The Canada Summer Jobs kerfuffle: Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

Employment Minister Patty Hajdu. Photo: VAC | ACC/flickr

Should taxpayers fund summer jobs for youth where they will be trained to challenge and oppose the Charter rights of others? Of course not, but it's been going on under our noses for years. Anti-choice groups have been milking the Canada Summer Jobs fund to the tune of $1.7 million since 2010.

The story began in April 2017, when the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) reported that many anti-choice groups had been getting Canada Summer Jobs funding for years -- primarily "crisis pregnancy centres" that dissuade women from abortion, but also some political groups, including Campaign Life Coalition, LifeSiteNews, and Canadian Centre for Bio-ethical Reform (CCBR). The latter group is infamous for its public display of gory signs showing alleged aborted fetuses and delivering similar graphic flyers to residences.

Last year, Liberal MP Iqra Khalid (Mississauga-Erin Mills) approved a $56,695 summer jobs grant to the CCBR, which it used to train interns on how to shock and offend Canadians with its extreme anti-choice propaganda. (MPs set local priorities and allocate Canada Summer Jobs funding to groups in their ridings, while the federal government approves or rejects the applications based on various other criteria.)

New attestation requirement

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Employment Minister Patty Hajdu acted quickly, announcing that Liberal ridings would no longer award Canada Summer Jobs (CSJ) funding to anti-choice groups, and that the government would look at ways to permanently change the program to prevent any MP from allocating public funds to anti-choice groups. In December, an attestation requirement was announced, asking applicants to tick a box to be eligible for funding.

Groups must attest that their "core mandate" and the job itself will respect human rights for the purposes of the summer job program, including "the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other rights," which include reproductive rights, LGBTQ2 rights, and equality rights generally.

It's a reasonable and constitutionally defensible requirement, especially since Canada Summer Jobs grants are discretionary, not an entitlement program, and the government is free to apply criteria in the same way they do for other granting programs (such as by Status of Women Canada). The attestation enjoys broad support from progressive society, including Egale Canada, which advocates for the rights of sexual minorities. Egale and 90 other civil society groups (so far) have signed an open letter to federal party leaders supporting the changes.

But much confusion arose, particularly among religious groups and churches -- who it turns out also get a ton of funding from the Canada Summer Jobs program. They mistakenly believed they were required to support and agree with reproductive rights and LGBTQ2 rights before they could receive funding. That's not what the attestation requirement means, but because the wording was ambiguous, Minister Hajdu clarified it on January 23, explaining that eligibility depended on a group's activities, not beliefs.

A key point, according to ARCC's previously published interpretation of the attestation requirement, is that to "respect" Charter rights means that employers agree to not use Summer Jobs funding for activities that will actively undermine or oppose any of the listed rights they may disagree with. Further, "core mandate" means the group's primary activity, not belief or value. This makes most anti-abortion groups ineligible, but not churches or religious groups with a more general mandate, even if they are against abortion.

As Daphne Gilbert, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa, explains:

"All the attestation demands is that the applicants not hire students for the summer whose only function will be to work on projects that actively oppose or undermine Charter rights. A faith-based institution that wants to hire students to run faith-based summer day camps or to coordinate programming for a faith-based sponsored refugee family are able to apply for the grants.

"The CSJ grants are not open to organizations whose sole core mission is the defeat of equality rights earned by women, LGBTQ people, or the rights being actively sought now by transgender or gender-questioning Canadians. This is not discrimination on the basis of either religion or expression, for they are still allowed to carry out that anti-equality work. It should shock Canadians that they expect the government or taxpayers to fund it."

But to anti-choice groups, it was as if Canada had suddenly become a fascist country. They were livid that they had lost their "right" to government grants. Accusations thrown around included: "thought/belief control," "ideological coercion," "tyrannical," "loyalty oath," "ideological purity test," "witch hunt," "freedom under threat," "communistic" -- and last but not least: "totalitarianism."

Religious groups also hijacked the issue to complain that their freedom of expression was being violated. Such claims continued even after Minister Hajdu's clarification that the attestation only applies to a group's activities and not beliefs.

If some groups still don't feel comfortable with the attestation after the Minister's clarification, that probably means they shouldn't apply for funding. That doesn't make them victims or martyrs, as some groups have tried to paint themselves. Because what they really want is the "right" to use taxpayer money to discriminate against others under the mantle of "freedom of expression." How ironic to claim that your Charter rights are being violated just by being asked to respect the Charter rights of others.

But that's the basis of a new lawsuit against the federal government by the anti-choice Toronto Right to Life Association. The suit's prospects look dim now that the group has lost its bid for an immediate injunction to stop the attestation requirement. The judge said the group had no evidence it would be harmed by it.

It's not just religious and anti-choice groups fighting back against the attestation requirement. Outraged hyperbole abounded in the mainstream press, almost all of it from male commentators who were silent when former prime minister Stephen Harper cut funding to women's groups.

Debunking claims

Let's refute the main misunderstandings. First, organizations are not being discriminated against. Every potential grantee is being treated equally by being asked to sign the attestation. Also, it's far from certain that groups even have Charter rights -- but if they do, the attestation respects them.

No one's freedom of speech is being violated -- they can say what they want in most contexts, but this doesn't mean they're entitled to taxpayer money to do so. Also, no one is being compelled to sign the attestation, since they don't have to apply for the funding. Lawyer Karen Busby explains:

"As the new eligibility criteria for the Canada Summer Jobs program neither compels nor impedes expression or religious practices, a Charter challenge is bound to fail. The jurisprudence is also clear that the Charter does not require governments to support expressive or religious rights. Governments can, unbound by the Charter, choose the advocacy projects it wishes to support."

Finally, abortion is a Charter right, contrary to the claims of many. The 1988 Supreme Court Morgentaler decision found that the law restricting access to abortion violated women's right to security of the person. Subsequent court decisions have solidified the Charter-based right to abortion, including on the basis of gender equality rights, and rights to life, liberty, and privacy. Therefore, access to abortion is a de facto Charter right because you cannot restrict it without violating Charter rights.

Obviously, the word abortion does not need to actually appear in the Charter itself -- rights are stated broadly and it's the task of judges to interpret whether a specific issue involves a Charter right. Court decisions have often expanded Charter rights, and this associated case law essentially becomes part of Charter law.

All subsequent provincial and federal court cases related to abortion have upheld women's rights and denied fetal rights on the basis that this would infringe women's established Charter rights. The evolution of Charter and abortion-rights jurisprudence means that women and transgender people now have a Charter right to abortion -- a right that is significantly more secure today than it was in 1988.

The last word goes to Sydney King, who writes that the Canada Summer Jobs issue:

"[c]uts to the heart of a much larger debate surrounding reproductive and LGBTQ rights in Canada. For decades, one's right to a safe and legal abortion has been restricted to the sphere of women's rights, separate from broader notions of human rights. The same applies to LGBTQ rights. It was easy in the past for socially conservative groups to exercise their right to free speech, while simultaneously discriminating against LGBTQ people or campaigning against reproductive rights. But, by encompassing women and the LGBTQ community—and their distinctive rights—into the concept of human rights, Trudeau reshapes the conversation."

Joyce Arthur is the founder and Executive Director of Canada's national pro-choice group, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), which protects the legal right to abortion on request and works to improve access to quality abortion services.

Photo: VAC | ACC/flickr

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