The federal government recently announced a number of cuts to different programs that target various sectors of Canadian society, including the voluntary, social, justice and cultural sectors. As organizations promoting the rights of refugees and immigrants across Canada, we believe it is important to underline the impact these cuts will have on refugees and immigrants and to assert the inherent value of seeking equity in society. Knowing that some cuts target programs aimed at guaranteeing equality for all, we demand that funding for such programs be reinstated and that the contribution of the not-for-profit sector in policy improvement be recognized.
Through our daily work with people seeking justice, we know how important it is that the Canadian government strive to make real the guarantee of equality for all people in Canada. As many studies show, Canadian society is not free of discrimination based on gender, racialization, class, sexual orientation, language, disabilities, etc. Programs directed at the least privileged in our society offer essential support to communities seeking equity. If such programs are cut, how does the federal government intend to tackle the equity challenges that people face from coast to coast?
The government of Canada has made substantial commitments through the Voluntary Sector Initiative (VSI) Accord and Codes of Good Practice. These texts, which recognize the voluntary sector for its unique connection to communities, enshrine a set of principles and values that should guide the collaboration between the government and the not-for-profit sector in policy-making, such as active citizenship, equality, diversity, inclusion and social justice.
Among its principles, the Accord affirms independence, which includes the right of voluntary sector organizations to challenge public policies, programs and legislation and to advocate for change. Another principle asserted is dialogue, which should be carried out in a way that builds and maintains trust. Hence we are deeply concerned that the voluntary sector was excluded from discussions leading to the decision to cut programs and that the government has withdrawn funding for programs that support efforts to change policy.
Canada is a country committed to human rights and democracy. The right to equality is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To be made real, such commitments and rights need to be backed up with appropriate means. The current government has identified as a priority making political institutions and the political process more accountable and more democratic. We therefore urge the government to reconsider the cuts that will affect people and groups such as refugees and immigrants who continue to suffer from discrimination. We expect that the Canadian voluntary sector will be included in present and future policy-making processes in accordance with the VSI commitments.
Federal cuts affecting refugees and immigrants
The federal government announced on September 25 a total of $2 billion in cuts affecting many programs over the next two years. Jim Flaherty, Minister of Finance and John Baird, President of the Treasury Board, made the announcement at the same time that they reported a $13.2 billion surplus for the last fiscal year. To justify the cuts, the government stated that it had “eliminated wasteful and ineffective programs, reduced government spending and paid down the national debt.” John Baird declared: “We are trimming the fat and refocusing spending on the priorities of Canadians”.
These federal cuts will affect refugees and immigrants, as well as other members of minority or disadvantaged groups, in particular ways. Even though cuts do not direct target refugee and immigrant services, some will have an impact on the defence of their rights. The government announced a $55 million cut to Youth programs, a $5 million cut to the Court Challenges Program (meaning the elimination of the Program), a $5 million cut to the Status of Women administrative budget and a $4.2-million to the Law Commission of Canada (meaning the closure of the Commission).
Status of Women
Status of Women (SWC) is being cut $5 million over 2 years from its annual budget of $13 million. Although the grants and contributions arm ($11 million) of the department was not affected, there is serious concern about the reduced operational capacity the department will have given the administrative cuts. A change to the mandate of SWC has also been announced: SWC will no longer fund groups for advocacy or general research. The word “equality” has also been removed from the mandate of the Women’s Program.
SWC has previously helped women’s organizations participate in the public policy process, aided capacity building for women of colour and also facilitated efforts to increase public understanding of women’s equality issues. These initiatives have supported immigrant and refugee women’s participation in Canadian society. (The CCR’s Gender-Based Approach to Settlement received funding through the Women’s Program). This type of support will no longer be available from the federal government.
In a meeting with women’s organization on 4 October, Beverley Oda, Minister responsible for SWC, told the representatives that new financing guidelines will from now on bar them from using federal grants for lobbying or advocacy activities. She also reaffirmed the government’s intention to maintain the $5 million cuts, despite the protests.
The Court Challenges Program
The Court Challenges Program provides support for legal challenges based on the equality guarantees of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by vulnerable persons such as refugees, people with disabilities, women, religious minorities and gays and lesbians. (The Program also supports tests cases for language rights.) The Charter guarantees the right to equality and to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination. However, in order to enforce this right, individuals and groups need to have the financial means to access the courts. Groups suffering discrimination are necessarily the least privileged and therefore the least likely to have the money necessary to take a case to court. Without access to the Court Challenges Program, only people with the financial means will be able to challenge discriminatory laws and practices.
