When the success of your government grant application depends on agreeing with a government opinion, then there is bound to be a fuss. Canada is a democracy and Liberal democrats, by definition, do not take government-imposed opinions lightly.
The Canada Summer Jobs is a government program that funds non-profits, small businesses and charities to hire summer students. It is designed to give young people quality work experience to enhance their careers. This year, the government required organizations to declare their agreement with the government regarding abortion.
It was the government that required employers to attest that: “Both the job and the organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other rights. These include 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.”
This attestation is problematic because it makes no legal sense. It’s confusing and its assertions are part redundant and irrelevant.
First, it attempts to impose a positive obligation on applicants to “respect” “values underlying the Canadian Charter.” No person or organization in Canada has a legal obligation to “respect” Charter “values” because they do not apply to citizens. It is only the government that is subject to the Charter and has Charter obligations. The Charter exists to protect people and organizations from the government. It is legally wrong to assert that people and organizations must abide by the Charter.
Second, what are “values”? The legal academy and the courts are still battling over this one. The Supreme Court of Canada has not definitively explained what they are and how they relate to explicit Charter rights. Ontario Court of Appeal Justices Peter Lauwers and Bradley Miller see “Charter values” as lending “themselves to subjective application because there is no doctrinal structure to guide their identification or application.” There is no agreement on what the so-called Charter values are. The two justices note the meaning of Charter values “is both contestable and contested.”
Third, there is no right to abortion. In the CSJ Applicant Guide, page 4 states that among the “reproductive rights” is “the right to access safe and legal abortions.” It sounds authoritative — as if such a right exists. It doesn’t. It is patently wrong to suggest or imply that there is such a “right” to abortion. The fact is that the abortion debate is not over and this government’s attempt to enforce its view on abortion has only inflamed the discussion.
Those are reasons enough for why the religious community and the editorials have raised a fuss about a very poorly worded document on some very controversial issues, but there is more.
Consider for a moment that editorials from the National Post, Globe and Mail and the CBC have come out strongly against the government’s values test for a government program. The press cannot understand why government forces its ideology on others. It makes no sense. What the media does understand is that there is no end to where this kind of government action will go. All government licensing, grants of money or status can become subject to similar requirements — including government regulation of public airwaves.
The government was forced to explain itself because its position was nonsensical. To quell the growing criticism, THE government issued Supplementary Information. However, its position did not change. The attestation, as flawed as it is, remains. Definitions were given to the words “organization,” “core mandate” and “respect” that are unknown to the English language. “Core mandate” now means “primary activities” and “not the beliefs” or the “values” of the organization. I have yet to meet up with a religious organization that defines its “core mandate” as activities alone.
“Respect” now means “primary activities and job responsibilities [that] do not seek to remove or actively undermine these existing rights.”
So, putting the new supplemental definitions of “core mandate” and “respect” to the attestation we get: “Both the job and the applicant’s primary activities do not seek to remove or actively undermine existing individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights . . .”
The attestation remains unclear. How can such organizations remove any rights? Is the government after political activity or advocacy of opinions it does not like?
The government gave five examples to clear the confusion: They boil down to the view that if you are pro-life and believe in traditional marriage, you can’t do primary activities in support of those beliefs or else you are ineligible. More confusion.
So, even after the attempt to clarify, the deeply flawed attestation remains. It continues to confuse human rights with Charter rights, it excludes human rights exemptions and it makes unclear claims to values that haven’t been defined.
Finally, it is beside the point that the CSJ is a voluntary program and no one is forced to sign up for the money. When government establishes a program for all citizens, it must do so with an open, fair hand, not make it subject to ideological utopian beliefs while pretending to enforce legal principles when no such principles exist or are contentious.
This remains a badly worded attestation that ought to be removed. Expect more fuss if this kind of ideological-values testing becomes the norm for access to government programing. That is not a problem caused by religious organizations or editorial writers but by the imposition of unwanted views by those in power.
Barry Bussey is the director of Legal Affairs for the Canadian Council of Christian Charities.