Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/1/2018 (572 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have had the privilege and challenge of fielding a range of media interviews about the Canada Summer Jobs program and its effect on religious charities. The government has hit a nerve on this one and it is not settling down anytime soon.
If you listen to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Employment Minister Patty Hajdu, you would think this is a non-issue. Trudeau has referred to the policy change as a "kerfuffle around the Canada Summer Jobs program."
Hajdu has said, "In terms of church groups that are concerned that this may invalidate them from funding, in fact, my perspective is that it won’t, as long as their core mandate agrees with those hard-won rights and freedoms that Canadians expect us to stand up for."
For the individuals from church groups and other faith-based charities calling my office at the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, this is more than a "kerfuffle."
The change in policy for who is eligible for the Canada Summer Jobs program is the government tying a government program to a test of whether the recipient agrees with government social policy. The message is clear: you are eligible for government largesse if you are ideologically "correct." Nothing could be more antithetical to a liberal democracy.
Those who agree with this government policy ought to beware. Today you may agree, because those in power have the means to give grants to groups that are in alignment with your worldview. Tomorrow, with a different government, the tables may turn. Then you could be the one who is out of alignment and facing denial of eligibility to government largesse.
While governments with different ideological perspectives come and go, we have always shunned the capricious abuse of power. The principle of fair play has served our country well. No matter who was in power, we all could agree that if an applicant to government funds met the requirements of the program concerned, then they were eligible for those funds. Now, government has "drawn a line" and stated that only those who agree with government views on abortion, sexuality and the like will be deemed worthy of the Canada Summer Jobs program. The principle of fair play is no longer.
There is a growing uneasiness about the whimsical position of government power. As John Ivison put it, "there is no picking and choosing on the charter unless it suits Trudeau’s Liberals." The reporters I have talked to get it, and there have been a lot of them lately. They understand that this is an overreach.
It was not too long ago that former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis made it his business to make life difficult for members of the Jehovah’s Witness community. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were outspoken in their disagreement with Catholic theology and Quebec government support of the Catholic Church, to which Duplessis took exception. He thought he was doing the right thing by using government power to stop Jehovah’s Witnesses from spreading their religious message. He made sure that no government benefit was given to any Jehovah’s Witness sympathizers.
Frank Roncarelli, a Montreal restaurateur, paid bail for the Jehovah’s Witnesses whom Duplessis jailed. Frustrated by the catch-and-release of the hated members of the sect, Duplessis decided to take away Roncarelli’s livelihood by ordering the revocation of his liquor licence. It put Roncarelli out of business. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled that Duplessis, though a public official, was not above the law and had to pay damages.
Today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has an aversion to those groups who advocate that human life begins at conception. He has made it his goal to ensure that no government summer-jobs funding will flow to those groups that disagree with his perspective. Though reasonable people may disagree on these issues, government has decided there can be no neutrality and is demanding an attestation of agreement which, in my view, will not pass charter scrutiny. Government is required by the charter not to hinder the free expression of ideas and practices that are legal, even though they may be controversial. It is our birthright as free citizens to expect our government to honour the principle of free expression by ensuring that all government entitlements are distributed equally.
As it currently stands, Duplessis’s position of 1946 is being mimicked by Trudeau’s position of 2018. Ironically, it may well be that the charter Trudeau claims as justification for his new policy will be the very law that holds such abuse in check. Already one lawsuit has been filed. More are sure to come.
Barry W. Bussey is director of legal affairs for the Canadian Council of Christian Charities.