Faith groups applaud changes to controversial Canada Summer Jobs attestation

OTTAWA – Faith groups are happy the federal government has dropped the so-called “values test” for Canada Summer Jobs funding, but many remain concerned the values test is now hidden “behind closed doors.”

“We’re glad to see that the government realized last year’s changes to the Canada Summer Jobs program violated the fundamental human rights of freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of speech, even though this realization comes a year late and after causing real harm to approximately 1,500 organizations and many more young people,” said Ray Pennings, co-founder and executive vice president of faith-based think tank Cardus. “There is still the potential for problems, however, with the new eligibility criteria. They apply an internal values test on applicants using opaque wording subject to interpretation by the government of the day behind closed doors.”

The new rules, released Dec. 7, remove the problematic attestation requiring the applicant to support charter and other rights, including abortion, and replace it with a shorter attestation that says: “Any funding under the Canada Summer Jobs program will not be used to undermine or restrict the exercise of rights legally protected in Canada.”

They also list projects and activities that are ineligible for funding, including those that “actively work to undermine or restrict a woman’s access to sexual and reproductive health services.”

“Obviously, we need to see the full Applicant’s Guide and Articles of Agreement before knowing exactly what this means, but clearly this is an admission by the government that last year’s compulsory attestation was offside and undemocratic,” said Albertos Polizogopoulos, a constitutional lawyer who is representing five small businesses in separate lawsuits against the Employment Minister concerning the CSJ attestation.

The full applicant guide is not expected until the launch of the 2019 CSJ program on Dec. 17. Polizogopoulos had no comment on what may happen to the lawsuits filed in federal court.

Carol Crosson, who represents Toronto Right to Life, the first organization to sue the federal government over the attestation, also indicated she will release information at a future date on the status of their lawsuit.

 “My client welcomes the decision of the government to rescind its unconstitutional attestation,” Crosson said in an e-mail. “This is a victory for the rule of law and for all Canadians. It is a victory for all those who stood against the government’s unconstitutional incursion into the beliefs and opinions of Canadians.

“When the freedom of speech of one Canadian is infringed, all Canadians lose. Government has no place punishing Canadians for their viewpoints,” she said.  

Toronto Right to Life, however, under the new guidelines would be ineligible.

“It is a continued suppression of viewpoints not shared by the government, for which funding will continue to be denied,” said Phil Horgan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League and a constitutional lawyer. “It is effectively establishing a ‘bubble zone’ to prevent funding to organizations who do not share the federal government’s unfettered pro-abortion position.”

“The changes announced for the 2019 program have acknowledged many of the concerns expressed by thousands of Canadians this past year,” said Neil MacCarthy, communications director of the Archdiocese of Toronto. “It is most unfortunate we were in this position to begin with, as many groups were denied funding this past year and had to rely on local fundraising campaigns, changes to programming or eliminating student jobs altogether.”

“We anticipate that groups within the Archdiocese of Toronto will be able to move forward with applying for the grant in 2019,” said MacCarthy. “We remain concerned regarding the definition of ‘restrict or undermine’ especially as it relates to job activity.”

“This will be open to a wide range of interpretation,” he said. “What is the criteria being used by the government? In 2019, we suspect it won’t be a conversation about the attestation but, rather, who will actually be approved or denied funding.”

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, welcomed the move, though with the same caveat about vague language.

“We believe these changes will allow Canadian churches and faith-based organizations to apply and be eligible for funding under this program,” said the EFC’s director of public policy Julia Beazley. “The new wording should also mean that pro-life organizations are not excluded simply because they are pro-life.”

The Toronto archdiocese, the EFC and other faith groups were involved in consultations with the federal government that led to the changes. MacCarthy pointed out close to 5,000 letters from the Toronto Archdiocese alone went out to MPs concerning the program.

Barry Bussey, director of legal affairs for the Canadian Council of Christian Charities (CCCC) also raised concerns about the concept of “undermine and restrict.”

“I don’t know of any organization that is trying to restrict anyone’s rights,” he said. He pointed out the government seems to indicate that if you express a view contrary to their position on abortion rights you are somehow restricting someone else’s rights.  “If someone expressed a view on the matter, it’s not a matter of restricting, it’s a matter of freedom of expression,” he said.

Bussey also raises flags about language in the government’s requirements regarding not funding activities that “advocate intolerance, discrimination or prejudice.”

“Many people accuse the Christian community of being intolerant and discriminatory,” concerning Christian moral positions, Bussey said. “But they are entitled to express those views.”

“I think it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s obviously not too far,” said Marie-Claire Bissonnette, youth coordinator for Campaign Life Coalition, an organization that would also be denied summer jobs grants funding under the new policy. “It’s remaining a method in which the government imposes its ideological agenda on Canadians.”  

“There’s a possibility they will continue imposing their ideological agenda by taking away government aid to organizations they don’t agree with,” Bissonnette said. “The recent incident with Canada Summer Jobs should be seen as a warning.”

However, Right Now co-founder Alissa Golob thinks the government has made the problem worse. “Now the government is going one step further by saying that if you’re personally pro-life as an organization or institution, that’s fine, as long as you shut up about it,” she said. “But if you act on those beliefs, you’re not even eligible to apply. They’re purchasing silence from those they don’t agree with.”

“There’s a fine line between forced speech and prohibiting free speech, and Justin Trudeau likes to skip rope over it,” Golob said.

“It’s concerning because we do as Canadians have the right to speak out against things we disagree with,” said Bissonnette. “The government is falsely proposing abortion is a right, and it’s not.”

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