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Reconcile This

An Indigenous business leader in Quebec says the Trudeau government seems more concerned with his spiritual beliefs than his willingness to hire Indigenous students through the Canada Summer Jobs program 

4 minute read
Topics: Policy, Public Life
Reconcile This February 7, 2018  |  By Peter Stockland
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Two days before the extended deadline for the Canada Summer Jobs program, David Acco still can’t reconcile what the federal government wants employers to do as part of a new application process.

“It’s crazy,” Acco tells Convivium from his office in Montreal’s Alexis Nihon Plaza. “I would never tick the box they want me to tick. Never. They should be looking at this strictly in terms of somebody being employed, not in terms of what I believe.”

But Acco’s business, Acosys, might itself be of significant interest to a government that has made Indigenous reconciliation a cornerstone of its first mandate.

Acosys is not a religious institution, a faith-based charity, or an NGO, unlike most organizations protesting the application’s so-called “attestation clause” obliging them to support the “right” to abortion.

In fact, Acosys is a profitable business that provides technology integration and human resources counselling. Its clientele is primarily Indigenous Canadians working in partnerships with Ottawa.

Acco is a Cree-Métis from Saskatchewan with an MBA, and graduate program certificates from Schulich School of Business at York University and from McGill. His wife and business co-founder, Julie Lepage, is a lawyer, human resources expert, and member of the Nipissing-Ojibway First Nation.

“As an Indigenous person, what I care about is Indigenous youth getting into the STEMS (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and into management positions,” Acco snaps. “But the message I’m getting on the Summer Jobs program is what matters to them are my religious beliefs. It’s reminiscent of the days when the churches told us what to do to civilize our brains.”

Acco makes no bones about being resolutely pro-life, and devoutly religious. Both he and Julie are “totally, totally” against abortion. In fact, she withdrew from seeking a federal Liberal nomination in suburban Laval after party leader Justin Trudeau said anyone with pro-life convictions could not stand as a candidate.

“She was considering running. She was a good candidate. She’s Indigenous, well known in the community, perfectly bilingual, a lawyer, a businessperson, all of that. But when (Trudeau) took the stance ‘hey, you can’t be in the Liberal party and be pro-life,’ we said ‘okay, we’re not in the Liberal party. You’re not going to get our support.’”

But partisan politics aside, he sees the Canada Summer Jobs proviso as “even more insidious,” comparing it to the reviled Indian Act for the way it seeks to impose an ironclad “status quo” way of thinking on everyone.

Prime Minister Trudeau has argued that the so-called attestation is not a test of belief, but aimed rather at activities such as handing out pro-life pamphlets. In the House of Commons, Employment Minister Patty Hajdu has said the primary concern is funding groups who display posters with graphic images of aborted children. Both the PM and the minister insist such posters undermine Charter rights. They have not specified how that is the case.

Acco, however, regards it in the same way as leaders of more than 80 religious groups in Canada who recently signed a letter denouncing the attestation as fascistic and totalitarian.

“It attacks freedom of conscience,” he says. “Your beliefs are your choices. It’s between you and the Almighty whether you believe in abortion or you don’t. To force anybody to accept an ideology, to say that because you make don’t agree with (abortion), you can’t apply for a benefit from the State, that’s scary. But that’s what that check box means to me.”

Over its 12 years of existence, Acosys has given employment to about a half dozen students as part of the Canada Summer Jobs program, and numerous more through an Indigenous employment program. It also offers internships that are paid for by the company. 

But neither Acco nor partner Julie Lepage will be ticking the box on the Canada Summer jobs form this year. It simply doesn’t align with their beliefs that the beliefs they hold are not subject to government compulsion.

“Whether I’m right to life or anything else should not make a determination of whether I get funded to help me employ an intern,” Acco says. “That’s up to me. The government should mind its own business.”

Fittingly, the brand icon for Acosys comprises four arrows that form a diamond, symbolizing a common representation in many Indigenous cultures of the cardinal directions North, South, East and West. And the company’s name comes from the Cree word for ‘arrow.’

While the Trudeau cabinet has dug in its heels and resolutely refused to drop the much maligned attestation provision, perhaps in the spirit of reconciliation, with two days to go to the Summer Jobs deadline, it will allow the arrow of Acco’s words to go straight to its heart.

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