Catholic organizations and others welcomed the Canadian government’s changes to rules for job grants that had required them to affirm abortion rights and other political causes - but they are still concerned that the rules could block some pro-life groups from participating.
“I think they recognized there was a problem there and they needed to change the language. We are pleased that they did,” Neil McCarthy, director of public relations for the Archdiocese of Toronto, told CNA. “We had 5,000 letters from people within the Archdiocese of Toronto, lots of conversations, and a coalition of many different faith communities that were concerned with this.”
The Canada Summer Job Grants program has funded an estimated 70,000 summer jobs for secondary school or college students, granting small businesses, non-profit organizations, and religious employers the money to fill positions such as camp counselors or landscapers.
Federal funding requirements for the program were added Dec. 19, 2017 stipulating that “both the job and the organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada,” including “reproductive rights,” or the right to abortion access.
Organizations had to check a box attesting to their alignment with Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, case law, and other government commitments, such as “the rights of gender-diverse and transgender Canadians.”
Many groups denied funding in 2018 had to rely on fundraising campaigns and programming changes, or they eliminated student jobs entirely.
The rules drew objections and legal challenges that cited prospective grantees’ right to advocate against abortion, as well as principles protecting religious freedom and free speech.
The rules for 2019 remove a lengthy attestation added last year, but now require applicants to attest that the grants “will not be used to undermine or restrict the exercise of rights legally protected in Canada.” Projects and activities ineligible for funding include those that “actively work to undermine or restrict a woman’s access to sexual and reproductive health services,” Canadian Catholic News reports.
McCarthy anticipated most groups in the Archdiocese of Toronto will be able to move ahead with job grant applications. About 90 percent of these groups were summer camps run through parishes.
“At least, at bare minimum, there are charities and organizations that are going to be able to apply for the funds,” McCarthy said. “That’s important because there were groups like Archdiocese of Toronto charities and parishes last year where we advised to apply with an amended attestation. Those applications were rejected at one point.”
A record number of application shad been rejected in 2018.
McCarthy said Canadians can still disagree with the affected groups “and still recognize that we are not denying someone’s rights or undermining their rights or restricting their rights.”
“We may disagree on particular issues. That’s what a democratic society should be about. It doesn’t mean that we’re marginalized or cast aside because of those views,” he said.
Ray Pennings, co-founder and executive vice president of the think tank Cardus, thought the changes meant the government had realized that the rules violated fundamental rights of freedom of religion, conscience and speech, Canadian Catholic News reports. He said the rules had caused “real harm” to about 1,500 organizations and many more young people.
“There is still the potential for problems, however, with the new eligibility criteria,” Pennings continued. “They apply an internal values test on applicants using opaque wording subject to interpretation by the government of the day behind closed doors.”
After the 2018 rules were first announced, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explicitly rejected participation by pro-life groups. He said Jan. 10, “An organization that has the explicit purpose of restricting women’s rights by removing rights to abortion and the rights of women to control their own bodies is not in line with where we are as a government, and quite frankly, where we are as a society.”
Many observers are still waiting to comment until the full official application and other documents are released, expected next week.
The Catholic Civil Rights League said the new application process is still “sadly deficient” and will continue to suppress “viewpoints not shared by the government” by denying funding to groups that disagree. Organizations can still be denied funding if they take pro-life positions.
It accused the ruling Liberal Party of “effectively establishing a ‘bubble zone’ to prevent funding to organizations who do not share its unfettered pro-abortion position,” the group charged. The group has characterized the new rules as “a means of compelling ideological conformity from law abiding charities.”
For instance, in the hypothetical case of an organization raising awareness about the effects of abortion on women, the Catholic Civil Rights League argued, it “will likely be denied funding, even though it is engaged in assisting women’s reproductive health, because it treads into a challenge to the unfettered abortion license, at any and all stages of a pregnancy, promoted by this government.”
The group said that peaceful protest and assembly are legally protected rights and the government is wrong to claim there is a “right to safe and legal abortion” in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or in case law.
Small businesses and groups like Toronto Right to Life have filed lawsuits challenging the 2018 rules.
Carol Crosson, who represents Toronto Right to Life, characterized the changes as “a victory for all those who stood against the government’s unconstitutional incursion into the beliefs and opinions of Canadians.”
“When the freedom of speech of one Canadian is infringed, all Canadians lose. Government has no place punishing Canadians for their viewpoints,” Crosson said.
McCarthy said that, while groups that everyone with reservations or concerns about the new requirements should be applying for the grants.
When someone is accepted or rejected, they may ask for more information or clarity about the criteria.
“The government has in the past produced resources that have provided clarity regarding how particular requirements may be interpreted,” he said. “We may see that again.
Canadians should also ensure they are in contact with their local politicians to ensure they are aware of the situation and closely monitoring it, McCarthy said.