In the past few weeks the Christian right have made their voices heard. They have helped the McGuinty government shelve the province’s sex education curriculum and have seen Harper renege on the G8 maternal health initiative by announcing that Canada would not fund abortions in developing countries.
This week they’ll be converging in Ottawa.
On Thursday 13 May, over 20,000 people are expected to swarm Parliament Hill (with the help of Ottawa-area Catholic schools) for the biggest rally of the pro-lifers in the country, the National March for Life.
This year’s theme is ‘abortion is a crime against humanity,’ and their promo-video for the march is full of misinformation such as the narrator saying, “Did you know that Canada is the only Western country where it is permitted to have an abortion right up until the baby is born?”
Canada does have federal abortion policies — as well as provincial laws that primarily determine access to abortions. Hospitals and some clinics perform abortions up to 20 weeks. Only a few abortions are performed over 20 weeks and are usually done to protect the woman’s physical health, or because of serious fetal abnormalities.
It is the misinformation preached by the anti-choice supporters that riles Mélanie Stafford — an activist, educator and a member of the Pro-choice Coalition of Ottawa (PCCO).
“I think one of the huge things that is constantly being twisted is the whole ‘we don’t have any laws around abortion’ and a woman could potentially be having an abortion right up until she’s due,” says Stafford.
Stafford is one of the core members of PCCO who are rallying a small entourage of pro-choice supporters to be at the march.
PCCO is a grass roots operation of men and women who come from an anti-oppression standpoint and believe in reproductive justice. This year they have been involved with Planned Parenthood Ottawa (PPO) in organizing pro-choice supporters — although PPO’s messaging around the event is slightly different.
Heather Holland, the Executive Director of PPO says that, with the recent policy decisions regarding the exclusion of abortion from the G8 maternal health initiative, it is important to demonstrate that there remains broad support for abortion access in Canada.
Canada still has a long way to go to improving access to abortions — less than 20 percent of hospitals provide abortion services and women living in rural areas often have to drive a significant distance to obtain an abortion.
“We want to be there to show that the majority of Canadians support women’s rights to choice and that the politicians and the public need to see that there remains strong support for abortion access,” says Holland. “We want to be there as a pro-choice presence. We respect that the marchers have a right to opinions and beliefs — but no-one has the right not to be challenged.”
Both organizations have been rallying up supporters to be present at the march.
Pro-choice supporters will meet at noon at the Terry Fox statue on Wellington Street, across the street from parliament where the anti-choice rally will begin. The plan is to listen to the different speakers at the rally until the march begins. Then, pro-choice supporters will proceed to the Human Rights Monument on Elgin Street.
Stafford is a veteran of the march. She has been a peaceful supporter of the pro-choice movement for the last four years and is aware of how daunting attending the march can be.
“It can be very emotionally overwhelming for folks who just stumble on it,” says Stafford. “It can be a huge affront against who we are or the choices and realities of our own lives.”
Stafford estimates the number of pro-choice supporters gathering on Thursday will be around 100 people — a drop in the bucket in comparison to the anti-choice movement, who are busing in droves of school children and young adults from Ontario and Québec.
“Regardless of size — it is symbolic,” says Holland. “The numbers are small but the individuals that are showing up that day to provide that pro-choice presence are representing a majority of Canadians — symbolically representing that broad support for abortions access in Canada.”
Stafford feels that the pro-choice presence at the march, however small, is a safe space for people to show their support in a climate of uncertainty.
“With the prime minister that we have now, we know his capacities and his audacity. He is cutting us at our legs and he is silencing us,” says Stafford. “If, for some people literally being physically present is their activism. We just want to create an opportunity for that.”
“For me, its plain hate against sexual diversity, against gender diversity, against different forms of families other than the hetero family — and that they get to just walk around town and be hateful to the folks around. It’s overwhelming — the force of it, because like I said it’s the biggest rally in Canada.”