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Your Right to Equality


Did You Know That...

  • Until the 1920's, no women in Canada were allowed to vote, and that it wasn't until the 1960's that all Canadian women could vote?
  • Aboriginal children were forced to go to residential schools where they were stripped of their culture and their language?
  • In the 1940's, Japanese Canadians were put in prison camps in Canada just because they were of Japanese ancestry?
  • Until the 1970's, there were laws in Canada that allowed governments to sterilize women and men with disabilities without their knowledge or consent?

All of these groups were denied equality.


What is Equality?

Equality means giving every person equal respect in society. Sometimes, people are treated differently or unfairly because of things like the colour of their skin, their religion or a physical disability. This is called discrimination. Many groups of people through history have suffered discrimination. Equality means that all people are treated fairly, without discrimination.


Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms

In 1985, governments recognized the need to protect equality, and passed Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter is part of the Constitution, Canada's most important law. The Charter sets out the rules by which governments have to operate.

Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says:

Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Section 15 of the Charter requires that our laws treat all people fairly and do not discriminate.

Sometimes, a law that seems to treat everyone exactly the same can still discriminate. Suppose there was a law that gave benefits to men and women equally, except when they were pregnant. We have come to understand that this law would discriminate against women, since only women can get pregnant, and would be the only ones to lose those benefits. This kind of law would violate the Charter.


Achieving Equality

There are many ways to achieve equality. One important way is to educate people about equality so that people understand they should not discriminate. Another way is to put pressure on government to take actions that respect equality for everyone. A third way is to take the government to court to challenge a law that discriminates.

If a court decides that a law discriminates and violates the Charter, it can "strike down" the law. Once a law is struck down, it can no longer be used. The government usually writes a new law that does not discriminate to replace the old one. Challenging a law in court is often the last choice, because going to court is very expensive and takes a long time.

Cases can still be important to promote equality even if they do not win in court. In the Thibaudeau case, for example, a woman challenged the tax law that required her to pay taxes on the child support she received from her children's father. She felt that this was unfair, and took the case to court. The court decided that this law did not violate Section 15. This case still had an important effect because the government is now changing the tax laws to try to make them fairer to all parents.


The Court Challenges Program - Helping to promote equality?

Sometimes, people think that a law or action is not fair, but do not know if their cases are strong enough to go to court. They need to research their cases to see if they have strong equality arguments. They then have to prepare court documents and argue the cases in court.

The Court Challenges Program of Canada can help people get their cases to court. The Program funds court cases challenging laws that may violate equality rights. It also helps people protect their official language rights under the Charter and the Constitution. It is a non-profit organization that is independent from the government.

A person or an organization who cannot afford the costs of a case can apply for financial help from the Court Challenges Program. There are different types of case funding available through the Program.

  • Case Development funding is used to research a case before it goes to court.
  • Case funding is used for the costs of taking it through court.

To get funding from the Program, a case must:

  • test equality rights guaranteed in Section 15 of the Charter;
  • be a "test case". This means that it will improve the way the law works for people who have suffered discrimination; and
  • challenge a federal government law or action


Achieving Equality

Individuals or groups can apply for funding for cases through the Court Challenges Program.

One example where funding was given to individuals and to a group is the Egan case. In the Egan case, a gay couple, Mr. Egan and Mr. Nesbit, challenged a law that gave government benefits to couples of the opposite sex, but refused those benefits to same sex couples. They argued that this law violated Section 15 because it was unfair to gay men and lesbians. The Program's funding helped Mr. Egan and Mr. Nesbit pay the costs of taking the case to court.

The Program also gave funding to a group called EGALE for the Egan case. EGALE (Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere) is a national organization that promotes gay and lesbian rights. Because EGALE represents the interests of many lesbians and gay men across Canada, the court allowed it to present its own argument in the case. EGALE's argument showed that many gay men and lesbians are treated unfairly by this law, not just Mr. Egan and Mr. Nesbit.

The majority of judges in this case decided that the law did not violate the Charter. One of the judges said, however, that as society changes, governments may have to recognize new social relationships. This decision has put pressure on governments to review how our laws treat same sex relationships.


Other Funding

Program Promotion and Access funding is used to help people understand what equality is and what the Court Challenges Program does to promote equality rights.

This funding could be used to pay for organizing meetings for people to talk about particular laws that discriminate, find their common concerns and think about bringing cases to court to challenge those laws.

One example of when these meetings may be helpful is to talk about changes to the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). The government has announced that it is making changes to the Canada Pension Plan (CPP).

Once the changes are made, they could have an unfair effect on many different groups:

  • women ;
  • people with disabilities ;
  • poor people.
  • If, for example, one of the changes lowers disability benefits, this would have an unfair effect on people with disabilities. Program Promotion and Access funding could help people with disabilities meet to talk about those changes


How can I find out more about the Court Challenges Program?

You can contact the Court Challenges Program for more information about the Program itself, about how to apply or about your equality or language rights. You do not need to have a lawyer to apply for funding, and there is no application fee. Contact Us