Does the promotion of anti-abortion views violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? The issue recently arose in the context of the Canada Summer Jobs program, a federal program which funds businesses and organizations seeking to hire students over the summer break.
In past years, some MPs, including Liberal Iqra Khalid and Conservative Rachael Harder, have approved funding requests from anti-abortion groups who hired students to advocate against abortion. Khalid, in particular, made headlines for approving a $56,695 summer job grant to the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR), an organization known for distributing flyers showing graphic images of aborted fetuses and for attempting to post anti-abortion ads on buses in several Canadian cities.
In response, the federal government changed the rules for the summer jobs program in 2018, stripping the MPs of their power to allocate money, and requiring applicants sign an “attestation” that they respect the Charter, including “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, the government claims, “helps prevent youth (as young as 15 years of age) from being exposed to employment within organizations that may promote positions that are contrary to the values enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and associated case law.”
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The effect was felt far beyond groups like the CCBR, however. Religious organizations cried foul, claiming that they could not in good conscience sign such an attestation – not because they want to blitz neighbourhoods with anti-abortion pamphlets, but because they believe that abortion is morally unacceptable. Asking them to sign this attestation is tantamount to asking them to abandon their beliefs – a direct violation of section 2 of the Charter, which guarantees freedom of “conscience and religion, thought, belief, opinion, and expression.” Nevertheless, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the change, telling a town hall in Hamilton that, “Defending rights and freedoms is at the core of who I am and is the core of what Canada is. … At the same time, we need to know there is a difference between freedom of expression and acting on those freedoms.”
Um, yes, we do – and it’s a difference that is taken very seriously. By his words, Trudeau effectively put the organization’s activities into the same category as the words of Holocaust deniers Ernst Zundel, Jim Keegstra, or other persons who have been convicted of violating Canada’s prohibition against hate speech, defined as “any writing, sign or visible representation that advocates or promotes genocide or the communication of which by any person would constitute an offence under section 319 (of the Criminal Code).”
Perhaps inspired by Trudeau, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) has now taken legal action against the CCBR, saying that it should not only be denied federal funds, but that its flyers and ads should be outlawed as hate propaganda. “Only women, and some transgender people, have abortions, so the message of the offensive images is that women are murderers, and their right to abortion should be taken away,” said ARCC Executive Director Joyce Arthur. “This makes the flyers and signage discriminatory. … This means that the signs shown in public appear to violate the Criminal Code hate speech law. … Women and transgender people are both identifiable groups, the signage incites hatred against them, and the incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace.”
Really? The CCBR doesn’t call for women getting abortions to be attacked. It doesn’t even accomplish the organization’s stated goal of “See it. Believe it. End it.” In the words of the ARCC, “These activities change very few minds on abortion, but they do cause many citizens to become upset and irate, resulting in complaints to local governments and police. Families with young kids are often the most infuriated, with many stories of children traumatized over seeing the pictures.”
Frankly, I’ve seen far more upsetting images of people – including children – on the front pages of newspapers, dying in war, blown up by terrorist bombs, or injured in a variety of natural disasters. The image of Aylan Kurdi, a four-year old Syrian refugee lying dead in the sand on a Turkish beach, haunts me still. Yet an organization dedicated to ending war, that would use such an image, would not be taken to court for displaying it. Neither would the women who marched on Washington dressed as giant vaginas with teeth be told that their outfits are too “upsetting” to be out in public, even though I wouldn’t want my eight-year-old daughter to stare at those all day either.
Groups make political statements with imagery every day – but as long as they do not call for or seek to incite violence, they are not running afoul of hate laws. I don’t agree with those who would enforce a blanket ban on abortion. But in a free country, believing that abortion is murder is not a crime. Neither is saying it – or showing it.
There’s a difference between promoting hatred, and provoking debate.