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The Canada Summer Jobs (CSJ) program provides funding for non-profits, public sector employers and businesses to create student summer jobs. Churches and faith-based organizations have successfully applied in years past to operate summer camps, community outreach ministries, sports programs, soup kitchens and many other programs.

Controversy has arisen because applicants must now attest that both the job and core mandate of the organization respect individual human rights, values underlying the Charter, and other rights. The government specified that these human rights include “the right to access safe and legal abortions.”

The “Kerfuffle”

In a well-publicized town hall meeting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed the controversy surrounding the CSJ Attestation as a mere “kerfuffle.” But even Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada has written to Trudeau and Employment Minister Patty Hajdu, calling on them to correct confusion.

Subsequently, in an interview with CBC, Minister Hajdu explained that, in her view, the Attestation was necessary to exclude organizations and jobs where students do work that “undermine the rights of Canadians” by distributing “anti-choice material” or trying to “limit reproductive choice” and “shaming women.” Also incompatible with the government’s values is the operation of “camps that wouldn’t hire members of the LGBTQ community.”

As you can imagine, this has created more than just a “kerfuffle” amongst a variety of faith-based institutions. But criticism has come from all corners[1] as the Attestation raises serious concerns about freedom of expression, opinion, religion, and equality (for more, see my previous article).

While the government has held firm in its position on the “right” to abortion, maintaining that the Attestation is “not about beliefs or values” but “about the activities of the organization and the job description,” it nonetheless released a formal response to the outcry against the Attestation in its Supplementary Information.

The Clarification

The Supplementary Information attempts to clarify vague terms by defining the terms “organization,” “core mandate,” and “respect”, three of the more troublesome terms contained in the Attestation.

“Organization” is the entity applying to use CSJ funding, “core mandate” is the primary activities of the organization and not its values or beliefs, and “respect” means not seeking “to remove or actively undermine” existing human rights.

The Supplement provides illustrations to help further clarify the application of the newly-defined terms. If an organization’s primary activities focus on “removing, or actively undermining existing women’s reproductive rights,” it is not eligible. If a faith-based organization with “anti-abortion” beliefs uses funding for students to serve meals to the homeless, it is eligible. If a faith-based organization that believes in a traditional (i.e. heterosexual) definition of marriage uses funding for students to reduce social isolation among seniors, it is eligible.

Does this Solve the Problem?

In an interview, Minister Hajdu explained that the government is simply asking groups to attest that their “primary activities and the job description” will “not work to actively undermine the rights of Canadians.” She emphasized that “core mandate” does not refer to beliefs or values, but to the purpose of an organization, and any claim that a core mandate is meant to be reflective of beliefs and values is untrue.

Hmmmmm . . . this is a bit of head scratcher and the first major concern: bifurcation of belief and action. What if the core mandate is the organization’s beliefs and values (i.e. churches)? Or what if the core mandate is simply an outworking of beliefs and values (i.e. faith-based street missions)? The government fails to realize that for churches and faith-based organizations, there are no activities apart from belief. A “core mandate” ceases to be a “core mandate” when it is extracted from the entirety of belief. The belief is what spurs on the activity; it is an outworking of belief. To use Supreme Court terminology, activity is the “manifestation” of belief, an essential and protected component of religious freedom.

And while the Supplement tries to restrict the definition of core mandate to “primary activities,” at what point do partnerships between churches and (e.g.) pregnancy care centres become problematic? Or churches that promote “activities” such as life-chains? What does “actively undermine” rights actually mean? Is it “actively” undermining for CSJ funded students to adhere to a pro-life position as a condition of hire? Is it “actively” undermining for CSJ camp counsellors to answer questions about abortion from a pro-life perspective? Or to answer questions about gender and sexuality from a biblical perspective?

The terms “values,” “existing rights,” and “other rights” continue to be problematic. What are these “other rights”? Whose definition of “values” triumphs? These are not trite questions or a lawyer trying to split hairs. In fact, the Ontario Court of Appeal has noted the subjectivity inherent in defining Charter values and the acute problem of understanding Charter values as competing with Charter rights.

Undoubtedly in this case the government has defined “values,” “existing rights,” and “other rights” to be synonymous with abortion. There is no Charter right to abortion (see Josh Tong’s recent article), yet the government continues to enact policy elevating this non-existent Charter right to the detriment of existing Charter rights (i.e. freedom of religion and conscience; freedom of thought, belief and expression).

The Attestation and Supplement continue to ignore exemptions in provincial human rights codes that permit lawful discrimination and continue to set a dangerous precedent, allowing the government to avoid its duty of neutrality by favouring a particular belief and excluding those who disagree. In other words, there remains an understanding of faith and religious freedom that is anemic.

Overall, the Attestation and Supplement reveal a government that is anemic in its understanding of faith and religious freedom. But not all is negative. On a positive note, the Supplement reveals some acknowledgement of the public good that faith-based organizations bring to society as a whole. By trying to clarify terms, engage with religious leaders and interact with media, there is clearly an effort to retain the recognized benefit of social services and community outreach programs provided by churches.

Does this Change how to Respond?

The question, then, remains the same: can churches and other Christian organizations apply for the grant again this year? Even with the additional definitions it is likely that Christian (and other religious) organizations will still be unable to affirm the attestation with its somewhat clarified meaning by simply checking the box.

As I noted in my previous post, there is, nonetheless, value in applying because doing so creates a record of applications and (potentially) a record of rejections on the basis that applicants’ religious beliefs do not align with state morality. But how can that practically be accomplished? Organizations such as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian Council of Christian Charities have resources available to help guide potential applicants.  For an example of that guidance applied, see Calvary Grace Church’s response. Ultimately it boils down to a matter of conscience and conviction. Each individual church and organization will have to determine how to respond in a way that is faithful to the Lord, recognizing that while we live under the authority of human governments, we must fear God and obey Him first.

The CSJ “kerfuffle” is troubling as a matter of law, but it is most troubling because it reveals the veil that so thickly envelops the hearts and minds of many of our political leaders. Our nation’s leaders are prioritizing, promoting, and protecting values that are completely at odds with those revealed in God’s word, including the value of fearfully and wonderfully made lives. If ever there was a time to pray for all who are in high positions it is now. Above all other responses to this issue, may we be most diligent in the response of prayer.


[1] For example, see David Millard Haskell for CBC, Brian Bird in Policy OptionsJohn Ibbitson in the Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail, Kelly McParland in the National Post, Robyn Urback for CBC, Licia Corbella in the Calgary Herald, Editorial boards of the Toronto Star, National Post, and the Globe and Mail, Liberal MP Scott Simms, NDP MP Nathan Cullen