The Current

The abortion clause: Should groups that work against reproductive rights receive public funding?

A summer funding program now requires applicants to say they support reproductive rights, but faith-based groups say they cannot in good conscience agree to it.
An anti-abortion protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, May 10, 2012. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
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A summer jobs initiative aimed at giving young people a springboard into employment has become an unlikely battleground for reproductive rights.

Every year, the Canada Summer Jobs Program provides groups with funds to employ students on short-term contracts.

This year however, that application form includes an affirmation that the groups support individual rights — including the right to be free from discrimination on bases such as sex, religion, or race, as laid out in the Charter — as well as reproductive rights. It's being called the abortion clause.

Applicants that do not tick that box will not be considered.

Labour minister Patty Hajdu spoke to reporters before a cabinet meeting in London, Ontario 1:43

Blaise Alleyne, the president of Toronto and Area Right to Life, has filed a claim in federal court, arguing that it is the government, not anti-abortion groups, who are contravening the Charter.

"If you read the Morgentaler decision, there is actually no Charter right to abortion," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. "But there is a Charter right to freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and equality rights. So this is a charter challenge."

In 2016, the group received $10,000 in funding. They applied for a similar amount in 2017, but were denied. Along with two other organizations, they took the government to court, and settled in November, receiving the funding.

It's not illegal to advocate for change to the law or to advocate for social reform.- Blaise Alleyne, president of Toronto and Area Right to Life

Alleyne says the money is used to hire summer students, who assist the group in providing "education on issues like abortion to the Greater Toronto Area."

When asked whether his group actively works to restrict women's reproductive rights, he says the group is an educational organization that shares the pro-life message of human rights for all human beings.

"I'm not sure how expressing our opinion would thwart someone's individual rights," he says.

"It's not illegal to advocate for change to the law or to advocate for social reform," he says. "In fact that's protected under freedom of expression under the Charter."

Issue 'misrepresented'

Daphne Gilbert, an associate professor in the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa, says that in terms of constitutional law, she believes the issue has been misrepresented as a contest between freedom of religion and expression, and equality.

If the issue ends up in court, she says the government's position is defensible. A grant is not an entitlement, she argues.

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

"The attestation simply requires organizations to say that they will respect the rule of law and they're not going to employ people to undermine or overturn those laws," she says.

"It doesn't mean that they they can't do that," she adds. "They can fundraise for those positions. But the government's public money won't be used to fight a charter fight, using taxpayer money."

"American Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg once famously said that you have the right to move your arm as long as it doesn't punch me in the nose," she says. "And that is what freedom of religion and freedom of expression mean in this country."

"You can speak and you can profess your religious beliefs but they can't be imposed on other people."

The government's public money won't be used to fight a charter fight, using taxpayer money.- Daphne Gilbert

Phenomenal work

Patty Hajdu is the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour. She says that public funds should be used "in a way that respects Charter rights and other fundamental rights that Canadians have won and have been affirmed by courts."

"We know that across the country faith-based organizations... are doing phenomenal work in our communities," she tells Tremonti.

She insists that she is not afraid of those groups being sidelined.

"This is about making sure that when organizations apply, that their core mandates and the purpose of the job that the young person will hold will respect the Charter and those other fundamental rights."

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This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin.