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Our Voices

Is Coalition Building a Lost Art?

an orange, brown yellow ai generated illustration showing women playing chess.
Image was generated by DALLE-2. LiisBeth Media donated $50.0 to Art Starts (art charity) to compensate artists (About what we would pay for illustration single use on other platforms).

Over my 50-year experience as an activist, I have found that the most effective way to win a battle is by making connections across differences. We are doing that less and less these days in a time of polarized, denunciating politics but we have never needed it more.

One of the most successful coalitions that I was part of was the National Action Committee (NAC) on the Status of Women, the largest feminist group in Canada from 1972 til the early 21st century. I was the President of NAC for three years in the 1990’s during which we elected a diverse executive, with Indigenous, Black, immigrant, 2SLGBTQIA+ and disabled representatives probably the first in the country. But NAC began in 1972 with a politically diverse coalition. Young women, like me at the time, wanted revolutionary change and looked with disdain at older more conservative women like Laura Sabia, who was a Conservative councillor in a Toronto suburb. We may have recognized how rare it was to have a woman in this position but honestly we didn’t care, we wanted a revolution and to be completely equal with men. It was Grace Hartman, then a rare female President of a union, CUPE and Madeleine Parent, a working-class hero from Quebec who was charged by the neo-fascist Duplessis with treason for her union organizing, who convinced us to make an alliance with Conservative women who wanted an independent women’s group against Liberal women arguing that it be advisory to the government.  NAC became the most effective women’s group in the country and perhaps in the world. It was a cross class, cross political party organization.

Another example of an effective coalition was the pro-choice movement that won abortion rights in 1988, making abortion a medical procedure like any other. A group of birth control providers and feminist activists in Toronto decided to try and set up an illegal abortion clinic like Dr. Henry Morgentaler did in Quebec. It’s a long story but the part of it I want to tell here was the coalition we built. From the group we contemptuously called the Rosedale Ladies, who raised money for the defense fund, to the labour movement, who taught us how to defend the clinic from anti-choice protesters to the church women who made sure we debated abortion issues on many Sundays, we built a very broad coalition.

The toughest challenge was the alliance between the Canadian Association for Repeal of the Abortion Law (CARAL), mostly middle-aged, middle of the road women who had been lobbying the government for decades to repeal the restrictive abortion law passed in 1969 and the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC), a younger, more radical group. They thought we were crazy and thought we would ruin everything with our more radical tactics. Nevertheless, we worked together even if we didn’t like each other so much. It came to head when the Catholic Church called out their troops, including Catholic schools, to protest in front of the clinic every day for a week. Up until that point the church had been doing their lobbying behind closed doors. They had a 1,000 people a day in front of the clinic on Harbord St.,  Monday to Thursday. The OCAC decided to organize a counter demonstration at Queen’s Park in front of the legislature on the Friday. CARAL opposed it.  “We can never out mobilize the church,” they argued. “It will show our weakness.”

We considered their opinion, and we weren’t sure if we could out mobilize the church but what we did know was that it would demoralize all the people who had worked so hard to keep the clinic open on the streets and by building support in their workplaces and neighbourhoods. We decided to go ahead but then I learned something very important about coalitions. CARAL was furious with us, but they decided to do everything possible to build the biggest demonstration we could. They didn’t go off in a huff and denounce us. The movement is what mattered, and they did everything to build that demo even if it proved them wrong.

The media reported the Church demo’s every day. At the end of their report they said “and on Friday the pro-choice groups will be organizing a counter demo at Queen’s Park.” I will never forget standing on the steps of the Legislature, you could do that back then, and watching the waves of people emerging from the subway. It was huge. At least 15,000 people covered the grounds around Queen’s Park. It was a turning point.

Another example of an extraordinarily broad coalition was the Action Canada Network that formed to fight the free trade deal with the U.S, basically to fight neo-liberalism. The co-chairs were Maude Barlow, the leader of the Council of Canadians and a former Liberal and Tony Clarke who  at the time was a senior staff person with the Conference of Catholic Bishops.  This was during the pro-choice struggle and yet we managed to build a coalition against free trade at the same time as we were fighting each other in the streets over abortion rights. It must be said that Tony himself was pro-choice and later was fired by the Conference of Catholic Bishops for his activism. We won a majority of votes against the Free Trade Agreement but the free trade Tories won because of our undemocratic electoral system. By the time the Liberals came to power, they supported neo-liberalism even though they opposed it in 1988.

