OTTAWA — It was February 2017 when the first letter about anti-abortion groups and the Canada Summer Jobs program landed in Labour Minister Patty Hajdu's office.
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada wanted Hajdu to keep crisis pregnancy centres — which offer an anti-abortion spin on pregnancy counselling — from getting summer-jobs funding. Applications were already being reviewed, and the centres were likely on the list, the letter warned.
There was no response.
Not until April of that year — when media reports emerged about a rookie Liberal MP who approved $56,000 in funding for an anti-abortion group in her riding in 2016 — did the issue seem to catch Hajdu's attention.
Since then, there has been no shortage of media attention paid to the Liberal government's efforts to screen organizations applying for Canada Summer Jobs money, blocking any that refuse to attest that neither they nor the summer jobs in question would support an anti-abortion agenda.
On Tuesday, Hajdu launched the 2018 version of the program, playing down any issues with the employer declaration by saying that faith-based groups had accessed funding. The Employment and Social Development Canada website shows hundreds of churches among the employers approved for funding this year, along with faith-based camps.
Hajdu said the Canada Summer Jobs program was about the students, despite the attention paid to protesting groups.
"Canadians expect us to be thoughtful about how we run programs and that we make sure that especially for these first jobs for kids, that they are with organizations that respect the fundamental rights of Canadians and don't ask them to do things that are essentially looking to undermine those rights," Hajdu said.
"We made that commitment to Canadians that we would do this and that's exactly what we're doing."
The evolution of the Liberals' policy that stoked concerns from religious groups is laid out in some 200 pages of documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access of Information Act or provided by groups, along with interviews with stakeholders and government officials, some speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
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A briefing note from August shows Hajdu had already directed the department to come up with the new employer declaration to ensure funding went to groups with "mandates that are consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and court decisions." Hajdu needed to approve the final wording before the fall, the note said.
Her department crafted several pages of legal advice, all of it blocked from release on the grounds of solicitor-client privilege.
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, meanwhile, was getting only radio silence from Hajdu's office.
"We didn't know what was really going on," said Joyce Arthur, the coalition's executive director.
"Then, in December, they suddenly announced this attestation requirement. At the time we didn't really know why they chose that solution, but we thought, 'Whatever works'."
Liberal MP: 'Freedom of religion is an individual right'
The new requirements appeared to come out of nowhere, said one government official, who described initial political trepidation about the eligibility rules.
Faith-based groups howled in protest, saying they violated religious and free-speech rights. Hajdu and Liberal MPs defended the wording of the declaration.
One Toronto-area Liberal MP wrote to a complainant, saying that while individuals could disagree with the declaration, "freedom of religion is an individual right and is not something which can be superimposed on an organization."
Religious leaders who met with Hajdu in late March left with the impression there might be some movement on the wording, but a government official said Hajdu only agreed to a review and gave no hint that the language dealing specifically with reproductive rights would be removed.
Hajdu said Thursday she is looking to clarify language in the application form and guide that clears up concerns from groups and lets the government meet its policy objectives.
In the meantime, Arthur's organization plans to pore over the full list of this year's employers to see if any of the hundreds of groups in their database have been approved for funding.
Hajdu also said the department is working with employers who are concerned that increases in provincial minimum wages in provinces like Ontario may force them to cut back on hours offered to summer students.