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3 min

Feds chop progressive programs

Let's do the time warp again

WILL THE CUTS FLY IN QUEBEC? Stephen Harper was spoofed by Montreal queers during the Conservative Party's spring 2005 policy convention in that city. Credit: Gareth Kirkby

It’s a jump to the right. Major announcements from the feds over the last month have left many skiddish after dozens of progressive were axed or gruesomely amputated.

Queer rights groups concentrated on the Court Challenges Program, one of over 60 programs under the knife after a billion dollar budget announcement Sep 25. Money from the Court Challenges Program helped Egale win equal marriage rights through the courts in BC, Ontario, and Quebec. When government sent questions to the Supreme Court in 2004, Egale was there to help make the legal case that gays and lesbian marriage was a charter issue — with the help of the Court Challenges Program money.

“This will have a devastating effect on our ability to pursue legal cases,” says Gilles Marchildon, executive director of Egale.

The Harper government had also planned to re-address equal marriage in September. After it became clear that plans to repeal equal marriage were on hold, news reports of proposed legislation surfaced on Oct 4. The Globe and Mail report — claiming the Conservative government was drafting legislation aimed at protecting religious homophobia, confirmed by justice minister Vic Toews — had Harper doing damage control less than 24 hours later.

According to the Globe, the Conservatives’ Defence of Religion Act would allow religious groups to refuse services such as space rentals to gays and lesbians, allow justices of the peace to refuse to marry same- sex couples, and protect people who use religion to denounce homos and homosexuality.

Harper disavowed the legislation.

Laurie Arron, executive director of Canadians For Equal Marriage, called the leaked bill “smoke and mirrors legislation.”

Religious groups are already allowed to refuse to rent their spaces to gays and lesbians under existing human rights laws. As for spewing hatred, religious people are already protected from hate propaganda charges if they say such things as ‘all queers must die,’ provided they base their argument on their religious beliefs. Not only that, the legislation would infringe on provincial jurisdictions and not likely survive court challenges.

It’s a “sop to the religious right that once again makes us the scapegoats,” says Arron.

Queers aren’t the only ones under the knife. Targets areas include youth, first nations, have-not provinces, the unemployed, and women’s groups.

Women’s groups were left reeling following the announcement that Status of Women Canada’s budget would be hacked by $4.5 million. Groups like the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) were also effected by the loss of court challenges money.

But the most damaging changes in Status of Women Canada were not announced at a press conference, according to Alison Brewin, executive director of West Coast LEAF. Brewin says that changes in the granting rules mean that advocacy, lobbying, and public policy research are no longer eligible.

“And they’ve taken the word ‘equality’ out of their mandate,” she says.

“It’s terrifying, really.”

Other groups are being frozen out of funding without the cuts even being announced.

Montreal’s Black and Blue Festival received federal dollars as part of its regional economic development program. The weeklong event attracts 10,000 participants and generates millions of dollars in spinoff revenues. But the organization, which was awarded over $47,000 last year for the amount of business it generates, was not told the cash was cut until a week before the event.

“I don’t want to live in a country that’s back in the 1940s and ’50s,” says Caroline Rousse, director of external affairs for the festival. says. “Especially in Quebec,” Harper’s agenda isn’t accepted, she adds.

The arts and culture community also witnessed cuts. After a $4.5 million hit to museum funding as part of the Conservatives’ budget announcement, journalists discovered that another project, the Portrait Gallery of Canada, had been left out of future federal budgets entirely.

Canadian museums are bolstered by 500,000 card-carrying members and 55,000 volunteers nationwide says John McAvity, executive director of the Canadian Museums Association. Mothballing the portrait museum may be a bad idea, but cutting the already meager federal assistance to museums nationwide is worse, he says.

Egale’s Marchildon points out that the Harper Conservatives are developing a track record of “rolling back the clock” on social issues. Together with Harper’s ongoing commitment to revisit the same-sex marriage debate, a bleak picture begins to emerge.

“You can connect the dots,” Marchildon says.

Groups effected by the cuts are already starting to do just that. Over 180 organizations have endorsed savecourtchallenges.ca, a site started by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. Egale and Canadians for Equal Marriage joined organizations that combat racism, sexism, and poverty in supporting the initiative. Mainstream organizations like the Canadian Auto Workers Union, the Canadian Federation of Students, and the Canadian Bar Association have pledged their support.

That may not even represent the full list of potential allies. With adult literacy programs facing a $17.7 million cut, The Saskatchewan Literacy Network has already handed out layoff notices, since the federal program represented 85 percent of their funding. Debbie Griffith and the Saskatchewan Literacy Network were not consulted — not even notified — before the cuts were made, leaving her and other literacy advocates scrambling after the public announcements.

Some groups may now be working more closely with other not-for-profit and community groups. These ties are important, and will be “strengthened” as organizations like Literacy BC deal with the cuts, according to Jean Rasmussen, that organization’s director of community development and training.