Publishers Note: This article was initially published in  

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Allied Arts & Media Our Voices

Women Talking Gives Me Hope for the Future

An image of Sarah Polley, a white woman wearing a whte tshirt with a movie camera in the background. She is wearing a mask.
Sarah Polley on the set of Women Talking. Credit: Sarah Polley / Twitter

I’ve known Sarah Polley since she was a young activist. Over the years, I’ve watched her career as a film and TV writer and director with some pride. She helped me enormously by telling me about a concussion clinic in Pittsburg a few years ago, so I was aware that she had been unable to continue directing because of her concussion. 

Polley has come back to directing with Women Talking, one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. Based on the extraordinary book by Miriam Toews, Women Talking is a powerful feminist film not only about women organizing to confront or escape male violence but also about the different ways trauma affects us and how to emerge from its grip. As the film begins we see this line “what follows is an act of female imagination.” I am struck by the fact that such a film could even be made within the Hollywood system.  

The story, as you may know, is based on a true horror story of an extremely conservative patriarchal Mennonite colony in Bolivia where seven men were convicted of drugging and raping more than 100 women and girls in 2011. The film, as does the book, imagines the women are meeting in a barn to discuss whether to stay and fight, leave or do nothing in face of the realization that so many of them and their daughters have been sexually assaulted over night after being drugged. The men have left the colony to bail out the rapists. There is not much time to decide what to do.

I’m not a film critic but the acting, cinematography, writing and direction is all wonderful enough that a film that is literally about women talking held my interest for the entire runtime without pause. It is a profoundly feminist film for the obvious reason that trauma from sexual assault is central to many women’s lives and gendered violence affects many more.  But more than that, we see a group of women who have not been taught to read or write as is the belief of their sect, who are basically slaves to the men in their community, who have taught their daughters to accept these conditions based on their religious beliefs are able to face the horror of what happened to them and then debate, discuss and sometimes fight about what to do.  

Most of them believe that leaving the community will mean that they won’t go to heaven. Despite the extreme circumstances, the debate reflects many of the debates we have had about how to end violence against women. Some argue that it is up to the police and courts to punish these men, not up to the group. Others argue that whether or not the rapists are punished doesn’t solve the problem faced by the women, or even guarantee the protection of their children. Can they leave and create their own beloved community? If they stay and fight  won’t they become like their assaulters taking their anger out in violence? Despite the extreme circumstance, the debate and discussion reminded me of some deep divisions I’ve been part of debating in the feminist movement and on the Left. 

Collection of comedy clips from Anne Marie Scheffler shows (4 minutes)

Debates about violence and non-violence, whether to include men on a march, how to stand up to the Catholic Church on abortion, whether to defy the law. As sometimes the case in social movements, or in the decision of whether to become an activist, whatever they decide will profoundly change their lives. In the film we also experienced how different women are affected by their trauma in profoundly different ways from deeply angry to almost beatific. We also learn that it isn’t only the men who are responsible because mothers have taught their daughters to accept the conditions. And perhaps most extraordinary of all, Sarah respected the religious beliefs of the women.

In the Q and A after the film, Sarah talked about how the process of the film was also feminist. As the mother of three young children, she didn’t want the ten-hour days that are normal practice on a film so she organized it differently. There was a therapist on site to help actors and others deal with the psychological impact of the story. Instead of acting the usual role of the brilliant, domineering auteur writer-director, she encouraged her crew and the actors to contribute to how the film was being made, especially at crucial decisions.  

Women Talking made me feel hope for the future. It is coming to a theatre near you in December. Please see it in the theatre. I’m sure it won’t have nearly the impact on your TV or computer.

Publishers Note: This article was originally published in on September 30th after it was screened at the Toronto Film Festival (TFF) 2022. We are grateful for the opportunity to republish this review for our audience! Thank you!

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Our Voices

U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe decision a broad attack on civil rights

Photo of a man attending a pro abortion rights rally holding a sign saying "I'm with her"
Photo by Aiden Frazier, Unsplash

As expected the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade thus opening the way for Republican states to ban abortion. Thirteen states have trigger laws that will come into effect immediately.  Many more will quickly pass restrictive legislation. The decision is catastrophic. It rolls back a constitutional right American women have had for 50 years.

The response has been strong. President Joe Biden, who has never been a pro-choice advocate, promises to do everything in his power to ensure that women in states that ban abortion will have access to medical abortion by mail and the right to travel to states where abortion is available. He promised that if the Democrats win a majority in both House and Senate in the coming mid-term elections, they will enshrine the principle of Roe v. Wave in federal law.

