01/24/2018 16:37 EST | Updated 01/24/2018 18:45 EST

NDP Criticizes Liberals Over Abortion Rules For Canada Summer Jobs Program

The move has angered faith-based groups.

Adrian Wyld/CP
NDP MP Nathan Cullen rises during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Oct.25, 2017.

OTTAWA — The federal NDP is joining the criticism of the Trudeau government's decision to force groups applying for summer-job grants to affirm their respect for a woman's right to have an abortion.

"I can remember Stephen Harper doing something similar at the other end, where he was denying funding to aid groups who worked overseas that didn't hold his personal (anti-abortion) beliefs," NDP ethics critic Nathan Cullen said Wednesday.

"Whenever a prime minister does this, it's dangerous. If it wasn't right for Mr. Harper to do it when he was in power, it's certainly not right for Mr. Trudeau to do the same thing in another direction when he becomes prime minister."

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The Liberals recently introduced the new requirement for the Canada Summer Jobs program, which has provided grants to employers for years to help subsidize the cost of hiring students for summer work. It stipulates that an applicant must affirm that both the job description and the group's core mandate respect human rights, including reproductive rights.

But the move has sparked outrage from churches and other faith-based organizations, who say they are being forced to choose between their spiritual values and funding that helps run programs that have nothing to do with abortion.

Employment and Social Development Canada issued a clarification Tuesday, indicating that the core mandate concerns the primary activities of the organization, not its values or beliefs.

The clarification has not calmed all fears. A coalition of different organizations is scheduled to release Thursday a statement signed by 80 religious leaders, institutions and other groups calling on the government to revise the policy.

Charter a separate conversation, Cullen says

The Canada Summer Jobs program created nearly 69,000 temporary jobs last year.

Speaking on the sidelines of a two-day caucus retreat in Ottawa, Cullen said the NDP has heard from many groups worried about the policy, and that the real test should be whether the funding goes to summer jobs that have a positive purpose.

"There are many community groups who are faith-based who apply and receive summer grants who do amazing work, that don't proselytize or promote any issues that would be hard for Canadians to hear," he told reporters.

"If there are Charter (of Rights and Freedoms) questions, that's a totally separate conversation. We have a charter, it's enforced by the courts and the police. Let it do its job. Otherwise, it seems like meddling."

Scheer hammers 'Trudeau values test'

Cullen was adamant in a follow-up interview that the NDP remains firmly committed to a woman's right to choose, and that any groups whose main purpose is to infringe on that right should be banned from federal funding.

"I think the way that (the government) explained this and I think the way they rolled this out was either unintended or not properly done," he said.

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"To define properly what this needs to be in terms of who can apply and who can't is an important question for the government, and I don't think they've done a good job of that. That's my criticism."

Federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer used his own party's caucus retreat in Victoria, B.C., to echo his previous attack on the Liberal summer-jobs funding policy.

"They claim to be tolerant, open and accepting and celebrating diversity," he said, "and then they make community organizations submit to the Trudeau values test before they receive any federal funding."