National Column: Liberal zeal could backfire

by Chantal Hebert

By requiring applicants for federal summer jobs grants to attest that their core mandate respects abortion rights, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals may have hoped to lead by example.

Instead, they have opened a new front in a culture war they may yet come to regret.

Earlier this year, the Halton Catholic District School board passed a motion that bans funds raised through its schools from being donated to charities and organizations that “publicly support, either directly or indirectly, abortion, contraception, sterilization, euthanasia or embryonic stem cell research.”

Not all parents and students are on side with a move that could see the United Way and other mainstream charities blacklisted by the school board. But other faith-based organizations are keeping track of the issue, some of them with a mind to replicating the policy.

Part of the impetus for the policy is the quest for a tit-for-tat response to the federal decision to attach an abortion-rights clause to summer job funding applications.

But discomfort over the Liberalsí attestation extends beyond faith-based groups and the anti-abortion lobby.

On Monday in the House of Commons, veteran NDP MP David Christopherson broke ranks with his caucus to support a Conservative motion denouncing the attestation. He believes it is an affront to the right to lawful dissent. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May also feels the government overreached.

When it comes to issues such as reproductive rights and same-sex marriage, Christopherson needs no lessons from the Liberals. He was an advocate for both causes long before the Liberals developed their recent passion for proactively championing them.

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As a member of Bob Rae’s NDP government at Queen’s Park in the mid-90s, Christopherson supported a bill that would have extended the same rights to same-sex couples as those enjoyed by heterosexual ones. All but a handful of Ontarioís Liberal MPPs voted against that bill.

A few years later, in 1999, a majority of Jean Chretien’s Liberal caucus joined the Reform party in adopting a motion that reaffirmed that marriage was a union between a man and a woman.

Christopherson had moved on to the House of Commons by the time a group of Liberals joined with the Conservatives to defeat a 2010 motion designed to ensure that Stephen Harper’s maternal health care initiative did not exclude from funding organizations that help third-world women procure safe abortions.

The current Liberal militancy in affirming both abortion and same-sex marriage rights stands in stark contrast with that partyís past reluctance – in government as in opposition – to embrace either fully.

But in their zeal to showcase the depth of their conversion, the Liberals are missing a major point. Public opinion is quite capable of evolving without the intervention of an overbearing government.

The sea change in societal attitudes toward same-sex marriage is a token of that. For the record, that sea change took place over the tenure of a federal government that was not ideologically predisposed to support a more inclusive marriage institution.

If anything, government efforts to force-march the electorate to a preordained vision of society have a high potential of achieving the opposite.

On Thursday, Radio-Canada revealed that Service Canada employees had been instructed to stop using terms such as mother or father and to avoid using gender-based honorifics such as Mr. or Mrs. in their interaction with the public.

The immediate reaction was overwhelmingly derisive, including from people otherwise supportive of efforts to normalize gender diversity. Some program hosts took to calling each other “comrade.” The Quebec government quickly shot down the notion that it might follow the federal example.

On a more substantial front, the Trudeau government plans to soon hold national consultations on systemic racism.

If the Quebec experience with a commission on the reasonable accommodation of religious minorities has shown anything, it is that when governments come up with a solution in search of a problem, they risk aggravating whatever they are attempting to fix.

Based on the still-unresolved Quebec debate on the securalism issue, attempts at codifying the day-to-day interactions of a society are at least as likely to further polarize it as to make more people feel at home under a government-built inclusive tent.

In closing, many of the voters who supported the Liberals in the last election did so in the belief that they were getting rid of a Conservative government that let its ideological compass dictate its every move.

Almost three years into the Trudeau mandate, more than a few of them are starting to wonder whether they have actually traded up to an even more ideologically driven government.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics.
Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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