A company representative speaks with a potential employee at a job fair. Photo by Sotiria Athanasiadou/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Peter Stockland: Time to re-think funding in fight for summer jobs

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  • January 9, 2018

Canada’s former ambassador for religious freedom sees recent punitive changes to Ottawa’s Canada Summer Jobs program as the epitome of anti-faith hostility.

But Deacon Andrew Bennett also says the restrictions announced by the Trudeau Liberals shortly before Christmas are a golden opportunity for faith groups to reassert themselves with government and renew the place of religion in the public square.

Bennett, the former diplomat, deacon in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and director of the law program at the think tank Cardus, says there’s no question that revisions to the jobs program are ideologically driven and unjust to all Canadians of faith.

“It’s a ‘my way or the highway’ approach that goes against any understanding of pluralism,” Bennett said in a recent interview.

“It’s either you agree with us or you’re not going to get support despite the fact you are citizens and taxpayers. It’s telling Canadians to ante up to what the government expects, to subordinate themselves to what the current government believes, regardless of whether or not that violates conscience, religious beliefs and what they confess as their faith.”

Faith-based and pro-life groups have expressed outrage at the new Canada Summer Jobs mandate. Under it, employers applying for federal student summer employment funding must now sign a “Charter values” covenant attesting that their workplace supports the government’s definition of so-called reproductive rights and sexual identity.

Some of those organizations have worked behind the scenes since then to launch a legal challenge seeking to overturn the changes. They argue the government covenant clearly violates Charter guarantees of conscience and religion.

Bennett welcomes that fight. But he stresses the risk of missing an opportunity if it doesn’t spur such groups to re-think their reliance on government money — and fails to renew understanding of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms itself.

“I don’t think you should have to sing the government’s tune, but if you’re going to take money from the government, you’re already, in a sense, compromising yourself. The government always has some kind of regulations attached to its funding. So, it’s a good time to ask whether faith-based organizations that need summer help programs shouldn’t be raising their own funds.

“I think in many ways, for many years, some faith-based organizations have become dependent on government funds. Wouldn’t it be better to get donors that are willing to support some internships so (faith-based) groups don’t even have to deal with the government, so they can just say ‘thanks, but no thanks, we’ll do it on our own’?”

A primary benefit, Bennett says, would be to remind faith-based donors, organizations and employers that they not only exist in the public square, they have the prerogative and responsibility to actively and fully define it.

“I don’t think the government should be in a position to define the public square.... the public square is just that: public.”

Reliance on government funding directly aligns with allowing government to perpetuate that myth that it defines the public square, he says.

Bennett sees no tension between groups telling Ottawa “we’re not going to dance to your tune” and simultaneously fighting legally to save the Charter from being “twisted” for ideological purposes. He offers a caution, however, about letting a political-legal document trump Christian understanding of rights, freedom and even fundamental humanity.

“I think we need to be very careful of not turning the Charter itself into an idol on an altar, that we go before it, that it is the be all and end all, the fount of all wisdom, on what it means to be human.

“There’s much more below the Charter. We need to revitalize that as a way to reclaim the Charter.”

The “much” that lies below the Charter, of course, is the Judeo-Christian understanding of the individual created in the image of God, and standing before God to be judged. To deny that, Bennett says, “is a lie.”

Recovering the truth of it may be the real work for faith-based Canadians.

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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