The sexual health movement in the U.S. has been spending their time since the leak from Politico that warned that this decision was coming to organize and ensure women in states where abortion is illegal will be able to access either medical abortion or travel to another country.  Even the Disney Corporation is offering assistance to their workers who need to travel to seek an abortion. Hopefully other corporations and perhaps universities and colleges will follow suit.

But to ensure that Biden keeps his promise, there must be the largest mass mobilization of people in American history.  A ban on abortion affects millions of people.  The Supreme Court argument basically says that there are no legal rights unless they are guaranteed in the Constitution other than those originally there unless a constitutional amendment is passed by elected representatives.  With that argument, same sex marriage, perhaps inter-racial marriage, birth control, gay rights, and trans rights could be eliminated.

President Biden and House Leader Nancy Pelosi both said in their statements about the Roe v. Wade ruling that this has to be a ballot box issue. At first, I was annoyed at them trying to turn a monumental defeat into a political talking point but there is a real point. A Democratic victory in November in both the House and the Senate could lead not only to enshrining abortion rights in federal law but also to real gun control.  But I don’t trust them. Only a massive movement in the streets as well as during the election can ensure that this will happen.

In Canada, we are in a much stronger position. So far the Conservative Party is not anti-abortion. Conservative Premiers in several provinces have promised they will not restrict abortion rights, but they don’t stop their members from putting forward laws to restrict access. All but one of the leadership candidates in the federal party say they are pro-choice. But Pierre Poilievre, who claimed to pro-choice in the French debate, has not yet made a statement on the US decision, despite being asked. No doubt he is testing the air. Anti-abortion activists have been building support inside the Conservative Party since abortion was legalized. Now they have the wind in their sails.

Twenty sexual and reproductive health groups put out a statement today about the Roe v. Wade decision saying in addition to solidarity with American sisters, they will fight to expand sexual and reproductive rights.

“Equity within Sexual Rights and Healthcare includes making contraception free, allowing abortion pills to be sold over the counter, strengthening access to abortion in rural and remote areas, implementing $10 a day childcare, enforcing the Canada Health Act against provinces that fail to provide adequate abortion, implementing comprehensive sexual health education in all Canadian schools, increasing healthcare funding to provinces to expand SRH, and more,” the statement reads. They see it as a moment to push for more rights.

Prime Minister Trudeau promised: “You can count on our government to protect women’s right to choose.” That’s great but in my experience you can’t count on governments to do anything for very long. Eighty per cent of Canadians support abortion rights and only 14 per cent oppose so while we can’t be sanguine, we don’t have to worry yet.

Publisher’s Note: This article was originally published by We thank them for the permission to share this with our readers. 

To learn more about Canada’s abortion rights history and about organizations working to preserve those rights and expand access, download our abortion rights zine here. 

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Why We're Feminists

If women are coerced into believing that it’s unattractive to be a feminist, they are relinquishing their own power.
Think you’re not a feminist? Think again.

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Activism & Action


A photo of early childhood educators, adults and kids, with placards adovcating for universal child care
Association of Early Childhood Educators Ontario (AECEO)-IWD March Toronto, 2018 #childcarecantwait #decentwork — with Katie Lynne Persona. Today, after 50+ years of struggle, Canada is about to implement universal childcare. Photo: IWD Toronto Facebook

Two weeks ago, I received a notice in my inbox from SheEO, an international, feminist pro-woman entrepreneur organization, informing me of their latest campaign entitled “#IWD for me.” Their idea is that International Women’s Day should be a moment of self-care. They argue that since IWD has become performative —a time for corporations to roll out their support for women’s equality and instead of working by giving talks —women should instead take this time for themselves.

However, turning IWD into an individual holiday for self-care flies in the face of the meaning of International Women’s Day, and I want to tell you why.

Marching for a better life for all women, International Women’s Day (IWD) has been celebrated in Europe since the early 20th century.  In former Soviet countries, it is a legal holiday for all. In China, it’s a legal holiday—but just for women.  In Canada, reflecting the European influence, International Women’s Day was first organized by Quebec women in 1973. IWD was founded in the struggle of working-class women for “bread and roses,” or for a living wage and better life. The slogan is related to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that occurred on March 25, 1911. Here 140 immigrant women lost their lives because their boss had locked them into the factory during the fire. IWD was also born out of the historic strike of Russian women for peace and bread  at the end of February 1917 that kicked off the Russian Revolution.  Since then, the United Nations has proclaimed the date of March 8 as International Women’s Day.

