Documents show how Liberals put abortion, summer jobs on collision course
Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister Patricia Hajdu speaks with media in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on January 29, 2018.
Jordan Press, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, April 24, 2018 4:44AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, April 24, 2018 11:39AM EDT
OTTAWA -- It was February 2017 when the first letter about anti-abortion groups and the Canada Summer Jobs program landed in Labour Minister Patty Hajdu's office.
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada wanted Hajdu to keep crisis pregnancy centres -- which offer an anti-abortion spin on pregnancy counselling -- from getting summer-jobs funding. Applications were already being reviewed, and the centres were likely on the list, the letter warned.
There was no response.
Not until April of that year -- when media reports emerged about a rookie Liberal MP who approved $56,000 in funding for an anti-abortion group in her riding in 2016 -- did the issue seem to catch Hajdu's attention.
Since then, there has been no shortage of media attention paid to the Liberal government's efforts to screen organizations applying for Canada Summer Jobs money, blocking any that refuse to attest that neither they nor the summer jobs in question would support an anti-abortion agenda.
On Tuesday, Hajdu launched the 2018 version of the program, playing down any issues with the employer declaration by saying that faith-based groups had accessed funding. The Employment and Social Development Canada website shows hundreds of churches among the employers approved for funding this year, along with faith-based camps.
Hajdu said the Canada Summer Jobs program was about the students, despite the attention paid to protesting groups.
"Canadians expect us to be thoughtful about how we run programs and that we make sure that especially for these first jobs for kids, that they are with organizations that respect the fundamental rights of Canadians and don't ask them to do things that are essentially looking to undermine those rights," Hajdu said.
"We made that commitment to Canadians that we would do this and that's exactly what we're doing."
The evolution of the Liberals' policy that stoked concerns from religious groups is laid out in some 200 pages of documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access of Information Act or provided by groups, along with interviews with stakeholders and government officials, some speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
A briefing note from August shows Hajdu had already directed the department to come up with the new employer declaration to ensure funding went to groups with "mandates that are consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and court decisions." Hajdu needed to approve the final wording before the fall, the note said.
Her department crafted several pages of legal advice, all of it blocked from release on the grounds of solicitor-client privilege.
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, meanwhile, was getting only radio silence from Hajdu's office.
"We didn't know what was really going on," said Joyce Arthur, the coalition's executive director.
"Then, in December, they suddenly announced this attestation requirement. At the time we didn't really know why they chose that solution, but we thought, 'Whatever works'."
The new requirements appeared to come out of nowhere, said one government official, who described initial political trepidation about the eligibility rules.
Faith-based groups howled in protest, saying they violated religious and free-speech rights. Hajdu and Liberal MPs defended the wording of the declaration.
One Toronto-area Liberal MP wrote to a complainant, saying that while individuals could disagree with the declaration, "freedom of religion is an individual right and is not something which can be superimposed on an organization."
Religious leaders who met with Hajdu in late March left with the impression there might be some movement on the wording, but a government official said Hajdu only agreed to a review and gave no hint that the language dealing specifically with reproductive rights would be removed.
Hajdu said Thursday she is looking to clarify language in the application form and guide that clears up concerns from groups and lets the government meet its policy objectives.
In the meantime, Arthur's organization plans to pore over the full list of this year's employers to see if any of the hundreds of groups in their database have been approved for funding.
Hajdu also said the department is working with employers who are concerned that increases in provincial minimum wages in provinces like Ontario may force them to cut back on hours offered to summer students.
A timeline of how new rules were added to the Canada Summer Jobs program
Following is a timeline of events based on documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, as well as other public sources.
Jan. 11: The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada puts out a press release saying that 112 crisis pregnancy centres registered as charities received about $3.5 million in government funding between 2011 and 2015. Data tables linked in the release show tens of thousands of dollars in Canada Summer Jobs grants.
Jan. 19: The Liberals announce an extension to Feb. 3 to apply for the Canada Summer Jobs program after officials find not enough businesses are applying.
Feb. 20: Members of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada email Labour Minister Patty Hajdu and Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef about the concerns laid out in the group's January release. The email notes that anti-abortion activists are among those applying for summer jobs grants: "In the interest of patient safety, quality education and respect for charter rights, funding must be stopped immediately and permanently."
Feb. 21: An official in Hajdu's office forwards the message: "For correspondence. Thanks." The coalition doesn't get a response.
March 14: Members of the coalition send a second email to Hajdu, copying Monsef and Finance Minister Bill Morneau, making the same request as the February missive. Less than one hour after it arrives in Hajdu's office, an official forwards it with a note: "For indexing. Thanks." The coalition doesn't get a response. This loop is repeated once more a week later.
April 10: The coalition puts out another release detailing summer jobs grants to anti-abortion groups. Among the groups is one from 2016 in Liberal MP Iqra Khalid's Toronto-area riding: The Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform. Khalid emails department officials and says the group "should not be receiving funding" and thanks officials for "all your support and help on this."
April 12: Service Canada calls Khalid's office and writes a follow up email. Funding won't go to the group, as per Khalid's orders. News outlet iPolitics does a story about the grant in Khalid's riding, but Khalid refers questions to Hajdu's office. A spokesman for Hajdu tells iPolitics it was an oversight if Khalid gave an anti-abortion group funding the previous summer.
April 13: Hajdu's department provides her with speaking points should she be asked about the issue during question period. At the back of the document is a mention of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform: its project number from 2016, the amount of approved funding ($69,750), the amount paid ($56,695) and the number of jobs created (16). Additional information has been blacked out of the documents because officials say it could cause financial harm to the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform. There is no mention of new eligibility requirements.
Dec. 8: Hajdu's officials provide her with another list of speaking points for question period, this time specifically about the new declaration. Officials recommend that she say the declaration "is consistent with individual human rights in Canada, charter rights and case law" and the Liberals' "commitment to human rights, which include women's rights and women's reproductive rights, and the rights of gender-diverse and transgender Canadians."
Dec. 19: Hajdu's department produces a set of media lines for the opening of applications for the Canada Summer Jobs program, as well as a set of questions and answers. The new attestation requirement isn't mentioned in the document. An applicant's guide is also released. The guide says that sexual and reproductive rights includes "the right to access safe and legal abortions." The guide says the point of the new rules is to prevent federal funding "from flowing to organizations whose mandates or projects may not respect individual human rights."
Jan. 30: Hajdu's department crafts an updated set of media lines now that the application period has been extended by a week. One of the reasons was due to "recently provided supplementary information to address questions about what constitutes eligible and ineligible organizations, an organization's core mandate and defining respect of individual human rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
Feb. 27: Hajdu's department crafts an updated set of media lines after applications close. The documents note the number of applications is on par with 2017, that demand exceeds the available budget and also addresses the new eligibility rules. Are religious organizations ineligible? "No. ... Applicants are not asked to provide their views, beliefs or values as these are not taken into consideration during application for the program." Are religious groups being treated differently? "No. ... Faith based groups are required to meet the same eligibility criteria as any applicant."
March 21: A group of religious organizations meet Hajdu about the eligibility criteria. One week later, the group releases a joint letter about the summer jobs requirements, saying it is "extremely disappointed" the Liberals won't change the wording faith-based groups find problematic. Hajdu tells them she's open to further clarifying the intent of the language, but there doesn't appear to be a promise that the wording around reproductive rights in particular would be removed.
April 24: Hajdu announces the launch of jobs being funded through the 2018 version of the program, noting there are 3,000 first-time employers, that applications are on par with last year, and that hundreds of faith-based groups have received funding this year -- meaning they marked the "I attest" box.