In 2017, the Canadian government began mandating that organizations applying for the Canada Summer Jobs Program grant pledge their support for abortion in order to be accepted into the program. Following this mandate, rejections to the program rose from fewer than 50 annually to 1,559 in 2018. The program receives an average of 40,000 applicants each year. After legal challenges ensued, the number of rejected applicants to the program declined to 441 in 2019, but the issue has not been fully resolved.
“To compel an individual to repeat what the government wants you to say on threat of not receiving a government benefit is sinister,” said attorney Carol Crosson of Crosson Constitutional Law of Airdrie, Alta., counsel for Christian plaintiffs. “The most sinister threat to free speech is compelled speech.”
The Canada Summer Job Grants program, administered under the Employment and Social Development Canada, funds about 70,000 summer jobs each year for college students, allowing small businesses, non-profits, and religious employers to hire for summer jobs such as camp counselors or landscapers. The Department of Employment issued a directive in 2017 that required all grant applicants to pledge that they supported “sexual and reproductive rights and the right to access safe and legal abortions.”
Legal challenges arose, including from the Right to Life Association of Toronto and the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform of Calgary. As a result, a new directive was issued the following year, but it was not much of an improvement. Applicants had to promise that the grant money “[would] not be used to undermine or restrict the exercise of rights legally protected in Canada” and were told that activities that “actively work to undermine or restrict a woman’s access to sexual and reproductive health services” would be ineligible for funding.
The organizations no longer had to pledge their support for abortion, but they could not use the funding for jobs that would “undermine” access to abortion, blocking pro-life organizations such as pregnancy centers from receiving funding.
According to CNA, 26 applicants were told they were ineligible for funding in 2019 because of their pro-life position. Another 403 applicants were denied funding because, according to the government, their work undermined human rights. One federal case challenging the rules presented evidence that the social media accounts of some of the applicants were actually monitored for comments that the government deemed inappropriate.
Barry Bussey, director of legal affairs for the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, said that members of the Council that had received funding in the past were sent letters asking if they “in any way restrict access to programs, services, or employment, or otherwise discriminate, contrary to applicable laws, on the basis of prohibited grounds, including sex, genetic characteristics, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, color, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.”
Groups who were denied funding due to their pro-life stance had to fundraise or make changes to their programs, which in some cases meant eliminating jobs for students.
“The human rights legislation is there to allow greater diversity and pluralism in Canada,” said Bussey. “However, the government approach is there is only one view of the world and if religious communities are out of line with the government view, they are unable to access funding everyone else has access to.”
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