It is troubling when the state coerces citizens to think as it does on controversial moral issues. This tactic is expected in undemocratic states. It is concerning to witness it in a liberal democracy like Canada.

The Trudeau government is using this tactic in a peculiar context: the Canada Summer Jobs program. The program helps create summer jobs for secondary and post-secondary students by offering federal funds to entities such as not-for-profit organizations to hire these Canadians.

For the 2018 program, details of which were announced in December, any organization that requests funding for a job must attest that ‚Äúboth the job and the organization‚Äôs core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other rights.‚ÄĚ

So far, so good. The problem appears in the sentences that follow. The human rights that applicants must endorse include ‚Äúreproductive rights‚ÄĚ such as ‚Äúthe right to access safe and legal abortions.‚ÄĚ As a result, applicants that oppose abortion on moral or religious grounds may be denied funding for their summer initiatives.

This move by the Trudeau government is not altogether surprising. In 2014, Trudeau decreed that all Liberal MPs must vote in a pro-choice manner on legislation concerning abortion. In March 2017, Trudeau announced that Canada will provide $650 million in foreign aid for female sexual and reproductive health ‚ÄĒ including abortions. Last fall, he defended the decision to block the appointment of a female MP as head of the parliamentary committee on the status of women on account of her anti-abortion views.

The reach of Trudeau’s views on abortion has steadily grown since he became Liberal leader in 2013. What started inside the walls of his caucus later spread across Parliament. With the requirement of this attestation for Canada Summer Jobs funding, it has now spilled into Canadian society.

There is reason to wonder if the federal government carefully scrutinized the lawfulness of the attestation. While it speaks of upholding Charter values, requiring the attestation may, ironically, violate the Charter. By requiring conformity to its moral position on abortion, the state may breach the freedom of conscience and religion of organizations that consider abortion to be immoral. The Charter guarantee of equality is also engaged, as the attestation discriminates against religious and other organizations due to their beliefs on abortion. An anti-abortion group in Toronto is challenging the attestation in court on these Charter grounds.

The state must justify Charter breaches. If it cannot, the breaches are unlawful. I suspect many Canadians are perplexed by the change to Canada Summer Jobs. What prompted it? What wrong is being righted? The only explanation given is that Canadians who disagree with the government on abortion have received summer job funds in the past. In this case, the actions of the federal government look like an exercise of power rather than principle.

Trudeau’s government is free to believe that access to abortion is a human right. It cannot, given the inescapable moral controversy surrounding abortion and the Charter rights of Canadians who profess a different moral view, impose this belief on all Canadians. Trudeau has weaponized the Charter, using it as a sword against nonconforming citizens. He has forgotten that the Charter is meant to be a shield for citizens against the abuse of state power.

Using the Charter to legitimize this tactic is disturbing given that Morgentaler ‚ÄĒ the Supreme Court of Canada‚Äôs key decision on abortion ‚ÄĒ suggested that the state can restrict abortion in certain circumstances. The state‚Äôs interest in restricting abortion, Justice Bertha Wilson noted, becomes more compelling the closer the unborn child is to birth. There has been a deliberate distortion of what Morgentaler stands for as a matter of law since its release in 1988. The ruling does not constitutionally guarantee unrestricted access to abortion in Canada.

The attestation may form part of Trudeau’s mission to create a Canada that is more inclusive and diverse. He often invokes these values. Yet by excluding many Canadians from participating in Canada Summer Jobs, the attestation does the exact opposite. It appears that the type of diversity and inclusion that Trudeau champions comes with some exclusionary fine print.

Some might argue that no one is automatically entitled to public funds. That may be true, but here the state has offered funds to the public. The Charter requires the state to make that offer in a manner that is not discriminatory and that respects the fundamental freedoms of Canadians.

The idea that certain groups in Canada should not receive public funds is often voiced by individuals who simply reject the views of the group that seeks funding. This attitude fails to recognize that this funding is not a pot of money that the governing political party brought to Ottawa when it assumed power. These funds come from taxes that all Canadians, with our range of views and beliefs, have paid. That these funds might at times be given to groups with which we disagree is part of the price of living in a truly inclusive and diverse society.

The notion that people who disagree with the government on controversial moral issues such as abortion must either adopt the government‚Äôs view or be excluded is acceptable in totalitarian regimes. It is not acceptable in Canada ‚ÄĒ a country that strives, in the words of the Charter, to be a ‚Äúfree and democratic society.‚ÄĚ

Photo: student statue on Sherbrooke Street, Montreal. Shutterstock, by BakerJarvis.

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Brian Bird
Brian Bird is an assistant professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia and is a research fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, DC.

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