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Kinsinger: Job grant policy excludes many religious groups

There was a collective sigh of relief across the country last May after Kellie Leitch was eliminated from the federal Conservative leadership race.

Leitch became infamous during the campaign for her signature promise to screen all incoming immigrants to ensure they held “Canadian values.”

Borrowing heavily from a certain U.S. president, Leitch did little to define the values she claimed were essential to our national identity.

Only the most ardent of Leitch’s supporters would deny that her appeal to values was little more than a front to keep specific types of immigrants (Muslims) out of Canada.

It would be dangerous, however, to assume that just because Leitch was so resolutely rejected by her own party, others will not similarly attempt to rely on ill-defined values to restrict the rights of minority groups. If recent trends tell us anything, it’s that such efforts will come not just from would-be Donald Trump imitators but also from those who hail from the progressive end of the political spectrum.

The principles championed by these political leaders are not of the nativist variety favoured by Leitch. Instead, the values that they promote are woven within the fabric of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — or so they claim. Yet increasingly, these Charter values are being used as a pretext to override the unpopular exercise of Charter rights.

Consider the recent changes made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to the Canada Summer Jobs program, which sponsors small businesses, charities and not-for-profits who hire young people as summer employees.

Although last year the prime minister expanded the program to sponsor almost 70,000 positions, a new policy will exclude numerous religious organizations from receiving the grant.

Under the revised policy, all organizations applying for Canada Summer Jobs funding must attest that their “core mandate (respects) individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” On its face, such a requirement seems unlikely to create any serious barriers for religious groups. Yet in the same policy, the government defines Charter values as encompassing (among other things) “reproductive rights” and “the right to access safe and legal abortions.”

The Trudeau government maintains the new policy was not intended to specifically target religious minorities. At best, however, this insistence comes across as insincere. Many religious groups that hold a pro-life worldview (including conservative Muslim, evangelical Christian and orthodox Jewish denominations) will be unable to accede to the specificity of the government’s mantra. By not offering any exemptions for these groups, the new requirement downplays the equally important Charter values of religious freedom and equality.

One of the most important elements of religious freedom is the principle of state neutrality. As an ideal, this important constitutional principle precludes governments from favouring (or, in this case, disfavouring) any religion or belief over another. The new Canada Summer Jobs eligibility requirement flies in the face of this duty. Instead of barring pro-life religious groups from receiving the grant, the Trudeau government should revise the policy so that it respects all Charter values, including those that protect the rights of religious minorities.

In a diverse culture, there will always be situations where the views of minority groups clash with those of the state. But as one Nova Scotia judge wrote in 2015 ruling, “That is a messy and uncomfortable fact of life in a pluralistic society.” Veiled discriminatory appeals to values have no place in an inclusive society that seeks to accommodate religious and cultural minorities

Kristopher Kinsinger is a juris doctor candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

Source: The Observer