One spotlight shone down on the fire dancer — her arms circling in wide gestures creating giant sparkles against the dark backdrop of the early evening sky. As the fire dancer continued to light up the evening, guests arrived and made their way into a room that had been transformed into a theatrical stage. It was a night of magical mystery and the 45th anniversary of Planned Parenthood Ottawa (PPO).
Cube Gallery, which hosted the event, had been turned into a circus stage complete with clowns, hoopla dancers and staff dressed in theatrical costumes. The event was PPO’s first gala and a fundraising event where 45 boxes — painted by artists, politicians and other well know persons — were on display for auction.
For Jeannette Doucet, the interim executive director of PPO, the gala evening was a celebration of 45 years of PPO and an event to raise the profile of the organization.
“It is a way to keep us in the public’s radar, to keep the public’s awareness of us alive,” says Doucet.
Since the 1960s PPO has been under the radar of women and it has been Ottawa’s leading organization advocating for women’s sexual and reproductive health. Less than 50 years ago, using contraception was a federal felony under the Canadian Criminal Code. Not free to walk into a pharmacy or a community health centre to request condoms, the pill or other forms of birth control, women were forced underground.
Even under those circumstances the Ottawa Society of Population Planning believed in giving women control over their sexual and reproductive health. The organization, which began in 1961, was not official but held meetings in church basements to offer contraceptives and birth planning information to women. In 1964, the organization held their first official meeting to address the need for population planning. Forty-five years later the same organization, under the name of Planned Parenthood Ottawa (PPO), is still helping people make informed sexual and reproductive health choices.
“We want people to be healthy,” says Doucet. “We want people to be informed and empowered, and we do it from a non-judgmental and an unbiased perspective.”
PPO provides people with information, education and support services through three main programs: their flagship program is the Insight Theatre. It is a public education program for youth created and run by students from various schools in Ottawa. The troupe addresses sexual and reproductive health issues and its shows are presented by youth to their peers. In their community education program, PPO delivers workshops to schools and community organizations to promote a healthy attitude towards sexuality. Finally, PPO offers supportive counselling in their Options Support Services program.
Over the years, PPO has served thousands of people in Ottawa, from women seeking contraception or abortion to community members looking for sexual health information. But, it is PPO’s pro-choice mandate that often stops a wider population from — knowing and fully understanding — the organizations objectives and philosophy.
“Whereas pro-choice is a very important philosophy and it really grounds what we do,” says Doucet, “it is not all that anybody is about, any organization is about a whole lot of things. It’s too bad that it puts out that kind of barrier to getting a message of healthy sexuality out.”
PPO’s pro-choice stance incorporates a broad spectrum of sexual health choices but for most people pro-choice is only about abortion. Because of this stance the mainstream media keeps its distance and fails to address important sexual health messages.
“Abortion is a hot button issue and the media stays away from it unless there is a big controversy,” says Doucet. “It’s not talked about in healthy way. It’s not talked about in a constructive way.”
To advertise the gala event, PPO turned to social networking, rather than the media and news about the Magic Boxes blasted its way through the Internet via twitter, blogs and other social network systems. Promoting PPO in the eyes of the public and celebrating 45 years of hard work in Ottawa was the motivation for the evening’s gala. The theme of Magic Boxes was an innovative and unique way to raise funds for PPO and a chance for guests to bid on and own one-of-kind pieces of art. Over 90 people attended the event and $5,100 was raised through the auction of the boxes.
The event also attracted a number of well-known people including Maureen McTeer and her daughter Catherine Clark who were patrons of the event. McTeer, a feminist and a lawyer, is well known for her advocacy workfor women’s rights.
“I am very conscious as the Canadian representative of the White Ribbon Alliance for safe motherhood,” says McTeer, “of the need to have women’s health protected, especially with respect to their access to contraception, and in many cases the termination, if there is a need. I see this as all part of the larger context of women’s health.”
McTeer was one of the many people who attended the gala in order to support PPO and its objectives to protect women’s reproductive rights and sexual well being.
“I am delighted to be able to be here to mark 45 years because, in Canada, prior to 1968, contraception was banned under our criminal code,” says McTeer. “So this is a short period of time — but a very important period — where planned parenthood generally, not just in Canada but internationally, has played a very important role.”
For 45 years, PPO has been promoting healthy sexuality. Their gala evening was an opportunity for the organization to highlight their work, to create awareness in the public’s eyes and a chance to widen the circle of people involved in the organization and a time to look back on the progress that has been made.
“It’s been 45 years and the time is right for some reflection,” says Doucet.