On Dec. 15, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government announced changes to the Canada Summer Jobs funding application to ensure that applicant organizations support LGBTQ and reproductive rights. This action sparked outrage from the New Democratic Party (NDP), religious groups, and free speech advocates alike.
After mass condemnation from across the political spectrum, the Liberals simplified the guidelines on the application website. While the attestation remains in place, the party clarified that an organization that does not support gay marriage or abortion may still receive funding, as long as its activities do not actively seek to infringe upon an individual’s rights. However, in order to secure funding for summer positions, an organization would have to attest that it supports reproductive and LGBTQ rights. What critics fail to realize is that the government is under no obligation to fund organizations that will promote an anti-human rights agenda.
Trudeau has enforced a staunch pro-choice Liberal party platform since his election in 2015, but this most recent move transcends party lines, because it also prevents Conservative and NDP members of parliament from financially supporting anti-abortion groups in the Summer Jobs program. As a result, the Liberals make it clear that support for these rights should no longer be concentrated in feminist and gay rights groups, but is to be expected of any organization. This further prioritizes reproductive and LGBTQ rights as human rights—as they are already defined by Canadian law—boldly advancing these long-marginalized causes.
Some have argued that forcing attestations of support will lead to a chilling of the debate surrounding reproductive rights, and could lead to the censure of other groups that do not toe the Liberal party line. However, the issue cuts to the heart of a much larger debate surrounding reproductive and LGBTQ rights in Canada. For decades, one’s right to a safe and legal abortion has been restricted to the sphere of women’s rights, separate from broader notions of human rights. The same applies to LGBTQ rights. It was easy in the past for socially conservative groups to exercise their right to free speech, while simultaneously discriminating against LGBTQ people or campaigning against reproductive rights. But, by encompassing women and the LGBTQ community—and their distinctive rights—into the concept of human rights, Trudeau reshapes the conversation.
Those concerned with the free speech and personal conscience implications of the changes should recognize that this new attestation does not silence the many communities who are anti-abortion or anti-LGBTQ. The ability to personally oppose abortion and LGBTQ rights remains legally protected in the right to freedom of belief. However, acts of restricting access to an abortion clinic or discriminating against LGBTQ patrons are not. An organization should not receive funding for a program that could violate another Canadian’s human rights, be it their right to marry or their right to receive an abortion.
The line between speaking out against something and actively campaigning against it is often blurry and ill-defined. It is difficult to distinguish, for example, between an organization that distributes anti-abortion pamphlets from a group that pickets abortion clinics. The point at which debate and attempts at conversion become harassment and impediment is unclear, and falls under the purview of the courts. However, it is well within the right of the federal government to refuse to fund an organization that denies certain citizens of their human rights.
Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, remarked that she was content with the clarifications that the Trudeau government made to the application.
“I think that if a group still feels that they cannot sign the attestation even with these clarifications, well, I guess they are ineligible for funding,” Arthur said.
For some organizations, it is a matter of principle or religion that they do not support reproductive and LGBTQ rights. They are free to do so. However, their freedom of thought does not guarantee them federal funding to advance programs that infringe on other Canadians’ human rights.