It was Valentine’s Day when an Alberta church was told its application for Canada Summer Jobs program funding wasn’t complete. The “I attest” box on the application had to be checked and the document signed, North Pointe community church was told.
Except it was.
What happened to the Edmonton-area church is a result of what critics say is the government’s hard line on its insistence that groups must attest to respect for reproductive rights, including abortion, to be eligible for funding through the popular program.
Applicants who express concern about the policy change are deemed not to have met the new requirement — even if they’ve checked all the right boxes and signed all the right forms.
As a result, many faith-based groups are in limbo as they await the outcome of their applications for funding that were approved in previous years.
“Anyone who raises objections to the attestation in the context of their application is having their application deemed incomplete, which suggests that it’s not about actions, it’s also about the values of the group,” said Conservative MP Garnett Genuis, who has held town halls in Atlantic Canada this past week on the issue.
The Liberals added stipulations this year that jobs being funded, as well as groups’ core mandates, must respect reproductive rights. The government said it did so in response to concerns officials heard that funding through the popular jobs program paid for students to protest outside abortion clinics or have students create and distribute graphic anti-abortion pamphlets.
Labour Minister Patty Hajdu has also said she heard complaints about funds going to summer camps that refuse to hire LGBTQ staff.
“It’s one thing if they want you to say you’ll obey the law. That seems like a no-brainer and we had no objection to any of that kind of stuff. We’re not interested in infringing on other people’s freedoms. That’s not who we are,” said Pastor Bob Davies from Kanata Baptist Church outside Ottawa.
“The question really was, do we make some positive attestation that sounds like we mean things we don’t mean?”
As a result, many faith-based groups have crossed out the wording on the form they found problematic, or didn’t check the box confirming their agreement to the stipulations. Program officials have deemed these applications as incomplete.
North Pointe church provided a cover letter on its application saying it would uphold Canadian law, including human rights law, but questioned the additional wording in the declaration and asked the government to accept the application with the words in the letter substituting for the wording in the application.
The church checked the “I attest” box, signed the application and didn’t make any changes to the application based on recommendations from the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.
On Feb. 14, Service Canada wrote back saying the declaration “cannot be altered or modified” and that the “I attest” box needed to be checked and the application signed. North Pointe, like other groups, was given 10 days to resubmit.
A spokesman for Employment and Social Development Canada, which oversees the program, said any applications with an unsigned or revised declaration, or any groups that “wrote to the department expressing concern with the new eligibility requirement” were deemed to have incomplete applications.
North Point’s lead pastor said his church isn’t in the public eye as a crusader against abortion, which is why the church’s commentary with the application didn’t want to imply its mandate was anything more than “sharing Jesus.”
“There are Christian Organizations that are having a voice for the unborn,” Pastor Bob Jones said, adding that had the declaration affected only those groups, “it probably would have gone under my radar.”
“The fact that it was all-inclusive, I think, caught a lot of people as this seems like … hunting a mosquito with a shotgun. It just hit everybody.”
MPs return to Parliament on Monday after a two-week break. And one of their first orders of business will be a vote on a Conservative motion that says organizations involved “in non-political, non-activist work” should be eligible for money through the jobs program, regardless of their beliefs or whether they put a checkmark on the declaration.
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada said in a statement posted online that the Tories are acting in “bad faith” to undermine the declaration by putting a false spin on the new requirements. The group blamed the Conservatives for turning the issue into “a political weapon against the Liberals at the expense of students hoping to obtain summer jobs.”