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EDITORIAL: Testing values

Justin Trudeau speaks during a funding announcement at the East Pictou Middle School on Tuesday. The federal government will contribute $90 million towards twinning a section of the 104 between Sutherland's River and Antigonish.
Justin Trudeau speaks during a funding announcement at the East Pictou Middle School. — SaltWire Network file photo

The Canada Summer Jobs program is about students getting seasonal employment, gaining valuable experience and helping fund their education.

What could be wrong with that?

Just ask the federal government, because the program sparked a year-long controversy, largely of the feds’ own making.

The trouble began in 2016 when an MP approved funding for a position at an anti-abortion group in her riding. A summer job protesting outside a medical clinic stretches the limit of what a taxpayer-funded summer jobs program is all about. Soon, pro-choice groups were lobbying for Ottawa to deny funding to groups that carry out anti-abortion activities.

Last December, the Liberals responded with an ill-advised attestation requirement for 2018 — that job applicants must express support for the government’s position on reproductive rights. All employers seeking a grant had to attest that the job and the organization’s core mandate respected values in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Liberals’ values test saw more than 1,500 Canada Summer Jobs applications rejected this year, including many from Atlantic Canada. Hundreds of other organizations withdrew their applications or did not apply due to their refusal to sign the attestation.

The trouble began in 2016 when an MP approved funding for a position at an anti-abortion group in her riding.

Many applications were for ecological and environmental projects, with no connection to Charter or reproductive rights. But sponsors refused to check the attestation box because they believed it was an unconstitutional incursion by the federal government.

Should federal program funding be dependent on applications supporting a Liberal platform or party ideology? It was a leap that enraged church, faith groups and many others across the nation. Protecting Charter rights for some Canadians shouldn’t depend on violating religious and free speech rights for others.

Ottawa took steps last week to ease those concerns, dropping its attestation requirements — sort of. The new wording states that any funding under the job program will not be used to undermine or restrict the exercise of rights legally protected in Canada. The application also lists projects and activities that are ineligible for funding, including those that “actively work to undermine or restrict a woman’s access to sexual and reproductive health services.”

While not satisfying everyone, it goes a long way to addressing the concerns of many religious and faith groups. But concern remains that the application process continues to suppress viewpoints not shared by the government.
In its rush to defend the rights of some, Ottawa infringed on the rights of others.

Employment Minister Patty Hajdu said the changes reflect conversations with Canadians, showing that the government is listening to a variety of voices.

A looming federal election and nine federal court cases challenging the attestation requirement probably had something to do with it, as well.

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