IT’S ONE OF those issues that Justin Trudeau just can’t scrape off his shoe. Faith groups are up in arms. An Ontario Catholic diocese says it won’t be “bullied” by the Liberals.
What they’re upset about is a clause in the Canada Summer Jobs program application that appears to require applicants to endorse abortion and other rights as a condition of federal funding.
No, no, no, you’re interpreting it wrong, says the prime minister, offering an explanation that placates Nanaimo’s James Toews.
Still, Toews, the pastor at the Mennonite Brethren’s Neighbourhood Church, thinks the Liberals brought this on themselves through their own clumsiness.
It’s what happens when complex answers to complex questions are reduced to a single box on an application form.
I ran into Toews when he arrived at the prime minister’s Feb. 2 town hall at Vancouver Island University.
He was there specifically to hear what Trudeau had to say about the controversy.
Sure enough, a young woman raised the issue, accusing Ottawa of using the application form to impose its values on others.
No, Trudeau replied, the clause is not meant to deny tax money to churches hiring teens to work in soup kitchens, or whatever.
It’s just aimed at jobs and organizations whose “core mandate” goes against individual rights — like the anti-abortion groups that got federal funding in the past.
Such groups are free to advocate for what they believe in, are free to, say, distribute flyers that include photos of aborted fetuses, the prime minister said.
“Just don’t expect the government to give you funding to put kids to work doing that.”
His reply struck another woman as a bit disingenuous.
The contentious clause is worded more broadly than the way Trudeau framed it, appearing to demand that some applicants deny their own beliefs even if all they’re doing is looking for funding for summer-camp counsellors.
The woman invoked Pierre Trudeau’s enshrinement of religious beliefs in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
That led to Justin Trudeau’s most complete reply of the day. Noting that it was his father who liberalized Canada’s divorce laws in 1968, he told an anecdote from the 1980s, not long after Justin’s mother, Margaret, had remarried.
One day, out of the blue, Pierre told his then-teenaged son: “I just want you to know something, Justin. I kind of feel bad, but I’ll never be able to provide you another mother figure in our home because I don’t believe in divorce and I don’t believe that I could get remarried, so you’re sort of stuck with a bachelor dad for the rest of my life.”
In other words, Pierre had, based on the notion of individual rights, made it easier to divorce, even though it didn’t align with his own personal code.
Likewise, Justin said, the rights of women to control their own reproductive choices trump individual politicians’ beliefs — including his own.
“How do I reconcile my own faith, my own conscience, my own beliefs with my duties and responsibilities as a leader protecting society and protecting everyone’s rights?”
A few days later, I called Toews to get his take. The pastor was OK with Trudeau’s answer, or at least the guts of it.
“Government funding for anti-gay or anti-choice agencies shouldn’t be on the table,” he said.
Still, he said, by focusing on the extreme examples, Trudeau ignored those whose beliefs are less black and white.
Ah, but we’re not great with grey these days. Complexities don’t fit well in a 700-word newspaper column, or a 10-second sound byte, or a 140-character hot take on Twitter.
And there’s only so much that could be said in an open-mike Q and A format in a gym where much of the oxygen was sucked up by a few self-righteous souls who were determined to shout down all other voices.
That’s why Toews found the most rewarding part of the day to be the two hours he spent in line before the event, engaged in congenial, nuanced conversation with people who were genuinely interested in each other’s often-opposing views on everything from pipelines to religious beliefs.
“Hearing exchanges between people who respected each other was heartwarming,” he said. There’s not enough of that in the age of instant outrage.