Jagmeet Singh affirms NDP's support for reproductive rights after MP Nathan Cullen's misstep

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh publicly reaffirmed his party's support for a woman's right to an abortion after one of his most senior MPs described as "offensive" the Liberal government's decision to tie summer job funding to respect for rights outlined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including reproductive rights.

Cullen apologizes for comments on abortion-rights requirement in jobs program

NDP MP Nathan Cullen is apologizing after the NDP MP weighed in on the debate around the Trudeau government's decision to force groups applying for summer job grants to affirm their respect for a woman's right to have an abortion. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh publicly reaffirmed his party's support for a woman's right to an abortion after one of his most senior MPs described as "offensive" the Liberal government's decision to tie summer job funding to respect for rights outlined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including reproductive rights.

"There is no confusion when it comes to reproductive rights — all New Democrats fully and completely support reproductive rights," Singh told reporters in Ottawa. "In fact, I don't believe we should support any organization whose agenda it is to in any way infringe on reproductive rights."

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On Wednesday, NDP MP Nathan Cullen spoke to reporters outside the NDP caucus meeting, saying the decision to require an organization applying for the funding to affirm it supports the right to an abortion, when it may go against their faith, was driving a wedge between Canadians. 

"There are many community groups who are faith based who apply and receive summer grants who do amazing work that don't proselytize or promote any issues that would be hard for Canadians to hear," he said.

"I think it's offensive to some Canadians because it's saying: 'if you hold these values, you are not worthy of any government funding even if the work that you're doing supports the charter, supports the general values that Canadians hold.'

"It seems to be driving a wedge on something that we needed no wedge drawn on," Cullen said.

Cullen was forced to walk those comments back, issuing an apology on Twitter and affirming his own support for reproductive rights in Canada. 

"I apologize for the harm from my comments," Cullen said in a tweet. "I & the NDP are fiercely pro-choice. I reacted to concerns raised by groups in my riding on the gov'ts first statement on the policy. The subsequent examples put those fears to rest."

The clarification from Employment and Social Development Canada that Cullen referenced indicated that the core mandate concerns the primary activities of the organization, not its values or beliefs.

For example, the department said a faith-based organization that embraces a traditional definition of marriage but whose primary activities are aimed at reducing social isolation among seniors would be eligible for funding to hire students to develop or deliver programs available to all seniors, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

A summer camp that does not allow LGBTQ youth, however, would not be eligible for funding to hire students as camp counsellors.

Affirmation request draws fire

The Liberal government has come under fire from churches, faith groups and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer over a decision to require groups that apply for summer job funding to tick a box affirming the group will respect the rights set out in the charter.

It means groups getting summer job funding must respect 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, sexual orientation or gender identity, or expression

Under the program, MPs allocate federal funds to non-profit organizations and small businesses in their ridings. The change in the application process comes after a review last year that was prompted by revelations MPs approved tens of thousands of dollars in grants to anti-abortion groups in two ridings.

The Liberal government's clarification that Cullen said had put his "fears to rest" did not have the same impact on a coalition of faith groups from across the country. 

Faith groups react

A collection of faith groups held a news conference in Toronto Thursday calling on the Liberal government to remove the requirement to attest to the rights of the charter from the summer jobs program application.

"Many organizations will be deemed ineligible because they are unable or unwilling to attest that their core mandate and beliefs align with the current government's self-identified values," said Cardinal Thomas Collins, the archbishop of Toronto who also represents the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Colins said in the Archdiocese of Toronto alone the summer jobs program supports 150 summer jobs for youth putting at risk a summer camp for hearing impaired children, jobs for developmentally challenged youth and programs that help welcome immigrants to Canada.

"It is deeply troubling to me that all who are involved are being forced to endorse a particular set of values prescribed by the government."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh reaffirms his party's support for a woman's right to have an abortion following caucus meetings in Ottawa on Thursday. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler asked Canadians to consider the issue as one that threatens individual freedom. "I ask that we respect difference because that is one of our core Canadian values," he said. 

Imam Refaat Mohamed who represents the Canadian Council of Imams said the attestation violates the freedoms of faith-based organizations and significantly impact the broader communities served by their programs.

"The promise of a free and democratic society is that there be no religious or ideological test or conditions to receiving government benefits or protection," he said. 

The Canada Summer Jobs program created nearly 69,000 temporary jobs last year.

With files from The Canadian Press