On Tuesday, 60 people representing Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Christian and other faiths met to debate whether the government is violating their religious freedoms
Father Niaz Toma of the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy after a meeting of religious groups to discuss concerns with the Canada Summer Jobs controversy in Mississauga on Jan. 16, 2018. MP Alex Nuttall, left, and Iman Ibrahim Hindy, right, stand in the background.Peter J. Thompson/National Post
MISSISSAUGA, ONT. — On a wintry Tuesday afternoon, in a small conference room at the back of a Pentecostal office building in the Toronto suburbs, 60 people representing Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Christian and other faiths spent two hours debating whether the government is violating their religious freedoms — and if so, what to do about it.
The concern arises out of the Canada Summer Jobs program, which this year comes with a new “attestation” box that all applicants must check off before submitting. The wording of the attestation, which many still find confusing, seems to require a declaration that the applicant does not advocate an anti-abortion position.
A growing number of faith-based groups see the attestation as a threat to the principle of religious freedom in Canada. While some of them are staunchly pro-life, others don’t take a firm stance on abortion rights but don’t want to be forced to take a side in order to apply for a grant.
Tuesday’s discussion was closed to the media, but a few of the attendees spoke to reporters afterward.
Ibrahim Hindy, an imam at the Dar Al-Tawheed Islamic Centre in Mississauga, said his mosque is struggling over what to do.
“I came to take it all in and hear the concerns that people were having,” he said. “We were going to apply this year, and we’re still discussing whether or not we will…Some people are asking, does this conflict with our beliefs? If the person has an orthodox understanding of scriptures, is this asking the person to contradict those?”
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Father Niaz Toma, a Chaldean Catholic priest, said his community of Iraqi Christians won’t be able to apply for the grant, and referred to the attestation as a “persecution” of his people.
“We will never compromise our faith for the sake of grants to be received from the Canadian government,” he said. “Seemingly, the attempt is to be inclusive. But the end result is exclusivity, blocking certain groups.”
The meeting, which was spearheaded by Conservative MP Alex Nuttall, featured a panel of speakers from Islamic, Catholic and evangelical organizations outlining their interpretation of the attestation, taking questions from the crowd, and moderating a discussion of what should be done in response.
Nuttall — who got involved due to his role as Conservative critic on the youth portfolio — said those in attendance included representatives from Baptist churches, Hindu temples, Sikh temples, Coptic Christians, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and many others.
Concerns over the attestation have been popping up around the country, as religious groups grapple with the implications of signing a grant application that includes an attestation about reproductive rights. Some have decided to send in paper applications with their own attestation, rather than sign the government’s.
The attestation requires stating that the organization’s core mandate respects individual human rights as well as the “values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” going on to say this includes “reproductive rights.” The accompanying Applicant’s Guide identifies “the right to access
safe and legal abortions” as a human right that the attestation is referring to.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Employment Minister Patty Hajdu have both made it clear the aim is to block federal grants from going to organizations that have the explicit purpose of anti-abortion political activism. They have encouraged faith-based organizations to still apply for the grants.
But religious groups are left with the question of what “core mandate” means, and whether signing the attestation compromises their own religious beliefs. And compounding this is the concern the attestation requirement will spread to other federal programs.
On Tuesday, it was revealed that the new federal youth volunteer program, the Canada Service Corps, also has similar strings attached to it.
The program provides funding for volunteer projects around the country, but the guidelines say the government won’t approve funding for any projects deemed not to respect individual human rights — including reproductive rights. In this case, instead of applicants having to sign an attestation, it will be up to the government department reviewing the applications to decide if the qualifications are met.
Hindy said many of the attendees at Tuesday’s meeting worried that attestations would start to become the norm in Canada, and “values tests” would be applied to more federal programs.
“For example, we’ve seen in Quebec with the niqab issue where the government there said, ‘We don’t like the niqab, so if you wear the niqab you don’t get access to any public service,’” he said. “We’ve seen these kind of values tests before, and they’re not in the spirit, I believe, of what Canada’s all about.”
With files from The Canadian Press.