The axe falls on minority rights in Canada

Don't believe for a minute that the Court Challenges program was cut for anything other than ideological reasons.

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 Stephen Harper's thin victory, we've seen entire government departments completely enviserated (remember Climate Change Canada? The One Tonne Challenge?)

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). There have been many court cases that were successful because of Court Challenges, 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 scare 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?

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