OTTAWA — It will take between five and seven more years and several million dollars to fully wind down a program — scrapped by the Conservatives nearly nine years ago — that helped finance lawsuits from those seeking to defend their Charter rights.
That’s because a small number of such cases are still working their way through the courts, according to a recently released document.
Officials at the Department of Canadian Heritage — which has been footing the bill for the program during its protracted windup — say the five-to-seven-year window is just a guess, since the remaining cases could drag on even longer.
“Since it is dependent on the progress of the cases in the court system, it is not possible to predict with certainty the time required,” says an August 2014 briefing note to Heritage Minister Shelly Glover.
The Canadian Press obtained the document under the Access to Information Act.
The Conservative government announced in September 2006 that it was eliminating the court challenges program, which helped pay for court cases that mostly dealt with equality and language rights.
The origins of the program date back to 1978. Former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government scrapped the program in 1992, but it was re-established two years later by the Chretien Liberals.
Close to 400 cases had already been approved and were at various stages of the court system when the Conservatives cancelled the program. The government promised to fund those remaining cases until their last stage of appeal.
The number of open cases had dropped to 36 by last spring, according to the briefing note.
Canadian Heritage officials told Glover that the current five-year, $5-million funding agreement runs out at the end of this month.
“To continue the wind-down of the (court challenges program) under the current terms and conditions, there will need to be a contribution agreement in place by March 31, 2015,” says the note.
“Currently, approximately $1 million has been committed by the (court challenges program) for ongoing cases and it is anticipated that up to an additional $3.5 million may be required to fund the remaining cases which are at various stages, until they are completed.”
The department is refusing to say if a new contribution agreement is in place, or if the current one will be extended.
The Canadian Press first inquired about the status of the contribution agreement on Tuesday. That afternoon, the department provided a one-line statement that did not answer questions about the agreement.
“The government of Canada continues to honour the commitments that we made under the court challenges program,” said the unsigned email.
Asked if that meant a new contribution agreement was in place, or if the current one is being extended, department spokesman Charles Cardinal responded by simply repeating the statement.
Canadian Heritage has not responded to follow-up questions about why it won’t discuss the agreement.
The department has permanent funding of $1.4 million for the wind-down of the court challenges program. The recent main estimates document shows the department plans to spend that same amount in 2015-16.
But if the briefing note is to be believed, it might not be enough.
“While this can cover the costs associated with funding the (court challenges program) under normal circumstances, there is a low risk that multiple cases would progress through the court system simultaneously,” the document says.
“If this were to happen, more funds would be needed to be disbursed within one fiscal year, which could create a financial pressure on the department.”