OTTAWA -- The Liberal government has clarified how its new policy on reproductive rights will apply to organizations seeking youth summer job funding -- but it's standing firm on its decision to deny grants to groups advocating against abortion.
"I have reached out to many of the religious leaders across the country ... to let them know that this is about the activities of the organization and the job description," Employment Minister Patty Hajdu said Tuesday in Toronto.
"It is not about beliefs or values."
Employment and Social Development Canada, which oversees the Canada Summer Jobs program that created nearly 69,000 temporary jobs last year, added a section on its website Tuesday further explaining the language -- and the intended goal -- of the controversial new requirement.
The Liberals have said that faith-based organizations are welcome to seek federal funding to create summer jobs for youth, but they and all other applicants are being asked to attest to their respect for sexual and reproductive rights -- including "the right to access safe and legal abortions" -- as well as other human rights.
That stipulation, as outlined in the application guidelines, concerns both the job activity and the core mandate of the organization.
Many churches and other religious groups have said that forces them to choose between their spiritual values and funding that helps run summer camps and other activities that have nothing to do with abortion.
The change to the website is meant to address those concerns.
The core mandate, the website says, refers to "the primary activities undertaken by the organization that reflect the organization's ongoing services provided to the community.
"It is not the beliefs of the organization, and it is not the values of the organization," it says.
The website further clarifies what it means when it refers to "respect" for those rights.
"Individual human rights are respected when an organization's primary activities, and the job responsibilities, do not seek to remove or actively undermine these existing rights," it says.
The website then also provides some hypothetical examples of what would -- and would not -- be eligible for funding.
What would get a green light?
"A faith-based organization that embraces a traditional definition of marriage but whose primary activities reduce social isolation among seniors applies for funding to hire students," website said, noting the programs the student employees developed would be available to all seniors, no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
A summer camp that does not allow LGBTQ youth, however, would not be eligible for funding to hire students as camp counsellors.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement Tuesday saying they remain unsatisfied with the changes.
"The (conference) remains seriously concerned that the beliefs and practices of Catholics and other faith traditions will exclude them from receiving funding through the Canada Summer Jobs program," spokesman Rene Laprise said in an email.
"The attestation and examples still amount to the government's coercion on matters of conscience and religious belief," he said. "They foreclose the possibility of wide-ranging views and even healthy disagreement. The attestation remains unacceptable."
Hajdu said Tuesday the Liberal government is prepared to defend its decision against legal challenges, on the basis that Canadian law protects citizens from discrimination.
The government received complaints last year that summer job funding had been given to summer camps that refuse to hire LGBTQ staff and groups that distribute graphic anti-abortion pamphlets, Hajdu said.
"We took those complaints seriously and this is the decision that we've taken, that in order for organizations to receive funding they have to affirm that they will not work to undermine the rights of Canadians," she said.
Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said she was glad to see the Liberals clarify the wording.
Her national political advocacy organization, which had urged the Liberals to bar funding to groups advocating against abortion rights, had been concerned the vague language was at the heart of the backlash.
"It confirms our interpretation that the word respect does not mean support or agreement with. It just means that they're going to not actively undermine the rights that are listed in the guidelines there," Arthur said.
"I think that if a group still feels that they cannot sign the attestation even with these clarifications, well, I guess they are ineligible for funding," she said.
With files from Peter Goffin