The E Word: Harper hostile to equality

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Lost in the closing of Parliament last week was an announcement that demonstrates, one more time, the Harper government's inability to deal with equality issues.

In a private settlement with the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne (FCFA), the Harper government reinstated funding for constitutional challenges based on minority language rights, while continuing to deny funding for equality rights challenges. In September 2006, Harper cancelled funding to the Court Challenges Program, thereby eliminating funding for both language rights and equality rights test cases.

But now, after the FCFA, one of the leading organizations representing francophones outside of Quebec, sued the government because of that cancellation, Harper has settled with them by reinstating funding for language rights only. In its suit, the FCFA sought full restoration of funding for both language and equality rights challenges, but this is not what we got.

Watching Harper can make one long for the days of Conservatives like Joe Clark and Patrick Boyer, who understood that the equality guarantee in the Charter would require major long-term changes in government policies in Canada, and in social attitudes. They were not fearful, but open to social transformation. But these days we have instead the small-minded Harper Conservatives who are hostile to equality claims made by groups in Canada that are still disadvantaged legally, socially and economically.

For example, Harper recently delivered an eloquent apology to Aboriginal people over the Residential School policy, but the outstanding question is: what will this government do to correct the damage that was done by the policy to Aboriginal communities, cultures and languages? Harper cancelled the Kelowna Accord as soon as he came into office, repudiating an agreement that would have seen significant Canadian resources turned to the complex business of creating equal conditions of life for Aboriginal peoples.

Harper has been similarly hostile to womenâe(TM)s equality claims, and to those of lesbians and gay men. Because of that hostility Harper has taken away, and refuses to restore, the modest funding that permitted Aboriginal women, Chinese Canadians, African Canadians, people with disabilities and others to use their constitutional equality rights when they believed that government policies had strayed from the standards set by the Charter.

We are in a shocking state in Canada âe" one that we could not have imagined in 1985. We have a constitutional guarantee of equality of which we are proud, but Canadians have no access to the use of it. The Harper Conservatives have not only de-funded the Court Challenges Program, they have trashed it as merely giving a voice to whiners, special interest groups, and feminists. This is the same program that has been praised by United Nations bodies as a âeoebest practiceâe in the human rights field because it gave Canadians real access to using equality rights.

Human rights experts at the UN understand that rights have to be transformed from paper guarantees into what they should be: a practical means of getting the attention of governments at moments when they ignore the interests of individuals and groups who have less political influence. Rights can only be made into something real, if money and resources are devoted to making them accessible to those who need them most.

We should all be delighted that francophone and anglophone minorities in Canada have had access to their rights restored. At the same time, this settlement makes starker than ever the reality that Harper is hostile to equality.

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