‘Val­ues test’ seen an in­fring­ing on Char­ter rights

National Post (National Edition) - - CANADA - Brian Platt Na­tional Post [email protected]­media.com Twit­ter: bta­platt

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 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.

PETER J. THOMP­SON / NA­TIONAL POST FILES

The gov­ern­ment held con­sul­ta­tions in re­cent months with faith-based groups to de­velop the lan­guage for this year’s sum­mer jobs at­tes­ta­tion.

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