In December 2017, Canada’s Liberal Party government, headed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, barred organizations that oppose abortion from receiving funds from the Summer Jobs Canada program. This program subsidizes wages for small businesses, public entities, and nonprofits (including churches and faith-based groups) that provide “quality” summer jobs for young people who are full-time students.
Starting this year, according to a statement, applicants for funding from Summer Jobs Canada must box-check an “attestation” that “both the job and the organization’s core mandate” support “women’s reproductive rights.” The agency also makes it crystal-clear that those rights include “the right to access safe and legal abortions.” Applicants that decline to check the box will not be considered for funding.
The new rule has generated outrage—and not just among pro-life groups and the traditionalist Christian churches that have depended on the jobs program to help them staff their summer camps. On January 16, a group of clergymen and others representing a wide range of faiths—Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, and Hindus, along with Christians—met in Mississauga, Ontario, to express alarm over the new Trudeau policy. Some of the religious groups staunchly oppose abortion; others don’t have a clear position on abortion but don’t want to be forced to take a stand on this contentious issue. The issues discussed at the meeting were obvious: religious freedom, and what would be defined as “viewpoint discrimination” under U.S. First Amendment law—the government’s treating some political expressions as less worthy than others.
The Trudeau government’s response to these concerns would have done the Jesuits who educated Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, proud. Employment Minister Patty Hajdu carefully explained that churches and other faith-based groups would have nothing to trouble their consciences in checking off the attestation, because opposition to abortion wasn’t really their “core mandate.” After all, Hajdu explained, wasn’t a Christian church’s “core mandate” actually more like preaching the gospel and running soup kitchens? This pinch-of-incense rationalization riled Catholics and others who didn’t care to have a secular official lecture them on which of their beliefs and missions were more “core” than the rest. The bishops of several Catholic dioceses in Canada pulled out of the summer-jobs program entirely. “I believe that we need to take a stand against the position of the government of Canada and say that we will not be bullied into even the appearance of collusion on this issue,” Bishop Ronald Fabbro of London, Ontario, wrote in a letter to the 118 parishes in his diocese. The diocese plans to take up special collections from churchgoers to help pay student workers this summer.
There is a now a petition pending in the Canadian Parliament, sponsored by Conservative Party M.P. Harold Albrecht, calling for the government to nullify the attestation requirement, which would “force many organizations to choose between their beliefs, often rooted in their religion, and being able to receive funding,” and which “discriminates against organizations based on their beliefs.”
The outcry over the attestation mandate has been so intense that even the generally abortion-sympathetic liberal media in Canada have gotten worried—not that Catholics and evangelicals might be barred from participation in the program, but that Canada’s generally somnolent right-to-life movement might wake up and start exercising political clout. There has been no Canadian equivalent to Roe v. Wade, in which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 declared a sweeping “fundamental” right to abortion, generating a political counter-groundswell among religious people focusing on efforts either to overturn Roe or to limit its scope on the state level. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada simply ruled that federal laws that legalized abortion at certified clinics throughout Canada (one of the laws had been sponsored by Pierre Trudeau in 1968) were unconstitutional because unduly restrictive. The Canadian Parliament has never succeeded in regulating abortion one way or the other since then, though Canada has a relatively low and declining abortion rate. CBC News columnist Rosemary Westwood wrote on February 15, in a piece headlined “Why Is the Trudeau Government Poking the Abortion Bear?,” of her fear that the attestation mandate had generated so much hostility “that a relatively small group of fiercely determined activists [would be able to] define an issue for an entire nation.”
The problem is that there already is a “fiercely determined activist” on the Canadian abortion front: Justin Trudeau. Although he is a baptized Catholic, promoting abortion access and marginalizing abortion critics seem to be two of his primary passions. In 2014, even before he became prime minister in 2015, Trudeau barred pro-life candidates from running on the Liberal Party ticket in his capacity as party leader. Since taking office, he has committed hundreds of millions of Canadian dollars to funding overseas abortions, and in 2016 he pressured Prince Edward Island into opening the first abortion clinic in the socially conservative province’s history.
The attestation requirement was part of Trudeau’s administration’s speedy response to an April 10, 2017, report from the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, revealing that four anti-abortion advocacy organizations had collected about $100,000 in Summer Jobs Canada grant money during 2016–17, as well as smaller sums during the preceding six years. “Grants From Canada Summer Jobs Program Support Political Attacks on Human Rights,” the headline of the two-page report read. Instead of issuing a politically neutral blanket ban on the future receipt of summer-jobs funding by advocacy groups, Hajdu made a public statement: “Any funding provided to an organization that works to limit women’s reproductive rights last summer was an oversight. That’s why this year  we fixed the issue and no such organizations will receive funding.” Three of the anti-abortion organizations promptly sued the Canadian government, claiming that Hajdu had changed the rules after they filed their applications. In November 2017 the government settled their claims by paying out the grant money—but it also altered the application process to include the attestation requirement. It’s also doubled down: It announced in January that it won’t provide funding under a new federal youth volunteer program for projects it deems insufficiently respectful of “reproductive rights.”
Now, you might be saying that none of this could happen here in the U.S., where the First Amendment and federal religious-freedom laws robustly protect religious believers’ right not to be discriminated against because of their religious views. But don’t be too sure. Already we have at least one prominent Democratic Party leader declaring that the First Amendment doesn’t protect “hate speech” and a case pending in the Supreme Court over whether an evangelical Christian baker can be forced to violate his religious beliefs by crafting a custom cake for a same-sex wedding. It may take only one change of presidential administrations for the U.S. to become a lot more like Justin Trudeau’s Canada.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.