OTTAWA — The Liberal government has clarified how its new policy on reproductive rights will apply to organizations seeking youth summer job funding — but it's standing firm on its decision to deny grants to groups advocating against abortion.
"It's not about beliefs or values,'' Employment Minister Patty Hajdu said Tuesday in Toronto.
Employment and Social Development Canada, which oversees the Canada Summer Jobs program that created nearly 69,000 temporary jobs last year, added a section on its website Tuesday further explaining the language — and the intended goal — of the controversial new requirement.
The Liberals have said that faith-based organizations are welcome to apply, but they and all other applicants must attest to their respect for sexual and reproductive rights — including "the right to access safe and legal abortions'' — as well as other human rights in order to be considered.
That stipulation, as outlined in the application guidelines, concerns both the job activity and the core mandate of the organization.
Many churches and other religious groups have said that forces them to choose between their spiritual values and funding that helps run programs that have nothing to do with abortion, treading upon fundamental freedoms of conscience, religion and thought guaranteed by the charter.
Even Liberal MP Scott Simms had spoken out against the requirement, telling CBC Radio on Monday that groups were being asked "to do something that they shouldn't be asked to do for the sake of a summer job for kids.''
The change to the website is meant to address those concerns.
The core mandate, the website says, refers to "the primary activities undertaken by the organization that reflect the organization's ongoing services provided to the community,'' and not its beliefs or values.
The website then also provides some hypothetical examples of what would — and would not — be eligible for funding.
What would get a green light?
"A faith-based organization that embraces a traditional definition of marriage but whose primary activities reduce social isolation among seniors applies for funding to hire students,'' the website said, noting the programs the student employees developed would be available to all seniors, no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
A summer camp that does not allow LGBTQ youth, however, would not be eligible for funding to hire students as camp counsellors.
Julia Beazley, director of public policy at the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, said she welcomed the explanation and thinks it could help some groups figure out whether they should go ahead and submit their applications.
As faith-based organizations, we are defined by our beliefs, by core values, by missions.Julia Beazley
Still, she said discomfort remains with the government being the one to define those terms.
"As faith-based organizations, we are defined by our beliefs, by core values, by missions,'' she said, "so, while a core mandate may delineate activities, it flows out of those beliefs and values and identities.''
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement Tuesday saying they remain unsatisfied.
"The attestation and examples still amount to the government's coercion on matters of conscience and religious belief,'' spokesman Rene Laprise said in an email. "They foreclose the possibility of wide-ranging views and even healthy disagreement. The attestation remains unacceptable.''
Government prepared for legal challenges
Hajdu said the Liberal government is nonetheless prepared to defend its decision against legal challenges.
She said the government made the changes after receiving complaints last year that summer job funding had been given to groups that distribute graphic anti-abortion pamphlets and summer jobs that refuse to hire LGBTQ staff.
"We took those complaints seriously and this is the decision that we've taken, that in order for organizations to receive funding they have to affirm that they will not work to undermine the rights of Canadians,'' said Hajdu.
Andrew Bennett, the law program director at Cardus, a public policy think thank, noted that distributing graphic anti-abortion pamphlets, however "distasteful'' many people might find them to be, is not against the law.
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"People are going to disagree vehemently on issues, but that's what it means to live in a democracy,'' said Bennett, a Christian theologian who previously served as the federal ambassador for religious freedoms.
"The government has a particular responsibility to ensure those fundamental freedoms are guaranteed and protected,'' he said.
Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said she was glad to see the Liberals clarify the wording.
Her national political advocacy organization, which had urged the Liberals to bar funding to groups advocating against abortion rights, had been concerned the vague language was at the heart of the backlash.
"I think that if a group still feels that they cannot sign the attestation even with these clarifications, well, I guess they are ineligible for funding,'' said Arthur.
With files from Peter Goffin