N.L. MP Scott Simms removed as fisheries chair after breaking with Liberal party line

Liberal MP Scott Simms does not regret voting with the Conservatives over a controversial change to the student summer jobs program — even though it ended up costing him his job as chair of the Commons fisheries committee.

Voted with conservatives over change to summer jobs program

MP Scott Simms says he's not surprised voting with the conservatives cost him the fisheries chair. (CBC)

Liberal MP Scott Simms does not regret voting with the Conservatives over a controversial change to the student summer jobs program — even though it ended up costing him his job as chair of the Commons fisheries committee.

"I knew what was coming," the veteran Newfoundland MP said Thursday.

"So that's the way it works, I guess, and I have no regrets."

The Liberal government is now requiring organizations seeking federal funding through the Canada Summer Jobs program, which created nearly 69,000 temporary jobs last year, to attest to their respect for sexual and reproductive rights -- including abortion -- as well as other human rights.

Employment and Social Development Canada later clarified this was not meant to target beliefs or values, but still made it mandatory to check off a box on the application form confirming their agreement with the stipulation.

Many churches and other faith-based organizations said they were being forced to choose between their spiritual values and grants that helped them run summer camps, soup kitchens and other activities that had nothing to do with abortion.

Knew there would be consequences

Simms said he knew he would face consequences when he voted for a Conservative motion last month urging the Liberal government to allow groups engaged in "non-political, non-activist work" to access the federal jobs grant, even if they didn't express respect for abortion rights.

He said he was told it would be a whipped vote — meaning Liberal MPs were to toe the party line — but that he stood in favour of the motion anyway, because he believed the Conservatives had crafted it in a straightforward way and that the Liberals had gone too far.

"This to me was a personal issue," he said. "I just felt that it was an insensitive thing to do and we should have stepped back and worded it differently."

The decision to change the eligibility criteria stemmed from a controversy last year when officials approved tens of thousands of dollars for anti-abortion groups in at least two ridings.

Monsignor Frank Puddister, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s, is one of the people opposing the change to the summer jobs program. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Simms said he does not think organizations should be using federal funding to hire summer students for those kinds of activities, but that the Liberal government was being overly broad in how it tried to solve the problem.

"It was wide off the mark," said Simms, who is in Vienna this week with the Canada-Europe Parliamentary Association.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed during the 2015 election campaign that he would allow backbench MPs to vote against party lines, with three exceptions: legislation implementing platform promises, confidence matters, such as those involving the budget, and any votes dealing with "shared values," including issues involving the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

A spokeswoman for Trudeau would not comment. Nor would chief government whip Pablo Rodriguez.

"Committee membership changes are considered internal related matters which we do not comment on," said his chief of staff, Charles-Eric Lepine.

Loss of salary

Simms said he was told not long after the March 19 vote that he would be removed from the fisheries committee, but for procedural reasons the decision did not take effect until this Monday.

The punishment comes with a cost: committee chairs earn $11,900 on top of their regular MP salary.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh backed off his punishment for NDP MP David Christopherson and restored the Hamilton Centre MP to his role as vice chair of the procedures and House affairs committee. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Simms did not seem too concerned about the money.

"Well, if I missed it that much I would have voted the other way," he said.

Simms was not the only MP disciplined for supporting the Conservative motion.

New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh removed Ontario MP David Christopherson from his role as vice chair of the procedure and House affairs committee last month, but then reversed his decision after it was criticized publicly by at least three senior caucus members.