Analysis

Labour Minister holds the Liberal line on abortion and Canada Summer Jobs

Labour Minister Patty Hajdu strived Tuesday to return to the start of the furor over the federal government's Canada Summer Jobs program and a pitched debate about rights, beliefs, freedoms and the power of the state.

'This is about the activities... not about beliefs or values,' Patty Hajdu maintains amid controversy

'This is about the activities of the organization and the job description,' Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Patty Hajdu said Tuesday in regards to the Canada Summer Jobs program. 'This is not about beliefs or values.' (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Labour Minister Patty Hajdu strived Tuesday to return to the start of the furor over the federal government's Canada Summer Jobs program and a pitched debate about rights, beliefs, freedoms and the power of the state.

It all goes back to the application form through which organizations apply for federal summer jobs funding, and the new requirement that applicants must check a box affirming they respect the values set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — including reproductive rights. Churches and faith groups have complained that their right to religious belief is not being respected and that otherwise valuable projects will go unfunded.

But the government, Hajdu said, had heard complaints that some groups, namely the Calgary-based Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, were using the funds from federal grants to "create graphic pamphlets that featured aborted fetuses as a way to shame women about reproductive rights." Other summer jobs grants were going to camps that "refused to hire members of the LGBTQ community," she said.

Labour Minister Patty Hajdu says the government is asking groups to attest that their 'core mandate' will not work to undermine the rights of Canadians, including reproductive rights. 6:57

The editorial boards of the Globe and MailNational Post and Toronto Star reprimanded the Liberals. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer accused the Prime Minister of "imposing" his values on faith groups. And a Liberal MP has publicly expressed his misgivings.

But Hajdu is unmoved.

"In order for organizations to receive funding, they have to affirm that they will not actively work to undermine the rights of Canadians," she said in Toronto Tuesday.

Put that way, it seems simple.

But Hajdu is still having to explain herself, so it obviously is not.

The Liberal line on abortion

It's clearly within the purview of the federal government to decide how public funds will be allocated, whether Liberal or Conservative. The previous Conservative government, for instance, refused to fund abortion services overseas. The Trudeau government reversed that decision.

​And the Liberals' tough stance on summer jobs is not without precedent. In 2014, Liberal MPs were told they would no longer be allowed a free vote of "conscience" on any bill or motion that sought to restrict a woman's access to abortion services.

There was outcry then, too. But the notion of a conscience vote is a fuzzy concept. Members of political parties are typically bound by certain positions. The only individuals impacted by Trudeau's edict were those who sat, or hoped to sit, as Liberal MPs.

Handing out government grants to hire high school and university students for the summer months is proving more complicated.

'Not about beliefs or values'

The Liberals have struggled to land on an acceptable line between the use of funds for anti-abortion purposes and the use of funds by a church or religious organization that happens to believe abortion is immoral.

"This is about the activities of the organization and the job description," Hajdu said on Tuesday. "This is not about beliefs or values."

A similar policy for programs funded through the Canada Service Corps focuses on the "activities" that would be funded, as opposed to the beliefs of anyone involved. 

Employment Minister Patty Hajdu defends the decision to make groups seeking money to hire students declare that the job respects human rights in Canada, and says she has reached out to faith-based groups to explain the government's rationale. 1:19

In enforcing a new standard for Canada Summer Jobs, the government is asking applicants to attest that "both the job and the organization's core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ... reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability or sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression."

All of that, the government explained, would "prevent youth ... from being exposed to employment within organizations that may promote positions that are contrary to the values enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and associated case law."

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a town hall in Hamilton that groups are welcome to apply for the Canada Summer Jobs program, but if those groups infringe upon a woman's right to choose, "that's where … we draw the line as a country." (David Donnelly/CBC)

"Core mandate" is, in particular, an unwieldy phrase. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, among others, has objected because of the attestation and explanation.

According to Liberal sources, Liberal MPs took issue with the attestation's wording during a conference call Tuesday, before Hajdu went public with her clarifying remarks.

The minister's department released further information on Tuesday to clarify its terms and intent, including hypothetical examples of what would and would not receive funding.

A need to explain suggests an initial failure to be clear.

'The government's coercion'

The dispute over summer jobs is reminiscent of last summer's dispute over tax reform: an attempt to address a specific concern winds up angering Canadians far more than necessary.

There is more here than unwieldy wording.

The Catholic Bishops are still upset. "The attestation and examples still amount to the government's coercion on matters of conscience and religious belief," the CCCB said in a statement issued Tuesday in response to Hajdu. Meanwhile, the Toronto and Area Right to Life organization is pursuing a court challenge, arguing the government is actually defying the Charter.

Opposition leader Andrew Scheer spoke to reporters in Mississauga 0:47

If you believe that access to abortion is a fundamental right for women, the Liberal position is surely admirable. But if it's possible to reasonably dissent from the Liberal position on abortion, the Liberals risk seeming intolerant of those on the other side. 

Still, if the Liberals can hold the line on the summer jobs attestation, it's a line any future government will face. Any attempt to rewrite or restore the rules for funding will only result in another furor.

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