GRAND FALLS-WINDSOR, NL – For one local politician, last week’s furor over reproductive rights versus religious belief could have been avoided.
Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame MP Scott Simms made national headlines last week when he opposed his own party and spoke against a new federal policy requiring organizations applying for federal funding for summer students to tick a box that says the “core mandate” of the job and the organization respects, among other things, women’s reproductive rights.
“I agree with the intent – that’s great – but the execution totally flopped,” Simms told the Advertiser.
“If I was applying for the job, I have no problem ticking the box. People know what my views are on reproductive rights; I believe it’s fully a choice between any woman and her doctor. However, in this case, I thought it was overly prescriptive in its execution.”
The MP met with Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister Patty Hajdu and had what he called a “frank” discussion about his concerns. As she had said to the public, Simms said she told him the ministry and the government were standing by the policy.
The overview section of the application states that, “the objective of the change is to prevent Government of Canada funding from flowing to organization whose mandates or projects may not respect individual human rights, the values underlying the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and associated case law.”
It also indicates that protecting youth from being asked to do work that goes against Charter and individual rights is a concern. The overview covers the need for people to be free from discrimination based on sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, but also singles out reproductive rights, stating that “women’s rights are human rights.”
“CSJ (Canada Summer Jobs) applicants will be required to attest that both the job and the 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,” it reads.
Many church groups across the country have spoken out against the attestation, arguing that it violates a Charter right to freedom of belief. The Advertiser reached out to a number of Church organizations in the area, including the Salvation Army.
“The bottom line is that we do not believe that the changes pose a barrier for Salvation Army units who wish to make submissions for funding,” spokesperson Major Renee Loveless told the Advertiser from St. John’s. “That’s based on the fact that we do respect the values and the human rights of everyone under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At the same time, we have a lot of concern about what’s happening and how it affects us.”
Loveless said the organization is concerned the policy may be interpreted as requiring individuals and groups applying for money to put aside their own freedoms of religion, expression and belief, and that it would have been better if the attestation focused on the types of activities that would make an organization ineligible for funding.
“We hope that there will be, ultimately, openness from the government to revisit the application process,” he said. “And ultimately that it does not unjustly exclude organizations such as ours from this program, which has done a lot of good in various communities and various programs that we offer.”
Of the 365 organizations in Simms’ riding that received funding under the summer jobs program in 2017 – accounting for 623 jobs in total – 35 were churches. The MP said most of the activities summer students were asked to do were things like mowing grass and cleaning up cemeteries. He too would like to have seen greater specificity in the attestation.
“You can say, No. 1, that it’s not involving any current political issue – so it’s issue based,” Simms said. “How do you define what is a political issue? We have a points system already, so there has to be a way to come up with a system that can take that into account.”
Secondly, he suggested having a simple declaration with regards to the Charter, saying that all organizations applying for funding must abide by it.
“Obviously, we’ve got a situation with reproductive rights, and now there’s an attestation,” he said. “Next year there could be something else, followed by another attestation.”
The Advertiser also reached out to several women’s advocacy groups, including Planned Parenthood in St. John’s, but did not receive a response before press time.