Faith-based camps feel sting of Trudeau government's summer jobs abortion clause

Fifty applicants from various Nova Scotia organizations, including faith-based summer camps, have been turned down for grants to hire students because they refuse to attest support for "individual human rights in Canada" — including reproductive rights and equality of LGBTQ Canadians.

50 N.S. organizations refused rights attestation, were rejected for grants to hire students

A number of faith-based summer camps in Nova Scotia say they didn't even bother applying for a Canada Summer Jobs grant this summer. (EvgeniiAnd/Shutterstock)

Daniel Peacock says this year is tougher for Camp Jordan.

The small Baptist summer camp in Jordan Falls, N.S., has relied on $4,000 in federal grant money to hire a student camp counsellor for the last four years — a job that is invaluable, according to Peacock, a member of the board that oversees the camp.

But this year Camp Jordan, along with at least five other faith-based camps in Nova Scotia, didn't even bother to apply for the Canada Summer Jobs program. The decision follows the federal government's controversial move to require all applicants to express support for "individual human rights in Canada" — including reproductive rights and equality of LGBTQ Canadians.

"The government is saying, 'We're right and you're wrong and that's it. Believe what we believe or don't bother to apply for money,'" Peacock said. "Our Baptist foundation told us that unless we check the box off, we would be ignored."

CBC News also spoke with five other faith-based camps that applied but were rejected because they refused to check the required box in the application. In all, 50 applicants from various organizations in Nova Scotia were turned down, according to figures from the federal government.

Camp Jordan is a summer camp in Jordan Falls, N.S. (Camp Jordan/Facebook)

Federal Employment Minister Patty Hajdu has argued the attestation is simply intended to make sure organizations that receive money to hire students have core mandates that align with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. More than 2,100 applications from Nova Scotia were approved.

But the new rules, announced last December, have drawn concern from faith-based groups nationwide who say their views on abortion and marriage equality do not align with the government's, and feel the changes limit their freedom of belief. 

Across the country, more than 1,500 organizations have been refused grants after not checking the box.

"This year, most of our churches and camps were unable or unwilling to sign the attestation due to matters of conscience," said Renée Embree of the Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada, a ministry association of hundreds of faith-based groups in the region, including six camps in Nova Scotia.

"Many have simply been unable to hire students this summer," she said in an email.

Apart from allowing students opportunities to build their own professional skills, Peacock said a camp counsellor plays a crucial role in helping up to 35 kids who attend Camp Jordan each week to learn team-building through fun games and campfire activities.

Peacock said the camp now shares its counsellors and its cook with Long Lake summer camp, in nearby Lunenburg County, to make up for the lost funding.

Patty Hajdu is the federal minister of employment, workforce development and labour. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The new rules are "extremely disappointing" for Steve Williams, the director of Camp Evangeline, which unsuccessfully applied to the Canada Summer Jobs program. Students hired at his Pentecostal camp in Debert, N.S., help run activities for at-risk youth, single mothers and Indigenous people.

"It's just put us out of the ability to have a positive influence in these peoples' lives," he said.

Véronique Simard, a spokesperson for Hajdu, the federal minister, said in an email that "hundreds of faith-based organizations are participating in the Canada Summer Jobs program, including many in Nova Scotia." Such groups have "always been welcome, and encouraged, to apply." 

She also said the "government will always stand up for the rights of women and LGBTQ Canadians," and that "federal funding should never fund work that seeks to undermine those rights."

'What the government did is unconstitutional'

Rev. Jim Rhyno said he feels the government has "overstepped its bounds" by creating "parameters for Canada Summer Jobs to exclude certain faith groups," such as Baptist communities.

He chairs the board of directors at Camp Peniel, a Baptist camp near Yarmouth, N.S., that's hired a summer student with federal grant money every year for the past decade.

"The board was unanimous that we would not be able to check the box," he said. "That would be counter to our value system in being truthful." 

Along with submitting a printed form with the attestation box untouched, he said the board included a letter explaining why checking the box was "inconsistent with our fundamental constitutionally protected personal beliefs."

The application was turned down without any acknowledgment of the letter.

"What the government did is unconstitutional," said Barry Bussey, a lawyer and director of legal affairs with the Canadian Council of Christian Charities in Elmira, Ont.

He said the new rules violate Section 2a of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which covers freedom of conscience and religion; Section 2b, which covers freedom of belief and expression; and Section 15, the equality right.

Bussey said the council exists to promote and assist the best practices, including potential legal actions, of evangelical Christian charities in Canada. Many of the camps in Nova Scotia are members.

"We have received literally hundreds of messages from our membership who are very upset about the treatment they've received from the government with respect to this," he said. "Many of them want to pursue a court action."

Possible legal challenge

Bussey said the possibility that the council will file a lawsuit against the federal government directly is "very very conceivable," and said an official statement on the matter will be made in the coming week.

Bussey said he's been rallying financial support for litigation on the council's website. Embree said the Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada is also "considering being a part of their response," but has not yet consulted a lawyer.

Wayne MacKay, a professor emeritus of law at Dalhousie University, said that while many faith-based groups may be able to argue their charter rights are being violated, any court action against the government "will still be an uphill battle."

"There's been a lot of new interpretations [the Supreme Court of Canada] has made to the charter, especially regarding the recent Trinity Western University case," he said, referring to the ruling in favour of Canadian law societies that refused to accredit the Christian university over its community covenant.

He said the court has sent a "very strong message" that the government's view of human rights is a major factor, even in cases of religious freedom.

In the meantime, the Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada's website encourages faith-based groups to voice their concerns to their local MP, and to start forming a long-term financial plan for the coming years without funding.

With files from Katy Parsons