Dion promises to restore court challenges program
OTTAWA - Stephane Dion promised Tuesday to reverse what he said were Conservative efforts to erode civil liberties, casting Liberals as champions of the Charter of Rights.
The Liberal leader said he would reinstate the court challenges program, abolished by the Tory government, and double its previous budget to $11.2 million. He would also revive the Law Reform Commission cancelled by the Tories, reinstitute a non-partisan process to select judges and boost funding for legal aid.
"The legacy of the charter is too precious for us to remain indifferent to those who, through antagonism or neglect, would seek to undermine it," Dion said in a speech marking the 25th anniversary of the charter.
"There are still battles to be fought. There are still rights to be won."
Dion called the charter a source of pride for Canadians and said the Liberals would not allow it to be undermined.
"At its core, the charter asserts that the equal treatment of every Canadian is the centrepiece of our democracy," he said.
"It transcends political boundaries and has helped create one of the most successful, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual federations on the face of the planet . . . I cannot think of any other single document that has done so much to strengthen our Canadian identity."
While the charter can't be changed without consent from at least seven provinces, Dion said Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is weakening the document by restricting Canadians' access to it.
The Conservative government cut off funding last fall for the court challenges program and the law reform commission, a think tank that explored ways to improve the law.
The challenges program helped pay for lawsuits by those who believed their charter rights had been violated. Among the beneficiaries were same-sex couples seeking tax breaks, off-reserve aboriginals looking for voting rights in band elections, and people seeking greater language rights.
"The protections guaranteed under the charter are only as meaningful as the ability of Canadians to access these protections," Dion said.
Dion said the cuts are only part of a larger "pattern of antagonism toward some of the basic precepts of our judicial system." He criticized the Tories for meddling with the way judges are selected, stacking the selection advisory committee to produce judges who share the government's tough law-and-order stance.
Dion stressed his pride in the Liberal paternity of the charter, which was added to the Constitution in 1982 by Grit icon Pierre Trudeau. By contrast, he noted that Harper and other cabinet ministers have been conspicuously absent from charter commemoration events.
"I think every Canadian prime minister ought to make a point of publicly celebrating the charter," he said.
Social conservatives have long resented the charter, contending that activist judges have usurped the role of Parliament with liberal interpretations that have extended rights beyond anything contemplated by politicians. Harper himself has occasionally echoed those views.
However, Harper told the Commons on Tuesday that he supports the charter, noting that he even once used its guarantee of free speech to try to persuade the court to strike down a Liberal law restricting election advertising by advocacy groups.
And Harper boasted that it was a Tory prime minister, John Diefenbaker, who brought in Canada's first bill of rights in 1960.
"It's an important legacy that this party defends."
As for Dion's criticism of the Tory cuts to the court challenges program, Harper dismissed the program as something that only benefits lawyers.
"Instead of paying lawyers, this government is acting to protect the rights of citizens," he said, rhyming off a list of Tory initiatives such as apologizing for the Chinese head tax and reaching a settlement with aboriginals abused at residential schools.
"This government is acting on rights, unlike the record of that (Liberal) government which didn't get the job done."