OTTAWA — The Liberal government denied youth summer job grants to about two dozen organizations this year because officials felt they were trying to weaken or limit access to abortion or sexual and reproductive health services.
Employment and Social Development Canada said it received 39,933 for the Canada Summer Jobs program this year, with only 403 of them being deemed ineligible for the funding under new rules that say the money cannot be used to undermine human rights.
The Liberals brought in controversial changes to the 2018 version of the Canada Summer Jobs program, demanding applicants attest that neither the job no the core mandate of the organization opposed human rights, including those related to abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Many faith-based organizations balked, arguing that forced them to choose between their religious values and money that helped them to run summer camps and other programs that had nothing to do with abortion.
The Liberal government responded to the outcry by changing the wording in time for this year, requiring applicants to declare instead that the organization does not actively work to infringe upon human rights, including access to abortion.
Newly released documents reveal the federal government pressed at least some organizations to be more specific on that front.
"Please provide additional information or clarification on the services your organization provides to women seeking access to sexual and reproductive health services," said a follow-up letter sent to an undisclosed number of applicants in early March.
"The Government of Canada defines sexual and reproductive health services as including comprehensive sexuality education, family planning, prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence, safe and legal abortion, and post-abortion care," said the letter.
The Canadian Press obtained the letter through the Access to Information Act.
"It seems like the government is doing a pretty good job in terms of scrutinizing the applications," said Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, which had played a role in pushing the Liberal government to take this into account when deciding who gets the money.
Employment and Social Development Canada would not disclose which organizations received the letter, citing privacy concerns.
The department said 26 of the nearly 40,000 applicants for the 2019 version of the program were deemed ineligible over this issue.
The Canadian Press confirmed that some of the letters were sent to crisis pregnancy centres, which are often Christian-based organizations offering support to women with unexpected pregnancies, including by sharing information about abortion, adoption and parenting.
Many of these centres have been criticized by abortion rights advocates for spreading inaccurate or misleading information about the risks of abortion as a way to dissuade women from terminating their pregnancies, although the approach they take to individual conversations can vary.
David Guretzki of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada said a number of crisis pregnancy centres reached out to his organization this spring after being denied summer job grants, despite having provided the federal government with the additional information they thought they were seeking.
"They don't provide the service and they don't refer, but they don't prevent anyone from accessing it," said Guretzki, the executive vice-president of the organization. "That's why it's a bit disappointing, in the sense that what does it mean to prevent someone? If they come to the organization seeking some kind of help and advice, and they give them advice, it's still up to the individual to make that choice."
The database of organizations that Ottawa deemed eligible for summer job funding this year includes two crisis pregnancy centres: the Atwell Centre in Hamilton and the Pregnancy Centre in Kitchener, Ont.
Guretzki said that adds to the confusion.
"It's a bit of a black box," he said.
Employment and Social Development Canada said the eligibility of applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Maureen Dinner, executive director of the Kitchener pregnancy centre, said her organization has changed its approach over the years.
She said that could explain why her centre was given a grant to hire a summertime employee, while others were not.
"I think we're changing in response to culture," said Dinner, whose response to the letter asking for additional information noted her organization will refer women to specific abortion services in the area should that be what they decide they want to do.
"We value the life of a person, but we value their decision and respect their autonomy and their right to decide and make decisions for themselves."
Dinner said her centre recently left the Canadian Association of Pregnancy Support Services, a national organization that is stronger in its opposition to abortion, and that she has asked local groups opposing abortion to stop listing her centre as a resource.
Lois Benham-Smith, the executive director of the Atwell Centre in Hamilton, was not available for an interview, but confirmed she received a letter and replied in a way that satisfied federal officials that her organization does not restrict access to abortion.
The Atwell Centre remains affiliated with the Canadian Association of Pregnancy Support Services.
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Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press