N.S. sawmill museum blames closure on Canada Summer Jobs abortion controversy
METEGHAN RIVER, N.S. -- A small Nova Scotia museum has "closed indefinitely" after it said it was denied federal funding for refusing to conform to a controversial abortion rights clause in the Canada Summer Jobs program.
The Liberal government this year required that organizations seeking funding under the program check a box affirming their support for constitutional rights and the right to reproductive choice, including access to abortion.
Gerald Comeau, a volunteer with the Bangor Sawmill Museum in Meteghan River, N.S., said the museum does not have a mandate to take an ideological position on abortion, and should not be compelled to do so in order to be eligible for funding.
"We're a museum. We're not involved in the business of ideological questions of abortion and so on," said Comeau in a phone interview Thursday. "So we came to the decision that we could not support that clause."
Comeau, a former longtime Tory politician and senator, said he wrote a letter to accompany the application that affirmed the organization's respect for human rights and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the application was nevertheless denied.
He said without government funding, the museum -- home to one of Canada's last water-powered mills -- does not have enough money to hire a student museum guide, and so will not open this summer as scheduled. The funding required to hire the student amounts to about $3,000.
"We're very disappointed. It's a part of our history and a priceless heritage site," said Comeau, 72, who grew up in the area and lives there today.
A sawmill has sat on the site on the Meteghan River since the 1800s and once employed about 30 people. It burned down twice over the years, was rebuilt, and was eventually abandoned in the 1980s. Thanks to community efforts, the sawmill was restored in the early 1990s and its 19th-century technology was maintained.
Colin Fraser, the local Liberal MP, said the purpose of the government's change was to ensure funding was not going to jobs or organizations that purposefully undermine human rights.
Fraser said he spoke with Comeau during the application process and explained that the attestation was about confirming that the job description and the primary activities of the applicant respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and has nothing to do with the organization's beliefs or values.
"For example, previous groups had received federal funding despite specifically refusing to hire LGBTQ2 students or in another instance a job entailed making and displaying graphic abortion materials at a clinic in order to intimidate," said Fraser in an email statement.
"I agree with Mr. Comeau that the Bangor Sawmill has nothing to do with those types of activities. They were therefore eligible to apply and there's no reason to believe they would not have been successful. However, they decided not to complete the application by refusing to complete the attestation and were therefore not approved."
Fraser went on to say that he was willing to work with the museum on "finding a way to keep this important historic site operating for the benefit of the community."
Veronique Simard, press secretary for federal Employment Minister Patty Hajdu, said before the government changed the Canada Summer Jobs program, funding was being given to groups like the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, which paid students to distribute graphic images of aborted fetuses.
"Our government stands by its decision to ensure that funding does not go to these kinds of groups. Canadian students deserve high-quality summer job experience, in high-quality workplaces," said Simard in an email statement.
Ottawa also noted that organizations do not have to support rights -- they must respect them, and not actively undermine them.
Last month, a New Brunswick archbishop ordered several Roman Catholic parishes to return the federal funding they had applied for under the program. Moncton Archbishop Valery Vienneau said some parishes had not read the fine print, completed the application and were approved for funding, but the church cannot compromise its values just to please the government.
Comeau said he feels that the museum has become "collateral damage."
"It's not the just the faith-based groups that have been impacted. It's groups like ours," said Comeau.
"I understand where the government was coming from, but there were other ways of doing it. If you're a surgeon and you want to fix a patient, you don't go in with a chainsaw, you go in with a scalpel... In my view, (Ottawa) has gone in with a chainsaw."
Simard said 2,157 organizations in Nova Scotia were approved for Canada Summer Jobs funding in 2018.
-- By Aly Thomson in Halifax.