How the Canada Summer Jobs program became a freedom-of-religion controversy

.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

 

The Canada Summer Jobs program is usually one of the best parts of an MP’s job: they get to proudly go around their riding announcing grants to small businesses, non-profits and public sector organizations that subsidize the wages of summer students.

But this year the program has sparked a huge controversy over whether the government is violating religious freedom by requiring all applicants to sign an “attestation” that includes respect for reproductive rights — in other words, access to abortions.

The government is refusing to back down in the face of a growing outcry from religious groups, and a court challenge has already been launched by an anti-abortion group.

Here’s how this all started, and where things go from here.

Why did the government add an attestation?

Last year, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada published reports that showed how federal funding was going to anti-abortion groups. It specifically highlighted Canada Summer Jobs grants as a source of such funding.

The story was picked up by iPolitics in April 2017 and, in response, Employment Minister Patty Hajdu’s office put out a statement that said: “Any funding provided to an organization that works to limit women’s reproductive rights last summer was an oversight … That’s why this year we fixed the issue and no such organizations will receive funding from any constituencies represented by Liberal MPs.”

Anti-abortion protesters take part in Life Chain Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017 on Great Northern Road in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
MPs get the final say on who gets Canada Summer Jobs grants in their riding, which is why the government could only promise it for Liberal-held ridings last year. After a review of the program’s eligibility requirements, this year the government added an attestation that applicants in all ridings must sign.

Meanwhile, three anti-abortion groups who were denied funding last year had filed a Federal Court challenge in May, pointing to Hajdu’s statement as evidence the rules were arbitrarily changed after the applications were submitted. The government settled that case in November, agreeing to pay out the denied grants.

What exactly do applicants need to sign?

The attestation in full says: “Both the job and the organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other rights. These include reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.”

The government says it will not even process an application that does not include the attestation. The online version of the application can’t be submitted unless the box on the attestation is checked off.

There is also an Applicant Guide that further spells out the rationale behind the attestation. “The government recognizes that women’s rights are human rights,” the guide says. “This includes sexual and reproductive rights — and the right to access safe and legal abortions. These rights are at the core of the Government of Canada’s foreign and domestic policies.”

Why is the government telling religious groups they can still sign?

Both Hajdu and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have insisted the attestation does not affect religious groups because of the key phrase “core mandate.” They say a church’s core mandate is not focused on anti-abortion activism, so churches should have no problem signing it.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in La Malbaie, Que., on Jan. 17, 2018.
However, faith-based organizations say it’s wrong to think their religious beliefs are separate from their core mandate. Some groups who don’t have a stance on abortion feel it’s wrong to be forced to take a side by signing the attestation. Others are also opposing the attestation on the principle that it violates the Charter’s right to religious freedom.

It is not just Christian groups who are expressing concerns. Earlier this week, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Jewish and other organizations gathered in Mississauga (at the initiative of a Conservative MP) to discuss the attestation and consider potential next steps in speaking out against it.

Does the attestation violate the Charter right to religious freedom?

There is already a Federal Court challenge to the attestation, launched by the Toronto Right to Life Association. It argues that the attestation violates not only the Charter’s right to freedom of expression and freedom of conscience and religion, but also the right to be treated equally under the law.

The group has filed for a court injunction that would temporarily block the use of the attestation until the case is heard. A hearing on the injunction was held Friday morning, and a decision is expected soon.

Although no group is entitled to receive a discretionary government grant, the government is still required to adhere to the Charter in how it administers programs and funding opportunities.

Constitutional experts have said there are good arguments on both sides. The attestation does seem to violate freedom of expression, but governments are allowed to violate a Charter right if it’s a limited and reasonable violation in pursuit of a justifiable goal.

It is possible a court would rule that the attestation is legal because the government has the goal of protecting women’s health, and doesn’t want funds going to groups who actively work to oppose abortion access. Or it could rule that the attestation is overly broad and thus illegal, as it requires groups to attest to their beliefs about abortion even for summer jobs that have nothing to do with abortion.

So far, no religious groups have joined the Federal Court case or launched their own court challenge, but many have said they are considering taking legal action if a solution can’t be found. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada says the attestation should be rewritten to make it clear churches aren’t included in it. The government, for its part, isn’t budging.

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