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Beneath the Summer Jobs Controversy

Promised changes to the embattled summer student employment program won't resolve the deep divide separating Canadians of faith from the Liberal government's “true believers” in radical secular autonomy, Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett tells Convivium’s Peter Stockland.

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Beneath the Summer Jobs Controversy December 6, 2018  |  By Peter Stockland
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While faith-based and pro-life groups scrambled today to decode changes to the federal government's hot button student jobs program, Canada’s former ambassador for religious freedom warns against accepting it as mere election year peace making.

“I think it’s much deeper than simple political calculation,” Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, program director for the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute (CRFI) told Convivium.ca. 

“There are some real true believers in our civil society and government who see this as part of the much broader project of defining who is a human being. They have a particular view of the human person that is grounded in radical autonomy, and the biggest threat to that view is the Judeo-Christian understanding of the human person as bearing a dignity that comes from God,” he added.

Bennett said particulars of the changes unveiled today by Employment Minister Patty Hajdu to the 2019 summer jobs application do show the government took seriously the backlash it provoked with the 2018 modifications. He said removal of the infamous “attestation box” is especially welcome because at least Canadians are no longer forced to say they support government policies just to be able to provide work to young employees for the summer. 

“There’s no longer a values test, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “And (evaluation of applications) will now be about the job, not tied to the organization offering the job. Clearly, the government did listen to the groups who voiced such strong opposition to both those things.”

But he said the aspects of the application process that disqualify pro-life organizations from even applying, combined with comments the minister made in a series of interviews earlier this week, make it clear that while details might have been fine-tuned, the underlying philosophy remains the same.

Hajdu and her ministry touched off months of red-hot controversy at this time last year by changing what had been a benign student employment assistance application into what many Canadians denounced as an ideological purity test to qualify for public funds. The core of the criticism – and also several lawsuits – was a so-called attestation box in which potential employers had to vow not to use the funds for programs that were pro-life or challenged Liberal government sexuality orthodoxy. 

Dozens of different faith groups and traditions were joined by purely secular advocates in denouncing the attestation as a violation of Charter guarantees to freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of association, and freedom of speech. In her interviews this week, Hajdu admitted the government had fence-mending to do with numerous constituencies. She insisted the changes to be unveiled will satisfy critics except in the Conservative Opposition, which she accused of keeping the controversy alive for crass electoral reasons.

But Bennett said what he read from the minister indicated she and her officials might have listened, but they didn’t hear and certainly don’t appear to have learned.

“Certainly, from her comments there still seems to a blind spot around acknowledging that some people believe different things, and in Canada should be free to believe different things,” he said. “Simply because Canadians believe different things, they shouldn’t be penalized around, in this case, employment and jobs for young people.”

Bennett said it’s understandable to him why a pro-choice Liberal government would be reluctant to fund pro-life groups that oppose its ideology. But he said good public policy requires factoring in what would happen if a newly-elected Conservative government and took the same approach to its die-hard dogma.

“It’s not a left-right thing,” he said. “It’s why, as citizens, we must be vigilant and stand up to governments of whatever political stripe when they start trying to dictate what are acceptable views. 

“In the case of the Canada Summer Jobs program, the government isn’t concerned about someone openly advocating insurrection or treason or violence. It’s concerned about people advocating beliefs that contradict the established secular orthodoxy of the day. It’s saying directly that if you’re a citizen who holds these contrary views, if your beliefs don’t match that secular orthodoxy, you’re harmful. So, the project of the State becomes getting you in line with what the State believes to be acceptable Canadian values.”

The chasm between beliefs, not just electoral nose-counting, is what’s driving the controversy, he says. It’s a difference between a worldview of radical autonomy in which individual choice in the only compelling criterion, and an anthropology that holds human beings have an inherent dignity that comes from beyond themselves, i.e., from an understanding of God. 

“Views that are seen to infringe on that radical autonomy, that say we’re not only subject to ourselves, that insist killing children in the womb is not an acceptable way to structure society, are perceived as a threat. Why? Because those who hold them are saying ‘no’ to the orthodoxy of the day. But it’s not the government’s role to punish them for saying ‘no’ because it’s not the government’s role to them what they can and cannot believe.”

Bennett said whatever emerges from the announced changes, he was left shaking his head by Hajdu’s insistence that the attestation and similar control mechanisms are necessary to ensure young Canadians don’t end up working for organizations that violate human rights.

“That is totally bizarre,” the CRFI director said. “We’ve got human rights law. We’ve got human rights tribunals. Let’s let those mechanisms work. Let’s not pretend that we need the extra layer of a government form for job funding to protect human rights in this country.”


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