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Abortion rights advocate calls for more clarity on summer jobs program

Last Updated Jan 19, 2018 at 3:40 pm EST

Joyce Arthur, a board member at the Providing Alternatives, Counselling and Education Society (PACE), leads a red umbrella march to recognize International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday December 17, 2016. An abortion rights advocate who urged the Liberals to deny summer job grants to groups fighting the choice women have to terminate their pregnancies thinks they might have gone too far in stretching the rules to include the core mandate of the entire organization. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

OTTAWA – A reproductive rights advocate who urged the Liberals to deny summer job grants to groups pushing for restricted access to abortion said the government may have gone a step too far in rolling out the changes.

Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said she supports what she believes was the government’s primary goal: targeting organizations that would hire students to undermine reproductive rights, or discriminate against the LGBTQ community.

“They are not interested in stopping churches or whatever,” Arthur said. “It’s really all about anti-choice groups or anti-LGBT groups.”

Faith-based organizations are welcome to seek federal funding to create summer jobs for youth, the government says, but they 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 applies not only to the job activity, but the core mandate of the organization.

The change to the Canada Summer Jobs program, which created nearly 69,000 jobs in 2017, stems from a controversy last year when officials approved tens of thousands of dollars for groups opposing abortion — a fact Arthur and her national political advocacy organization helped bring to light.

But Arthur said she thinks the message is getting lost, thanks to vague language that has faith-based groups fearful that the government is treading on fundamental freedoms of conscience, religion and thought guaranteed by the charter.

Many churches and other religious groups say that forces them to choose between their spiritual values and funding that helps run soup kitchens, shelters and other activities that have nothing to do with abortion.

“If there is a confusion in the wording, then that is a problem I think that they should look at and hopefully fix,” Arthur said. “There should be some way of doing it without raising the ire of all these other religious groups.”

Arthur wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Employment Minister Patty Hajdu last week, recommending the government clarify the wording on its website, both to “correct the confusions” and “mitigate the effects of any lawsuits.”

Some groups have discussed adding a letter to the application form explaining that while they do support all charter and human rights law, they do not want to be compelled to express broad support for reproductive rights. Employment and Social Development Canada suggests such applications would be rejected outright.

Still, Arthur is not alone in her support of the government’s original goal.

Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, an organization that advocates for the rights of sexual minorities, said she hopes the Liberals will expand the policy change to other areas and that provincial governments will follow their example.

“I don’t understand why someone would not welcome that type of inclusion with respect to the mandate of their organization,” Kennedy said.

“I think it’s really important to set a standard of what Canada is about in terms of human rights.”

Diane Bergeron, vice-president of the CNIB — formerly known as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind — suggested those opposed to the new requirements are reading too much into them.

“They’re not actually checking a box saying they believe in abortion,” Bergeron said. “They’re saying that they understand that it is a right that women have to choose.”

Bonnie Brayton, the national executive director of DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN) Canada, said she is proud of the government and its stance.

“Too often, people don’t want to offend anyone with the way they unpack a program like that, because they want it seen as it’s for everyone,” she said, “and it is for everyone, provided the people who receive these things respect Canadian laws and Canadian human rights.”

Karen Segal, the staff lawyer for the Women’s Legal and Action Fund (LEAF), said freedom of belief does not mean the right to money.

“It’s reasonable to establish a set of criteria, a set of goals that the program is intended to advance.”

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