Government maintains ideological litmus test for Summer Jobs program

Trudeau suggests pro-lifers out of step with society
Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau

In December, the federal government announced changes to the Canada Summer Jobs program which now requires employers to sign an attestation of support for what the application process called Charter rights and underlying values, including reproductive and LGBQT rights. In January, the Trudeau government faced a backlash from religious groups and columnists who decried the violation of conscience rights required to qualify for the federal subsidy to employ students for summer jobs. The government responded after nearly two weeks of criticism claiming the change was never meant to prevent faith groups and others from obtaining subsidies but rather was designed to stop organizations with a “core mandate” opposed to abortion or LGBQT rights from receiving funding – that is groups that lobby to create legislation to prevent women from obtaining abortions.

Each year, Employment and Social Development Canada hands out $120 million to companies, non-profits, and charities to help defray the costs of hiring approximately 70,000 high school and university students. The rationale for the program is that the work provides young Canadians with the opportunity to obtain some work experience. Local MPs, who okay requests, also promote certain local goals, such as a focus on certain sectors or skills.

Last year, Trudeau announced that Liberal MPs would not dole out money to pro-life groups after pro-abortion groups complained. The government settled with the Canadian Center for Bioethical Reform, Guelph Right to Life, and Toronto Right to Life in November for breaching the Charter in denying them funding. The government admitted the groups were “denied funding on the basis of a criteria neither set out in the Applicant’s Guide nor included in the MP’s list of local priorities for 2017.”

To avoid similar lawsuits, the government changed the program to include requirements that all recipients attest to support for Charter rights and “values underlying the Charter.” The Canada Summer Jobs website stated all “applicants will be required to attest that both the job and the organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” including “reproductive rights and the right to be free of discrimination on the basis of … sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.” Applicants could not continue filling out the online forms without checking the attestation and the program overview made it clear that paper applications would not be considered unless the box was checked.

Numerous religious organizations said they would submit a paper application and not check the attestation, but attach a separate piece of paper explaining their position. Numerous church groups that run summer camps, daycare, youth drop-in centers, and other programs indicated they could not in good conscience sign the attestation. Some Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs who owned businesses said they could not check the attestation without violating their consciences.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer criticized Trudeau for “imposing” his view on religious groups. Scheer told the Mississauga Board of Trade when asked about the controversy, “the federal government should respect the freedoms that Canadians enjoy to have different beliefs and that by imposing personal values Justin Trudeau on a wide variety of groups is not an appropriate way to go.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and the Canadian Council of Christian Charities were leaders in condemning the new policy. They noted that Trudeau was imposing his views on recipients of government programs, that freedom of speech and freedom of conscience are Charter rights, and that abortion is not specified in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast wrote in the Ottawa Sun that, “this attestation excludes any Catholic parish or charity from funding for hiring a summer student.” He explained why: “We cannot affirm that we support a (non-existent) right to abortion, which is what the euphemism ‘reproductive rights’ means.”

The EFC said, “this policy change would mean that to be eligible for the grant, organizations will have to attest that their core mandate affirms the government’s view on a list of issues, including the government’s position on abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.” It explained this violates Section 2 of the Charter which protects the religious freedoms of Canadians.

Amid the criticism, the government remained steadfast that they were correct. Employment Minister Patty Hajdu said “we think this is a fair process.” Trudeau said, “an organization that has the explicit purpose of restricting women’s rights by removing the right to abortion is not in line with where we are as a government, quite frankly we are as a society.”

After initially standing by the policy, the government seemed tp tweak their requirement. Hajdu explained, “there is a difference between an applicant’s beliefs and an applicant’s core mandate for the job funding.” She said “the fact that an organization is affiliated with a religion … does not itself constitute ineligility for this program.” She would later tell CTV’s Don Martin that if a company or organization’s core mandate is unrelated to abortion or LGBQT issues, they should have no problem signing the attestation of beliefs.

Stephen Wile, CEO of the Alberta-based Christian aid organization The Mustard Seed, told the Calgary Herald that his organization, which hired 17 students in the province last year to work helping those struggling with homelessness and addiction, will not sign the attestation. “The Mustard Seed doesn’t take a position on abortion, but with the government making this a requirement for funding, it’s trying to force us from a neutral position to an affirmative position on abortion, and we’re not prepared to do that.”

In a Hamilton, Ont., townhall meeting Trudeau called the pushback against the policy a “kerfuffle.” He then explained the rational for the policy: “Of course, you’re more than allowed to whatever beliefs you like, but when those beliefs lead to actions determined to restrict a woman’s right to control her own body, that’s where I, and I think we, draw the line as a country.” He also said people who advocate for a change in abortion law, “are not in line with where are as a government, and quite frankly, not in line with society.”

CLC national president Jim Hughes told The Interim that “Trudeau seems to believe it is fine to hold a belief as long as one doesn’t act on it, but freedom of speech and freedom of conscience are meaningless unless one lives them in the public square.”

Campaign Life Coalition has received Canada Summer Jobs program funding for students in past years. CLC is applying again this year but is attaching an explanation that pro-life work is human rights work.

Toronto Right to Life is taking the government to court over the policy. In a statement, TRTL said that they are asking for a judicial review in Federal Court that the attestation “be declared an unconstitutional violation of our freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and equality rights.” TRTL explained: “We are forced to take legal action again because the federal government has again attempted to discriminate against Toronto Right to Life and other pro-life organizations,” and “all employers across Canada who hold personal pro-life beliefs.” It added “pro-life Canadians cannot afford to let this discrimination go unanswered.”

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