Sum­mer jobs grants no place for pol­i­tics

A pro­gram meant to give stu­dents work ex­pe­ri­ence has taken a trou­bling par­ti­san turn

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - JOHN MILLOY John Milloy is a for­mer On­tario cabi­net min­is­ter who served as Lib­eral MPP for Kitch­ener Cen­tre. He cur­rently teaches at Water­loo Lutheran Sem­i­nary, Wil­frid Lau­rier Univer­sity, and the Univer­sity of Water­loo. This com­men­tary was orig­i­nally pu

Have you heard about the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s sum­mer jobs pro­gram and abor­tion?

Yes, you heard me right — sum­mer jobs and abor­tion.

It’s hard to think of some­thing as con­tro­ver­sial as abor­tion be­ing linked to some­thing as in­of­fen­sive as the Canada Sum­mer Jobs Pro­gram that offers em­ploy­ers wage sub­si­dies to hire stu­dents. In fact, the pro­gram is so pop­u­lar the Trudeau Lib­er­als re­cently dou­bled pro­gram funding to al­low close to 70,000 stu­dents to par­tic­i­pate.

Al­though a won­der­ful pro­gram, it does have its pe­cu­liar­i­ties. First, it di­rectly in­volves lo­cal mem­bers of Par­lia­ment from all par­ties. Claim­ing that it wants to “en­sure that lo­cal pri­or­i­ties are re­flected,” the gov­ern­ment asks MPs from all sides of the House to help de­ter­mine what these pri­or­i­ties are, as­sess ap­pli­ca­tions, and help de­cide which com­pa­nies and or­ga­ni­za­tions get funding to hire stu­dents. As the employment min­is­ter’s press sec­re­tary told the me­dia, “mem­bers of Par­lia­ment play a large role in de­ter­min­ing funding in their re­spec­tive rid­ings.” En­ter the is­sue of abor­tion. Ac­cord­ing to a se­ries of ar­ti­cles in the on­line pub­li­ca­tion iPol­i­tics, sev­eral pro-life or­ga­ni­za­tions have ob­tained sum­mer jobs funding over the years, in­clud­ing one last sum­mer sit­u­ated in the rid­ing of a Lib­eral mem­ber of Par­lia­ment. As this pre­sum­ably meant that she signed off on the grant, abor­tion rights groups were in high dud­geon, de­mand­ing that the pro-choice Lib­eral party cease pro­vid­ing funding to any pro-life or­ga­ni­za­tions.

The fed­eral Lib­er­als were quick to re­spond. Claim­ing that the ap­proval was an over­sight on the part of the Lib­eral MP in ques­tion, a spokesper­son for the fed­eral employment min­is­ter an­nounced that as a re­sult of the gov­ern­ment’s strong pro-choice stance, the mat­ter had been “fixed.” No Lib­eral MPs would be ap­prov­ing funding for pro-life or­ga­ni­za­tions in their rid­ings. Re­al­iz­ing that op­po­si­tion mem­bers of Par­lia­ment could still di­rect funding, iPol­i­tics re­ported that the gov­ern­ment was go­ing to re­view the pro­gram to en­sure that “all funding de­ci­sions made by MPs … re­flect the views of a pro-choice gov­ern­ment.”

Re­gard­less of how you feel about the is­sue of abor­tion, there is some­thing ex­tremely trou­bling about this story.

First, why are mem­bers of Par­lia­ment mak­ing funding de­ci­sions for their rid­ings? This is not a mi­nor mat­ter. In Canada we hold cabi­net min­is­ters re­spon­si­ble for spend­ing by their de­part­ments and ex­pect them to be for­mally ac­count­able. We thank­fully don’t have 338 “Boss” Hoggs cutting up the cash for their lo­cal favourites. When I was an MPP, I fre­quently wrote to min­is­ters to ex­press sup­port for lo­cal grant ap­pli­ca­tions and would even ap­proach min­is­ters di­rectly to ad­vo­cate on be­half of my con­stituents. Like­wise, when I be­came a min­is­ter, col­leagues con­stantly ap­proached me seek­ing funding for ini­tia­tives in their rid­ings.

I re­mem­ber two things from these in­ter­ac­tions. First, we all un­der­stood that it was the rel­e­vant min­is­ter who ul­ti­mately made the call and was pub­licly ac­count­able for that de­ci­sion. Sec­ond, I never re­call re­ject­ing an ap­pli­ca­tion by an el­i­gi­ble group or or­ga­ni­za­tion be­cause their pol­icy stance con­flicted with the gov­ern­ment’s po­si­tion.

Cen­tral to the MPs’ role in the sum­mer jobs pro­gram ap­pears to be the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of “lo­cal pri­or­i­ties” for their rid­ing by which ap­pli­ca­tions can be as­sessed. A con­stituency-by-con­stituency list pub­lished by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment seemed to in­di­cate that many MPs iden­ti­fied things like sum­mer jobs linked to Canada’s 150th birth­day or sum­mer fes­ti­vals as “lo­cal pri­or­i­ties.”

I guess we should now add sup­port for gov­ern­ment poli­cies as an­other de­cid­ing fac­tor in whether you get sum­mer stu­dent funding.

I am not sure how this will af­fect groups in­volved in other pol­icy ar­eas. Al­though or­ga­ni­za­tions ad­vo­cat­ing for elec­toral re­form might have been el­i­gi­ble last sum­mer, they are prob­a­bly out of luck go­ing for­ward. What about en­vi­ron­men­tal groups? I guess if an or­ga­ni­za­tion rec­og­nizes the need to bal­ance green ini­tia­tives with the ap­proval of ma­jor pipe­line projects there should be no prob­lem. And be care­ful mar­i­juana rights or­ga­ni­za­tions: You and the gov­ern­ment might agree that pot should be le­gal, but if you don’t believe in lim­it­ing the num­ber of pot plants that some­one can grow for their per­sonal use, you’d bet­ter hold off hir­ing a sum­mer stu­dent.

Canada Sum­mer Jobs is a pro­gram in need of a fix. Al­though I have no prob­lem with mem­bers of Par­lia­ment ex­press­ing sup­port for ap­pli­ca­tions from their rid­ing, let’s leave the funding de­ci­sions to the ap­pro­pri­ate min­is­ter who can be fully ac­count­able. And as for po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy — make a choice: Either the gov­ern­ment al­lows groups fight­ing for a po­lit­i­cal cause to re­ceive funding or they don’t. But any de­ci­sion has to ap­ply equally. If pro-life or­ga­ni­za­tions are in­el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive funding, then pro-choice or­ga­ni­za­tions must also fall into the same cat­e­gory along with count­less other groups whose pri­mary pur­pose is cam­paign­ing for an is­sue.

I have no great affin­ity for many pro-life or­ga­ni­za­tions. A num­ber of them bit­terly at­tacked me when I was in of­fice. But the gov­ern­ment is en­ter­ing dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory when it be­gins to tell one side or the other that they have no right to voice their opin­ion. Canada’s Sum­mer Jobs pro­gram has a long his­tory of sup­port­ing stu­dents look­ing to gain work ex­pe­ri­ence. Let’s not turn it into a weapon for scor­ing points in public pol­icy de­bates.

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