Canada Summer Jobs Program’s Penalizing of Religious Groups ’Very Concerning’: Lawyer

Court rules in favour of Christian organization that was denied funding for youth summer camps
By Andrew Chen
Andrew Chen
Andrew Chen
Andrew is a reporter based in Toronto.
July 27, 2021 Updated: July 27, 2021

A lawyer representing the operator of a Christian youth camp in Ontario says all Canadians should be concerned about the federal government’s failure to uphold the rights of religious communities. His comment comes on the heels of a second Federal Court ruling recently that the Canada Summer Jobs (CSJ) program withheld funding from an organization due to its religious beliefs.

“Canada is a country governed by a Constitution, and the very first freedom protected in that Constitution is the freedom of conscience and religion,” said Marty Moore, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), a non-profit legal advocacy organization, who represented camp operator BCM International Canada Inc. in court.

“When government begins to discriminate against individuals and to penalize individuals for the basic exercise of their religious faith in the public square—whether that’s operating a camp, whether that’s asking to participate in a profession or in a government program—that part of freedom of conscience and religion is being attacked by our own federal government. It’s very concerning, and it must be resisted.”

On June 29, Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley ruled that Mill Stream Bible Camp was subjected to an “unreasonable” decision when the federal government refused its application for $45,600 to fund six camp counsellor jobs for its 2019 summer camps. Mosley said the camp was denied “procedural fairness” as it was never given the chance to provide evidence that its beliefs did not result in discriminatory hiring practices.

On the same day, Redeemer University, a Christian university in Hamilton, Ont., won its own case against the federal government for similarly having been denied its 2019 application for CSJ funding.

Mill Stream, a Christian summer camp located near Omemee, about 130 kilometres northeast of Toronto, provides recreational and religious programs for youth aged 5 to 15. It’s operated by BCM, or Bible Centred Ministries, an organization focused on reaching children and serving the church.

‘Compelled Speech’

From 2011 to 2017, BCM successfully received grants from the CSJ program administered by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC).

But in 2018, the federal government required all applicants to sign a compulsory attestation declaring that they “respect individual human rights in Canada,” including “reproductive rights,” a term that encompasses abortion.

“On account of BCM’s sincere religious beliefs, I could not sign the expansive 2018 Compulsory Attestation,” wrote former Mill Stream camp director Larry Chupa in his affidavit, adding that well over 1,000 applications were rejected in 2018 compared to less than 200 in prior years.

In place of signing the attestation, Chupa wrote in the application that “[o]n the basis of conscience, we are unable to express the words that the Minister has required in the Applicant’s Guide. We are, however, able to attest that ‘we support all Canadian Law, including Human Rights Law,’” according to his affidavit, referring to then-employment minister Patty Hajdu.

“We believe that the Minister does not have the jurisdiction under law to compel us to make a statement that conflicts with our conscience rights under the Charter. Nor does the Minister have the rights to compel speech as a condition of receiving a financial benefit from the Government of Canada.”

The JCCF challenged the 2018 attestation, arguing that it was “compelled speech that violates freedom of expression as protected by the Charter.”

Facing several other court challenges, the federal government dropped the attestation requirement. The next year, it added a new mandatory question to the 2019 CSJ program, requiring applicants to specify “how your organization will be providing a safe, inclusive, and healthy work environment free of harassment and discrimination.”

‘Unreasonable’ Decision

Moore said the federal government didn’t specify what it found objectionable with Mill Stream’s 2019 application, and the organization had to go to court without knowing “on what basis they were being discriminated against.”

During the court process, the JCCF obtained internal government records showing that the camp had been deemed as adhering to “controversial Church beliefs,” Moore told The Epoch Times.

“The Canada Summer Jobs program staff—these are employees of Service Canada—acted by Googling, essentially, what this camp was, and in that process, they came across a staff application form for a different camp located in Nova Scotia, which is founded by the same BCM International,”  he said.

“That camp listed their religious beliefs—nothing out of the ordinary in terms of … Christian religious beliefs—and on that basis, there was a note made in the file that these camps had controversial church doctrine and discriminating hiring practices.”

Mosley ruled that the federal government’s decision was “unreasonable” and violated “procedural fairness.” The latter means that when a public body makes a decision about an individual’s rights or interests, it has an obligation to give the person notice and an opportunity to respond, Moore explained.

Moore added that the judge “expressed his displeasure” with the government’s actions by ordering it to pay BCM the legal costs of the case, an award meant to “chastise or punish reprehensible conduct.”

The Epoch Times asked the ESDC to comment on Moore’s claims that its application method may be infringing on the freedom of conscience. “The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring that the Canada Summer Jobs program supports quality job opportunities for youth that, among other things, take place in safe, inclusive and healthy work environments,” a spokesperson replied, without addressing the question.

Charter Rights Meant ‘for All Citizens’

Phil Whitehead, BCM International Canada’s executor director, said he is pleased with the judge’s decision but would like to have seen Mosley also address concerns raised in the court action about the government’s violation of Charter rights.

The government should be upholding the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms “for all citizens—not just certain ones, but for all. So when a government then refuses to do so … it’s extremely negative, extremely disappointing,” Whitehead told The Epoch Times.

“We as citizens have to [be able to] rely upon that government … to be a government of integrity that has the interest of the citizens at heart. And when they don’t, that’s very discouraging,” he added.

The CSJ issue has had a “significant impact” on camps across the country, Whitehead said, referring to its impact on Christian-based Redeemer University as well.

Redeemer, like BCM, was denied CSJ funding in 2018 when it refused to sign the attestation. And again, like BCM, it was denied funding in 2019 as a result of the federal government breaching its “procedural fairness” obligation.

“It appears that the government is continuing to discriminate against some organizations on the basis of their beliefs, and on the basis of their alleged beliefs and practices,” Moore said.

“Whether the government is providing them with equal protection under the law—that’s a valid concern that I’m sure many people in religious communities across the country are raising.”

Andrew Chen
Andrew Chen
Andrew is a reporter based in Toronto.