By Bruce J. Clemenger, EFC President
More on this issue at our Canada Summer Jobs resources page.
Just before Christmas thousands of organizations that receive federal government grants to hire summer students discovered a new “attestation” added to the application. It requires them to affirm certain values, a deeply troubling change which many could not sign in good conscience.
The opposition to the attestation came not only from religious groups (over 90 leaders of different faiths signed a letter the EFC helped to draft objecting to the attestation) but also from numerous national columnists, editorial boards and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
A primary concern mentioned by all these groups is that the attestation reads as a values test, and such a test should not be required in order to receive a public benefit. Such a test is contrary to the principles of a free and democratic society. If an organization meets the basic requirements for the grant, then no additional test should be applied.
Rather than dropping the attestation, or amending it to focus on the activities that the program is intended to fund and not fund, the Prime Minister has said publicly that those objecting to the attestation have a political agenda. Communications from some MPs are saying that organizations that refuse to agree to the attestation have been misinformed, and that those, presumably like the EFC, who object to the attestation are misinforming.
Let me explain by looking at the wording of the problematic attestation, which states:
Both the job and my organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other rights. These include reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability or sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.
Core mandate: The government is arguing that a core mandate focuses on activities. However, particularly for charities, the core mandate is usually framed in terms of mission, vision and principles. These are aspirational and directive. They blend principles or values and purposes and tasks. Similarly, each federal cabinet minister has a mandate letter, and these too are both aspirational (referring to ideals and values) and directive (establishing priorities). The same is true of churches and other religious organizations. If we try to boil it down, a core mandate for Christians might be “To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) or “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). Who is my neighbour is a critical question as we will see below.
Respect: Most definitions of respect use words such as “admire, affirm or esteem” that have an evaluative dimension. To respect something or someone is to value them. The government’s Supplemental Information (it’s not in the application form but was offered to reply to concerns) defines respect very narrowly. It contends that the attestation focuses on activities and not on values: “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.” This is more like a definition of tolerance. It is not what we commonly mean by respect, which usually goes far beyond “not undermining” to actually valuing as positive. In the end, the definition in the Supplementary Information is not in the application, and respect will be interpreted to mean what most of us understand it to mean in common parlance.
Individual human rights in Canada: Christians have been strong advocates for human rights historically, as well as for freedoms including those identified in section 2 of the Charter (freedom of conscience and religion, thought, belief opinion and expression and more). However, the attestation does not mention freedoms, nor the rights of groups. Affirming only individual rights does not reflect the balance that the Charter and the courts seek to attain.
Including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other rights: What are these values we are being asked to respect? They are nowhere delineated by any court or by Parliament. And what are the “other rights?” Some are identified in the subsequent sentence but not all. Religious organizations are defined and shaped by their doctrines. Religious folk take attestations and their commitments very seriously. But what exactly are we saying our core mandate respects?
We object to a values test – that applicants must affirm certain values. But it is an additional concern that this attestation asks for affirmation or respect of unspecified values and rights.
These include reproductive rights: At least one of the rights that are identified, “reproductive rights,” is legally incorrect. Many commentators have challenged the notion of reproductive rights, noting that policies regulating abortion were struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada not because there was a right to abortion, but because the policies were inconsistently applied across the country. We have a legal vacuum, not an established set of rights.
The government’s key stated reason for adding the attestation is that it does not want to fund organizations that engage in anti-abortion activities, or which seek to undermine “reproductive rights.” Religious people of many faiths are labeled anti-abortion and anti-women’s rights. We call ourselves pro-life. We want to extend the protection of law and rights to include the unborn. If our core mandate is loving our neighbour as ourselves, how can we be silent when some of the most vulnerable of our human family are unprotected? Almost all countries in the world have some restrictions on abortion.
And the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability or sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies to governments (section 32), not to non-governmental organizations or to individuals. Whereas the government cannot discriminate in the provision of services, benefits or protection on any of the listed grounds, the interactions between organizations and individuals are regulated by human rights codes.
Human rights codes actually allow organizations to make distinctions, to be selective in who they hire and serve on the basis of the purpose of the organization. A religious organization can selectively hire someone who adheres to the religion of the organization. A Baptist church can restrict their hiring a pastor to Baptists. Likewise, a camp for blind children can require their campers to be legally blind.
The test for lawfulness of an organization is the applicable human rights code, and not the Charter. Although the government cannot be selective at any time, organizations are allowed to, depending on their core mandate.
It is unclear whether the attestation means that organizations cannot be selective in their hiring, even though it is lawful under human rights codes for them to do so.
Leading up to the revised program application deadline of Feb. 9, some Liberal MPs are calling or emailing churches who have expressed concerns or objections to assure them that the government is not interested in their beliefs or values, and that so long as their activities do not seek to undermine or strip Canadians of “existing rights,” they should feel comfortable checking off the attestation.
Yet, while the government says it is concerned only with activities, it is requiring an attestation that does not deal with activities, and which most interpret as a values test. The narrow definition of respect and the examples the government has offered on its website to clarify its intent may assist some, but the problematic attestation remains. And we remain opposed to such a values test.
If there are specific activities the government does not want to fund, they should be explicit and build these restrictions into the application process. For example, it might be possible to forbid the use of grant money for jobs that undertake political activity (as defined by the Canada Revenue Agency).
The government’s stated concerns can be addressed without requiring a values test. As it stands, the attestation is both a misuse and violation of the very Charter of Rights and Freedoms it invokes.
Author: Bruce J. Clemenger