What the…? Tories resurrect Court Challenges Program

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For more than a year now, prominent conservatives have been warning – some publicly – about the drift of the Harper Tories away from conservative principles. Party apologists, chief among them the Prime Minister himself, have responded to the criticism by citing the need for “pragmatism”, given the government’s minority status. Their argument has merit, but how does it explain the decision to reinstate the Court Challenges Program successfully terminated in 2006? The answer is – it doesn’t.

Supporters of the Language Rights Support Program, as the new initiative will be known, say that it will be nothing like its predecessor, promising that it will be restricted to cases involving minority language rights only. Funds will not be made available to other minority groups, they say.

When I read this, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Clearly these guys don’t know how the game is played.

First, a bit of history.

The original Court Challenges Program was established in 1978 to provide funding for minority language cases based on sections 93 and 133 of the Constitution Act of 1867, and later, cases based on the language rights provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Like the new Language Rights Support Program, the original Court Challenges Program was never intended to provide support for cases involving the rights of other minority groups either. So why was its mandate expanded to include these cases? Simply put, it just made sense. There was never a logical reason for the government to fund the constitutional challenges of one minority group, but not others, and once the Charter was adopted in 1982, the practice of favouring one group over another quite likely became legally untenable too.

That argument is no less valid in 2009 than it was then. Of course, a future Conservative government could resist the inevitable pressure to broaden the mandate of the new Language Rights Support Program, but that would only provoke the sort of messy political confrontation that the Tories have been trying to avoid in an effort to prove their pragmatist credentials. Given the relatively small amount of money involved, I suspect that they’ll prefer to turn a blind eye to the problem rather than risk precipitating such a confrontation. History will simply repeat itself.

Even if the government succeeds in preventing an expansion of the new program’s mandate, that doesn’t mean that left-wing activists won’t be able to use it to advance their social agenda. How long before someone makes the case that Francophones in a particular Ontario community are discriminated against because there is no abortion clinic dedicated to serving them in their own language? This isn’t so far-fetched – the Ontario government was forced to keep an entire French language hospital open in Ottawa not long ago despite the fact that there was a fully bilingual hospital just a few miles away.

What about taxpayer-funded community programming for gay Francophone teenagers where “numbers warrant”? Or more women’s shelters? The possibilities are endless. Eventually, someone will bring a case like this to the independent committee overseeing the program, and the committee will agree to take the case on forcing the government to either intervene, or relent.

Again, given the small amount of money involved and the pitfalls of a confrontation, I predict that the government will prefer that latter course of action.

What really bothers me about the Language Rights Support Program is not that it is so susceptible to abuse though; it’s that it completely undoes one of the few big conservative policy successes this government has had since coming to office in 2006 – the cancellation of the Court Challenges Program. In one fell swoop, the Tories have rendered meaningless the considerable effort expended at that time by their friends in support of that policy decision.

Why? Can it be that someone has made a calculation that this will help win an election, maybe even a majority? It’s hard to believe.

As the country braces for yet another election – our fourth in five years – I’m asking myself, as a principled conservative, if the Harper Tories are still worth supporting. Until this past week, the two answers that kept coming back to me in response were: a) the liberals would be much worse, and b) the Tories would be much better if they had a majority. The sudden and, in my view, gratuitous creation of the Language Rights Support Program has badly shaken my confidence in either of these answers.

To the untrained eye, all this may seem like a small thing, but it’s the small things that point to bigger, more serious problems.

The question is – are there any trained eyes left in the federal Conservative Party with any influence who even care?

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