There is something unsettling about recent changes to the federal government’s Canada Summer Jobs Program. Wanting to ensure that pro-life organizations are ineligible to have their summer students’ wages subsidized, applicants must now attest to the fact that they support “the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” including “reproductive rights” and the “right to access safe and legal abortions.”
Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with the government deciding that groups involved in political advocacy shouldn’t receive funding to hire summer students. I think there is a good case to be made for excluding both pro-life and pro-choice groups as well as those that advocate for and against a variety of other contentious causes, from assisted dying to blocking pipeline development.
But that is not what the feds are doing. Rather than banning all political activity, they are instituting an ideological purity test to further marginalize groups that don’t hold their absolute pro-choice view. Not only is this an inaccurate characterization of the Charter, but it’s offensive to try to use our guarantee of basic rights as a weapon to punish those whose views don’t match the government of the day.
I hold no affection for many of Canada’s pro-life organizations. Although I know many thoughtful pro-life individuals, I have also met my share of self-righteous fanatics whose obsession with the issue is downright frightening. As a former politician, I was the target of protests and vicious ad hominem attacks by a number of these groups.
But the same can be said about the other side. As well as thoughtful pro-choice advocates, I have also met people as equally fanatical about their pro-choice beliefs. People who are so convinced of the absolute correctness of their position that they will go to great lengths to attack any view that deviates from their own.
I actually find comfort in the knowledge that these extremes exist within Canada.
Although both may drive us a little crazy, having two outspoken sides challenges us as a society as we struggle with this complicated issue. And don’t fool yourself, the discussion is far from over. Although the majority of Canadians favour the status quo, public opinion polling indicates that there is still a sizable chunk of the population that has a nuanced view of the issue and might favour some limitations.
And be careful about relying too heavily on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in this instance.
Contrary to what the federal government is suggesting, the Supreme Court of Canada never established that the Charter gives a woman an absolute right to an abortion under any circumstances. Although the landmark Morgentaler ruling determined that aspects of the federal abortion law were contrary to the Charter, there was nothing in the ruling that prevented the federal government from introducing new legislation, as long as it addressed the court’s concerns. This was what the Mulroney government did when it twice tried unsuccessfully to pass abortion legislation in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
There is something else about the Charter of Rights to consider in this situation – those sections guaranteeing “the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression”. Their major purpose is to protect individuals and groups that advocate ideas considered radical or even offensive by the mainstream.
And if the federal government is so certain of the soundness of their pro-choice position, why are they so worried about other perspectives being raised? One of the more bizarre aspects of the new policy is that the federal government justifies it by claiming they don’t want young people to be exposed to “positions that are contrary to the values enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and associated case law.”
When the government claims it wants to protect us from “exposure” to certain policies, we should all be a little worried.
Democracy is messy, particularly when it comes to a society as diverse as Canada. If we continue to claim that this diversity is one of our strengths, then we are going to have to tolerate a wide range of views — some of which we might find disagreeable. I agree that freedom of speech should not be unlimited, and we may need to curb those who call for violence or advocate hatred. But taking a pro-life stance hardly places you so far out of the mainstream that you can be categorized as a threat to society.
The federal government needs to decide: It either funds summer students in a way that allows them to be part of the cut-and-thrust of public policy debates, or it declares that this is not the intention of the program. A government attempting to use something as innocent as summer jobs funding to score points in the abortion debate undermines the spirit of the Charter that the federal Liberals claim as their touchstone.
John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the Director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy.