Faith groups welcome end to funding values test
Nine court challenges still ongoing
OTTAWA • Faith-based groups are largely welcoming the government’s overhaul of its summer jobs attestation, saying it addresses the biggest problems that prevented many organizations from signing it in 2018.
“It’s unfortunate that we were in this position to begin with,” said Neil MacCarthy, communications director for the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto. “That said, I think the changes for 2019 are certainly an improvement from where we were this time last year.”
MacCarthy said he expects most religious groups will be able to sign this year’s version — though whether they get approved for funding remains to be seen. “People have said, ‘Well, at least I can apply in good conscience,’ ” he said.
The new attestation drops much of the controversial language from the 2018 version, which required applicants to attest that their “core mandate” respects abortion rights. Hundreds of religious organizations argued they couldn’t sign such a statement because it violated their beliefs, despite the government’s insistence it only referred to activities.
Service Canada rejected more than 1,500 summer jobs applications last year over incomplete attestations, while other religious groups declined to even apply.
The government held consultations over the past few months with faith-based groups to develop the language for this year’s edition. “I think they were respectful discussions in terms of first trying to get a better appreciation of some of the concerns that we had, and also trying to determine if there was a path forward,” MacCarthy said.
The new version of the attestation contains narrower language that says the grants cannot be used to “undermine or restrict the exercise of rights legally protected in Canada.”
Further on, the application says that “ineligible projects and jobs activities” include any that “actively work to undermine or restrict a woman’s access to sexual and reproductive health services.”
Groups who spoke to the National Post said they have some concerns over how the definition of “undermine or restrict” will be applied in practice, but are largely satisfied.
“Our primary concern with last year’s attestation was that it was, in effect, a values test,” said a statement from Julia Beazley, public policy director with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. “And that values test was an infringement on the Charter-guaranteed freedoms of conscience, thought, belief, opinion and expression. While there are still restrictions on the kinds of jobs or activities that can be funded under the 2019 program, the values test is gone.”
The Canadian Council of Christian Charities, another large umbrella organization that represented many groups who protested last year’s attestation, said it is “pleased that the federal government has removed the problematic 2018 values language.”
“We are, therefore, encouraging all our members to apply for the 2019 Canada Summer Jobs program,” it said in a statement. “Any projects that the government does not fund, we will work with our members to find out why they were denied, and we will assist them in any way we can to ensure they receive a favourable response from this program.”
Cardus, a faith-based think-tank that works on religious freedom issues, also welcomed the changes, though it said the “realization comes a year late and after causing real harm to approximately 1,500 organizations and many more young people.”
“There is still the potential for problems, however, with the new eligibility criteria,” said the statement from executive vice-president Ray Pennings, who argued it still contained “opaque wording subject to interpretation by the government of the day behind closed doors.”
There are at least nine ongoing Federal Court challenges over last year’s summer jobs attestation. A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 13 to determine whether most of them should be paused while the first one — a challenge from the Toronto Right to Life Association — is resolved.
Lawyers representing the dissenting groups couldn’t immediately say what this means for their cases going forward, but said the change is a move in the right direction.
“My client welcomes the decision of the government to rescind its unconstitutional attestation,” said Carol Crosson, a lawyer representing Toronto Right to Life. “This is a victory for the rule of law and for all Canadians. It is a victory for all those who stood against the government’s unconstitutional incursion into the beliefs and opinions of Canadians.”
Albertos Polizogopoulos, who represents a group of businesses challenging the 2018 attestation, said he still needs more information.
“We need to see the full Applicant’s Guide and Articles of Agreement before knowing exactly what this means, but clearly this is an admission by the government that last year’s compulsory attestation was offside and undemocratic.”
Employment Minister Patty Hajdu insisted that the 2018 attestation only targeted activities. But hundreds of religious groups across the country found the language vague and confusing, and argued they couldn’t sign an attestation that seemed to require them to state a belief that they didn’t hold.
St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica, part of the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, which was affected by the controversial change in rules for the Canada Summer Jobs grant.