Civil rights organizations say all levels of government must ensure public funding isn’t used to discriminate against protected groups, after a Winnipeg-based evangelical charity was accused of policies that exclude members of the LGBTQ community.
This month, a group of skateboarders, including members of the LGBTQ community, drew attention to hiring and volunteer policies at Youth For Christ Winnipeg.
Those policies include a contract staff said they were asked to sign with reference to “the purity and sanctity of sexual relations within marriage,” defined as “a committed union between one man and one woman.”
What’s especially worrisome, the skateboarders say, is that all levels of government have spent millions of dollars funding the Winnipeg organization, including more than $357,000 from the federal government through summer jobs grants.
Laura Berger, a staff lawyer at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says the government has a duty to investigate publicly funded organizations that are accused of violating human rights law.
“The agreement and the condition attached to receiving the money isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if there’s no recourse,” Berger said in a Thursday interview with CBC.
Skateboarders who previously used the indoor skate park at Youth for Christ’s inner-city Winnipeg facility echo those concerns.
“It’s really disappointing … that marginalized folks had to be hurt in the process,” said Maddy Nowosad, a queer skateboarder in Winnipeg who used to skate and volunteer at The Edge Skate Park, a program run by Youth For Christ Winnipeg at the corner of Higgins Avenue and King Street.
“The government should be responsible for where the funding is going and what’s happening in those places.”
CBC News obtained a Youth For Christ Winnipeg document from a person who worked there that includes the directive to uphold “the purity and sanctity of sexual relations within marriage.”
The same wording can be found in older versions of employee manuals from other regions of Canada.
Youth For Christ Winnipeg’s volunteer policy, which CBC News was given by a former volunteer, has an identical clause, but gives volunteers the option to agree to not oppose the organization’s mission and values, and to not speak against the agency or its values, rather than signing the agreement.
In a statement to media on Monday, Youth for Christ Winnipeg said “all young people are welcomed and valued” at the organization, “regardless of religious belief, people group, or sexual orientation.”
However, it did not address the hiring and volunteer policies or allegations of discrimination against staff and volunteers.
CBC News requested a comment on Friday morning but hasn’t yet received a response.
‘We don’t set their policies’: minister
Manitoba Municipal Relations Minister Eileen Clarke says Youth For Christ Winnipeg received $446,000 in grants between 2017 and 2022 through the province’s Urban Hometown Green Team and Building Sustainable Communities programs.
The applications for this coming year’s grants are already public, and there is no criteria attached related to discrimination, Clarke said.
“However, given that there is a concern, it will be discussed within our department,” she said in a Thursday interview, though she wouldn’t say whether a clause will be added to the applications.
Asked if future provincial grant programs would require workplaces to be free of harassment and discrimination, Clarke distanced her government — and the provincial dollars — from the recipients.
“We are not the employer here. We are just the funder.… They are responsible for their policies, and we don’t set their policies.”
The City of Winnipeg, meanwhile, provided Youth For Christ funding through CentreVenture Development Corporation, an arm’s-length city entity.
Under a 2010 agreement, the then Conservative federal government contributed $3.2 million in funding to help Youth For Christ Winnipeg build its Higgins Avenue facility, which includes the skate park.
The city agreed to provide $2.6 million in funding via a loan from CentreVenture. Under the agreement, the city would repay that loan, plus interest, in 15 yearly instalments of $225,000.
The funding deal came to city council in February 2010 without an administrative report. Before it was approved, a minority of city councillors expressed concerns no due diligence was conducted on the deal, which was only made public one week earlier in the form of a one-page motion at city council’s executive policy committee.
Angela Mathieson, the current president of CentreVenture, says the corporation has little to do with Youth For Christ Winnipeg today.
“CentreVenture was really a flow-through for the City of Winnipeg’s financial commitment to YFC,” she said, adding that there was no mechanism in the original agreement to hold the organization to future operating policies.
Ga Grant, a litigation staff lawyer for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, says governments must be held accountable for the work done with public funds.
“Governments have a duty to ensure that the organizations funded are legally compliant and do not violate the equality rights of citizens,” she said in a Thursday email.
“All individuals in Manitoba have the right to have and express their sexual orientation or gender identity without fear of discrimination in their employment or in accessing public spaces and services.”
Federal funding program discrimination policy
The federal government does have a policy in place to protect workers in federally funded positions from harassment and discrimination.
Employment and Social Development Canada says over the last five years, Youth For Christ Winnipeg was approved for $357,975 through the Canada Summer Jobs grant program, which subsidizes wages for summer workers.
In 2018, the federal government introduced a new element on the grant application, requiring applicants to state that neither their core mandates nor the jobs being funded actively undermine constitutional, human or reproductive rights.
The 2019 version of the application was updated to require funding applicants to declare their work doesn’t infringe upon any Canadian’s legal rights.
A spokesperson for Economic and Social Development Canada says the department takes seriously any potential breaches of those conditions, but couldn’t speak to specific cases like Youth For Christ Winnipeg.
“If an organization has been approved for funding but is later found to be in contravention of the articles of agreement, the department reserves the right to revoke the funding that was approved,” Mila Roy said in an emailed statement to CBC News on Wednesday.
Berger, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association lawyer, says she understands the federal government can’t possibly do a deep investigation for potential human rights violations of every agency that receives funding, but that it needs to have procedures in place to investigate concerns if public money is used in a discriminatory way.
Human rights law
Faith-based agencies have some leeway under the law to restrict hiring in some roles, Berger said.
“If a synagogue is hiring a rabbi, it makes sense that the synagogue could require that rabbi to be Jewish, for instance,” she explained.
However, the law states that agencies can’t apply that standard to every employee, especially if the condition is not related to the job requirements.
For instance, in 2008, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ruled ruled in favour of Connie Heintz, who worked for Christian Horizons — a faith-based charitable organization that provides care and support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
When first hired, she was required to sign a lifestyle and morality statement, which prohibited, among other things, same-sex partnerships. After several years in her role, Heintz came out as a lesbian, and she was forced by the organization her to leave her job.
The tribunal ruled that because Christian Horizons’ services were not limited to Christian clients, the prohibition on homosexual relationships was not a legitimate job requirement, and Christian Horizons was ordered to stop requiring staff to sign the statement.
Berger says in light of such rulings, some of Youth for Christ Winnipeg’s requirements could be scrutinized under human rights law.
Job postings currently on the Youth for Christ website for an accountant and a cook at a camp the organization runs say that those roles, like other staff positions, require agreement with the organization’s statement of faith.
“It’s pretty clear across the board that employers cannot discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in hiring, promoting, paying their employees,” said Berger.