British Columbia civil rights group punches above its weight in national legal disputes
The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, Ont.
Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, August 21, 2016 7:21AM EDT
VANCOUVER -- Arriving to the lockup for the Supreme Court of Canada's decision on medically assisted suicide, members of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association found themselves relegated to a small, seatless table in the corner of an otherwise packed room.
"It was like a kids' table. ... We had to pull chairs over to it," recalled Josh Paterson, the group's executive director.
Thoughts of tables quickly faded as the judgment was released. The small, modestly resourced civil liberties operation based out of a two-storey building slated to be torn down in Vancouver had won a unanimous Supreme Court decision.
Despite its size and limited means, the association has had a major impact on the country's laws since it was established in 1962. The group is headquartered in a 2,500-square-foot office, where volunteers are sometimes sent home in the summer because of the stifling heat and winter staff meetings are occasionally conducted wearing toques and scarves.
The association is the oldest and one of the most active civil liberties groups in the country and has a mandate that transcends provincial boundaries.
"When we see a problem that we don't think anyone else is getting in there to do anything about, oftentimes we will step in," said Paterson, who took the helm in 2013.
The organization, which is a non-partisan, charitable society, has only four lawyers on staff. Its budget for 2016 is $1.2 million, only 20 per cent of which is regular, reliable funding.
Besides assisted dying, the association has been involved in numerous prominent and popular national issues, including cases related to solitary confinement in prisons, murdered and missing indigenous women and mass surveillance laws. The association has also lent its support to Trinity Western University's bid to open a Christian law school and the protest rights of a pro-life group at the University of Victoria.
"We're trying to establish the architecture for rights. We're there to help build the scaffolding," said policy director Micheal Vonn.
"We do get asked sometimes, 'Hey, whose side are you on?' We're on the side of democratic process. We're on the side of upholding human rights."
Paterson said he believes that the willingness on the association's board of directors to stand up against the tide of public sentiment is one of the core reasons for its success; along with a legal culture in B.C. of lawyers eager to donate their time to help with cases it has championed.
The readiness to take an unpopular stand has occurred numerous times over the years, including when the association publicly opposed Pierre Trudeau's government enacting the War Measures Act in 1970 after Quebec separatists kidnapped a British diplomat and a politician, who was killed.
John Russell, who served as executive director between 1980 and 1988, said the association's success is in part a legacy of the diverse group of big thinkers and gifted communicators who were involved in the early years, as well as their ability to energize the members who followed them.
"You've got to have carefully worked out, thought out intellectual positions. Then you've got to have articulate people who can communicate those ideas effectively to a broader public," he said.
"Even if people disagree sometimes with those ideas, they'll recognize that they're dealing with individuals who are a real force to be reckoned with."
In Vonn's eyes, groups like the B.C. association are necessary to raise awareness around larger civil liberty issues and to navigate individual human rights cases through the legal system in a way that benefits society at large.
"We don't expect individuals to go to the Supreme Court of Canada. It's impossible. Who, then, if not civil society?" Vonn asked.
"We want to be ... part of the movement to make civil society the player in the democratic process it needs to be."
As for the future, the association has about seven test cases in the works, from online surveillance to a new challenge against Ottawa's assisted-dying law.