Summer jobs grants no place for politics
A program meant to give students work experience has taken a troubling partisan turn
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.