Among the programs Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government slashed last year was the court challenges program (CCP). This supported linguistic and equality rights across Canada by helping litigants cover the costs of legal cases involving constitutional issues in those two general areas.
The CCP was an important means of protecting the rights of the francophone minorities in other provinces, and of anglophones in Quebec.
The program fell victim to the Harper buzz-saw in September 2006, much to the alarm of defenders of minority-language rights.
This week, just days before a Throne Speech opens a new session of Parliament, Graham Fraser, Canada's commissioner of official languages has denounced the program's elimination as "the product of a seriously flawed decision-making process." This is, he suggested, abdication of Ottawa's legal responsibility to defend and protect minority communities.
He's exactly right. The Court Challenges program should be reinstated quickly - perhaps as soon as next Tuesday in the Throne Speech. This time, however, the program should be tightly tailored to do only what it was supposed to do in the first place, and help official-language minorities get their rights as a way of sustaining those communities.
The right to deal with the federal government in either English or French is an indispensible hallmark of modern Canada, enshrined in the constitution and buttressed by its own law, the Official Languages Act. Equally important are language matters in provincial jurisdiction, including education.
Few people or groups whose language rights are trampled have the means to finance the complicated, drawn-out legal fights sometimes needed to make sure rights are respected.
This is not just theory. Quebec's biggest anglophone-rights organization, the Quebec Community Groups Network, says the challenges program has a "monumental impact" on anglo rights here. And Brent Tyler, the pugnacious court champion of anglophone rights, told our Don Macpherson last month that without CCP money, he might not be able to defend at the Supreme Court his Court of Appeal victory over Bill 104, on access to English schools. What a defeat for anglophones that would be.
So Fraser was right to call the $2.6-million-a-year program - pocket change by government standards - a "significant contribution" to language equality. By abolishing it, Fraser says, the government is failing to support "positive" measures to implement minority-rights commitments, as spelled out in the Official Language Act.
So why did the Harper government chop the program? True, he's wooing francophone Quebec, but a few dollars for court cases would hardly turn Quebec against him. More likely, we think, is that the Harper people were repelled by the way the program had been changing. A coterie of left-leaning advisers had moved the CCP steadily away from language cases and toward a whole range of "equality rights" challenges, collectively derided by some observers as "the association of left-handed hang-gliders for social justice," etc.
Such groups are free to fund their own cases. Everyone can try his luck at the Supreme Court rights casino. But official-language minorities really are a special case in Canada. Official language minorities are part of who we are.
Anglo-Quebecers and Franco-Ontarians or Franco-Manitobans need no reminder that their situations are precarious, but evidently Stephen Harper does. So take note, prime minister: A revived and streamlined court program would serve the country well.