit splitting rights.
These are just a few of the many successful cases that received funding support through the Court Challenges Program.
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I remind hon. members that during the life of the program this government contributed more financial support that any previous government. The program funded up to $35,000 for each court level challenge and up to $5,000 to develop a case.
Canadians have every reason to be proud of this program. We have invested more in the Court Challenges Program than any other country in the world. I say to my hon. friend, not only have numerous cases been resolved under the program, but many more cases have helped to raise awareness among Canadians of several issues that must be dealt with if we are to ensure that this great nation continues to place a high value on equality for all its citizens.
The Court Challenges Program has enabled access for many more groups that for one reason or another are at a disadvantage to the justice system. For example, the Canadian Council of Churches received program funding to challenge many sections of the Immigration Act. The council believes the act violates equality rights.
To assure hon. members that the government had a strict hands-off policy regarding the Court Challenges Program, I must point out that the government argued that the Council of Churches did not have the standing to bring its case to court, but the Federal Court refused to strike down the council's case. The government appealed that decision but the Federal Court of Appeal ruled in the council's favour and the program is now funding the council's appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The government has found it necessary to bring the program to a conclusion. However, as we have already made clear, the government intends to honour all its commitments made prior to February 27 of this year. These commitments include the one made by the program to the Canadian Disabilities Rights Council, which is challenging a section of the Immigration Act frequently used to bar families from immigrating to Canada if the member of that family has a disability.
The program has already funded a number of similar cases but the government settled each of them out of court. The program is now funding the council rather than more individuals so that the case can be argued on
behalf of the entire group affected under the Immigration Act.
Many of the cases I have mentioned dealt with and deal with equality rights because that is a key section of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However there are other concerns as well, such as those expressed by Victims of Violence. This community organization is disturbed about barriers to justice that can hinder a person with a disability who needs to give evidence in court.
The program is helping Victims of Violence develop a case on the potentially discriminatory impact of the Canada Evidence Act on people with disabilities. It wants the court to consider options such as allowing videotaped or written testimony for individuals unable to testify in person.
The Court Challenges Program will also honour its commitment to the Canadian Ethnocultural Council to help it research the question of access to the courts for persons with complaints of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Hon. members may know that currently only the Canadian Human Rights Commission can deal with complaints. The council is concerned that complaints of discrimination may not be dealt with effectively or promptly by the commission. It believes that individuals should have access to the courts in these matters.
Prejudice is widespread in our society. Unfortunately, judges are not immune to it. Members of disadvantaged groups frequently raise concerns about alleged discriminatory attitudes and rulings of judges. In that regard, the program has funded the Inuit Women's Association of Canada to help it examine the sentencing practices of judges in the Northwest Territories in cases of sexual assault against Inuit women.
The Court Challenges Program was originally intended to help citizens who wanted clarification of language rights through the courts. Financial assistance was provided to groups and individuals for test cases based on the language rights provisions of the Constitution. My hon. friend will appreciate that the program was intended to serve as a tool to promote our two official languages. It has done that, and the government is proud of what the program has accomplished in promoting the recognition and implementation of minority language rights across Canada. Through the program we have
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enhanced the vitality of the English and French linguistic minority communities.
It has been a decade since our charter became law. During the past 10 years the Court Challenges Program has been extremely useful in helping to advance the rights and freedoms enjoyed by Canadians. It has certainly strengthened the laws of Canada and influenced attitudes as we strive to ensure equality for all citizens.
However, nothing remains constant. This nation is going through many changes, as are countries throughout the world. We are not abandoning support of our basic rights and freedoms. We have many programs that address those issues and the government will live up to its commitment to provide funding already granted by the Court Challenges Program.
Yes, this government can be very proud of its accomplishments under the program. We have not shied away from giving the program the freedom to operate independently. However the hon. member knows, as do all hon. members, that we must make tough decisions to get our financial house in order. It is time to ask our provincial partners and private sector groups to share the burden and take on additional responsibilities in the area of implementing equality rights for Canadians.
I say to my hon. friend: "Let us work together to ensure the equality of all Canadians. Let us build on the foundation of the Court Challenges Program. Let us move forward and make this magnificent land a place in which all Canadians, whether citizens by birth or citizens by choice, will be equal under the law and full participants in their communities".
Subtopic: ALLOTTED DAY (S. 0.81)-C0URT CHALLENGES PROGRAM