Under the Canada Summer Jobs program, Members of Parliament fund summer student hires for select small businesses, non-profits, and public-sector organizations. While that may seem innocuous enough, the program has been at the centre of a heated controversy this year. Following reports published by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada detailing how MPs were using the program to fund anti-abortion groups, the Liberal government took action.
This summer, in order to receive funding for job grants, organizations had to sign an attestation expressing that their core mandate respects reproductive and LGBTQ rights. The attestation specifically includes “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 outrage that followed was as intense as it was predictable. The Toronto Right to Life Association launched a Federal Court challenge contending that their freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and right to equality had been violated. One CBC opinion piece went as far as to draw a parallel between the attestation requirement and persecuted Christians from a thousand years ago who were forced to dedicate a sacrifice to the Roman emperor.
The new rules have also prompted protests from religious groups who say that their religious beliefs are inseparable from their “core mandate.” Even Joyce Arthur, Executive Director for the Abortion Rights Coalition, has expressed concern over the wide net cast by the attestation. She has requested that the government clarify the wording to something more palatable to religious groups.
Conversely, eighty pro-choice and human rights groups co-signed an open letter to Canadian political leaders expressing their support for the new rules. The letter states that, counter to widely circulated misinformation, “the safeguards introduced […] are not discriminatory, and do not represent any infringement on freedom of religion, conscience, or any other rights that people in Canada enjoy.” They simply prevent the use of government funds to undermine human rights, and the legally recognized right to safe abortion, the letter continues.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government have stood pat. They have, however, somewhat clarified their position, with Trudeau saying that the rules are only targeting “organizations with the explicit purpose of limiting and eliminating Charter rights like women’s rights.” He further stated that the government will work with any faith-based groups to make sure their concerns are addressed.
That is not enough. A statement of intent to address concerns is not an appropriate substitute for genuinely addressing those concerns.
The Prime Minister is right. The government should not fund organizations that engage in anti-abortion activities. Access to abortion is a human rights issue. Organizations that protest abortion are discriminatory and damaging in the misinformation they spread about health and safety. However, the wording of the attestation is unnecessarily broad. A clarification from the federal government on what the attestation should actually be taken to mean is little comfort to a faith-based group that believes signing it would betray their religious principles.
It is the government’s role to protect the rights and health of its citizens. Trudeau and the Liberal government should be lauded for withholding funding from groups that actively undermine reproductive rights. But, in refusing to reword the attestation to be more inclusive to faith-based groups, they undermine their own efforts. An admirable action has now become far more complicated and politically polarizing than it has to be.
The Liberal government can still uphold its moral values without requiring faith-based groups to violate theirs to be included. A little flexibility here would go a long way.