COMMENTARY: Liberals will win the fight on Canada Summer Jobs program

A federal court denied a request for an injunction that would have barred Employment Minister Patty Hajdu from requiring that applicants for Canada Summer Jobs grants attest that they respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other rights.
A federal court denied a request for an injunction that would have barred Employment Minister Patty Hajdu from requiring that applicants for Canada Summer Jobs grants attest that they respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other rights. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

Late in 2017 the federal government announced it would be implementing changes to the Canada Summer Jobs program. After it had been widely reported that past recipients of the tax-payer funded subsidy had used the funds to advance the cause of limiting women’s reproductive rights, the program garnered criticism.

The program really started to draw the ire of pro-choice advocates across the country last spring when Liberal MP Iqra Khalid approved a grant for the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, which is known for distributing graphic anti-choice literature.

WATCH BELOW: Conservatives, Liberals trade jabs over Canada Summer Jobs attestation

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Conservatives, Liberals trade jabs over Canada Summer Jobs program attestation

As reported by my Global News colleague Amanda Connolly, “In that context, Khalid’s approval of the grant drew fierce condemnation from pro-choice groups and prompted the government to announce that the move had been an ‘oversight’ and that no such funding would be allowed to go to such anti-abortion groups in ridings held by Liberals. It also said it would look at how to permanently change the program to prevent any MPs from allocating public funds to anti-abortion groups in the future.”

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Fast forward eight months, and the Liberals have changed the policy to rectify an error from one of its own backbench MPs, and to better reflect the realities of Canada in 2018. After all, recent polling on the issue has demonstrated that over three quarters of Canadians approve of a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, and a majority of Canadians approve of allowing a woman to make those decisions under any circumstance.

Going forward, any organization looking for funding through the Canada Summer Jobs program will now have to check off a box in their application to attest that the core mandate of the job in question, as well as the activities of the job, respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in addition to other human rights law.

To be clear, the attestation explicitly states that religious organizations are not automatically disqualified, and yet you wouldn’t know it if you were reading the hyperbolic, piping hot takes by the Canadian punditry, or by the melodramatic attacks from the Conservatives, and for a short time, the NDP.

Legally, the policy change is likely to be above board. A Federal Court dismissed a request for an injunction seeking to bar the changes from applying this year, citing specifically that Employment Minister Patty Hajdu and the public interest would suffer greater harm from the granting of a stay.

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And while a group of Evangelical Christian leaders held a press conference to state they will be seeking a Charter challenge to the policy change, there is a very good chance of a court finding the policy Charter compliant as well. Whereas the argument can clearly be made that there is a limit on the freedom of conscience, the justification of the limit could be easily argued when considering the other competing rights at issue.

Politically, however, this is a slam-dunk for the Liberals. It conveniently reminds voters that Andrew Scheer is pro-life, as is nearly half his shadow cabinet. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. Social conservatives have every right to make their voice heard in this country through their elected representatives, and the Conservative Party is where they feel most at home. Conservatives will chalk this up to diversity of thought. And that’s great! But the Conservatives themselves clearly know it’s not a winning issue, otherwise they’d run on it during elections, and Scheer himself wouldn’t have gone out of his way to ensure the Canadian public that he wouldn’t be re-opening the abortion debate.

One may disagree from an ideological standpoint of government having a say in which organizations get funding, but it’s clear that the government has to draw a line somewhere, and it isn’t as easy as one might think.

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Rob Silver, a Liberal strategist currently on temporary hiatus, has noted over on Twitter that if hate speech is the baseline, then the government would have to fund all sorts of groups: anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, and more troublingly, holocaust deniers, and far right anti-Islamic groups like La Meute.

Don’t get me wrong, the communications rollout of the policy change was clearly fumbled and riddled with all sorts of misfires from the Liberals, but that was also compounded by the punditry in this country. The vast majority of the Canadian commentariat has fascinatingly and consistently left out racial equality and LGBTQ rights being explicitly addressed in the attestation, choosing instead to focus on the issue of reproductive rights, even though access to abortion and contraception has been entrenched in this country for far longer than LGBTQ rights have.

You don’t have to like the Liberals, the change to the Summer Jobs program, or even be pro-choice to recognize that on this front, the Liberals will win, and will continue to win.

Supriya Dwivedi is host of The Morning Show on Global News Radio 640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News.

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