In May 2006 the government used the Court Challenges Program as an example of Canada’s commitment to human rights before a UN Committee in Geneva and defended it in these words:
It is not possible for the government to support all court challenges, but this uniquely Canadian program has been successful in supporting a number of important court cases that have had direct impacts on the implementation of linguistic and equality rights in Canada. A recent evaluation found that there remain dimensions of the constitutional provisions currently covered by the CCP that still require clarification and the current program was extended to March 2009.
The abolition of the Court Challenges Program will deprive vulnerable refugees like Suleyman Goven of a recourse when they face discrimination. Thanks to support from the Court Challenges Program, Suleyman Goven has recently been able to contest a thirteen-year delay in granting him permanent residence. Mr Goven was recognized by Canada as a refugee in 1993 but the government refused to give him permanent residence. In November 2005, Mr Goven filed a lawsuit arguing that the government was violating his Charter right to equality. This apparently led to him finally receiving permanent residence in September 2006, allowing him to get on with his life after thirteen years on hold. He will continue the lawsuit in order to seek compensation for the damage done and systemic changes so that others don’t go through what Mr Goven has suffered.
The Somali community also obtained funding from the Court Challenges Program in order to contest the discriminatory impact of immigration legislation requiring refugees to produce “satisfactory” identity documents in order to receive permanent residence status. This provision particularly affected Somalis and Afghans, because of the lack of functioning governments in their countries of origin. The legal challenge was successful in achieving a solution for Somalis, Afghans and others in a similar situation.
Law Commission of Canada
The funding for the Law Commission of Canada was eliminated, representing an amount of $4,2 million. Created in 1997, the Law Commission is an independent federal law reform agency that advises Parliament on how to improve and modernize Canada’s laws.
The mission of the Law Commission is to engage Canadians in the renewal of the law to ensure that it is relevant, responsive, effective, equally accessible to all and just. It approaches law reform in a multidisciplinary and participatory way that takes into account the complexity of social issues. In its 9 years of existence, it has conducted research and produced a number of important reports, and has become a model of best practices for many law reform bodies around the world. Without the Law Commission of Canada, the federal government will be less equipped to ensure that Canada’s laws and legal system remain relevant and reflect the changes in our society.
Canadian Volunteerism Initiative
The federal government also eliminated support for the Canadian Volunteerism Initiative. This program is intended to facilitate networking and exchanges of knowledge and to support the voluntary infrastructure across Canada. The $9.7 million cut, justified as a “non-core program”, will affect many voluntary sector organizations. It will also have a direct impact on the involvement of the 12 million Canadians who provide 2 billion hours of volunteer work annually. The government itself relies on volunteers for program and service delivery. The cuts were made without consulting the sector, so it is not known how the government intends to support volunteerism in the future.
Investments for Youth Employment
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada’s funding includes programs under Workplace Skills Strategy as well as the Summer Career Placement program. The former had a great potential for supporting and enhancing the integration of immigrant employees and their contribution to their work environment. The latter has allowed settlement agencies for years to employ racialized immigrant youth over the summer, thus enabling them to acquire skills and experience for their future careers. The budget cuts amount to 50% of funds for this program. The government has said that it won’t reduce the number of jobs available, so the concern is that agencies will have to contribute a larger amount, thereby perhaps excluded many voluntary sector organizations.
For more information:
Official news release on the federal budget cuts
Department of Finance Canada
Conservative budget cuts: an assault on Canada's levers for social justice”
Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) media release on the cuts:
Why the Conservatives are cutting spending now”
Editorial by Ellen Russell, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, on the cuts generally and what to except in the future
Open letter from the Muttart Foundation, a private foundation which supports charities in Canada, primarily in Alberta and Saskatchewan, on the effect of the cuts on voluntary non-profit organizations
About the Court Challenges Program
“Government Cuts Will Hurt Refugees and Immigrants”
CCR media release on the Court Challenges Program
Web site of the Coalition Save the Court Challenges Program of Canada
“Reinstate Court Challenges Program with Full Funding”
Canadian Bar Association News release on the Court Challenges Program
About the Law Commission of Canada
Open Letter to Minister of Justice about the Law Commission of Canada, published in The Toronto Star on Friday 29 September 2006 http://osgoode.yorku.ca/media2.nsf/83303ffe5af03ed585256ae6005379c9/06275972c706a97c852571f80059811b!OpenDocument
Law Commission of Canada Responds to the Federal Government’s Decision to Eliminate Funding”
News release from the Law Commission of Canada
About Status of Women Canada
“Government real priorities revealed”
Media Statement on Status of Women Canada signed by 9 organizations”
About Canadian Volunteerism Initiative
“October 2006: Federal cuts hit voluntary sector”
Message Volunteer Canada on the Canadian Volunteerism Initiative