IWD pulls together a broad coalition of women, including women of colour, Black and Indigenous women active in various women’s groups and in co-ed organizations. In the 1970’s,, though the women’s movement was at its height in terms of the number of activists working for equality   it was still divided in its activities related to pay equity, health policy, abortion, anti-violence, lesbian rights, daycare, politics and education. No one had any idea of how big the movement already was. But on IWD in 1978, we would find out. 

The Toronto IWD committee was grassroots, open to all feminists and met every week to plan the march. Open organizing meetings were held weekly and there would often be a hundred women in the room sitting in a circle discussing issues. Discussion reflected—sometimes pretty intensely—many voices and surfaced all of the different changes they were each demanding from the women’s movement. To this day there has never been a paid employee of IWD. The work has always relied on volunteers.   

The changing focus of each IWD year’s march would attract women from various communities. For example, in 1986 the anti-apartheid theme attracted Black women who also challenged the dominance of White women in the coalition. The demonstrations were huge and became the central gathering of a diverse women’s movement. Probably the largest IWD was during the Eaton’s strike in 1988, when the demonstration marched right through the Eaton’s Centre downtown in protest of the company’s labour practices. That year the trade union movement came out in force, and they have continued to march with us ever since.

Later, Women Working with Immigrant Women took over organizing IWD. They are still on the IWD committee in Toronto today, joined by a diverse group, including trans and nonbinary women, organizing a march that often receives support from men as well. To me and thousands of women across Toronto, IWD is a celebration of generations of feminist struggle. And in the last twenty years, the March has become more international in its scope. When women in a given country are engaged in an important struggle, they will often come to IWD with their placards to raise our collective consciousness about pressing women’s issues around the world.

Unlike the Pride March, IWD has never sold out to the corporate elite or the cops.  It has remained a volunteer grass roots mobilization of women and their allies and has become more and more diverse every year.  Young women have taken the mantle from my generation and spread the event far and wide.  

A woman with blond hair, black glasses holding up a cell phone, smiling, taking a selfie of herself and the group holding champagne.
Opinion article published in the Toronto Star, Feb 22nd, 2022 "This year, we’re flipping the script on International Women’s Day" by Vicki Saunders Contributor

Why #IWD4ME is  a Miss

SheEO’s invitation to #IWDForMe read:

International Women’s Day is the one day each year where companies and organizations reach out proactively to showcase women’s stories. For many companies, it’s a performative act for a day or a week and then we revert to the apathetic reality that women’s stories and truth-telling about the state of gender equity are saved for special days like this. 

“We are welcoming in a revolution of rest with the understanding that true community care begins with self-care. Whether you can find a full day of rest or only have 15 minutes, we invite you to join us on your own terms” 

I am all for self-care being part of our battle for social justice and equality.  But IWD is a day of struggle, a day of collective celebration, a day when the women’s movement declares itself.  We can’t let corporate pretense take that away from us.

Here’s the change  I’d like to see.

Every year, on the Saturday closest to March 8, I join thousands of people to celebrate International Women’s Day on the streets of Toronto. It’s a wonderful chance to join other women in celebrating all we have achieved and recognizing what fights still remain to be achieved. #IWDForMe is like a satire of neo-liberal feminism, or the exact opposite of what International Women’s Day originally meant.

Frankly it horrifies me.

We can’t march this year because of Covid  but let’s support a grass roots women’s group or join the Toronto march virtually this year.  Or you can join the Women’s  Climate Strike. In an op ed in the Toronto Star, Vicki Saunders suggests that corporate women refuse to talk and ask their company to invite a worker in a rape crisis centre or shelter to talk to your co-workers about where inequality still exists and hopefully be paid for the talk.  We can agree on that. 

It was women in collective struggle who created International Women’s Day and women together in struggle who will continue to celebrate it.

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Activism & Action

Prospects for a She-covery?

Are proposed platforms by leading political parties doing enough? Image by © Prazis |

What happened to the she-covery? Just a few months ago, everyone was talking about the she-cession and the she-covery, terms coined by feminist economist Armine Yalnizyan, but in the recent leaders’ debate not one word was uttered about the significantly greater job and income losses faced by women. Even childcare, the most substantive debate in the election—and I would argue the most important issue for women—barely got a mention in the debate. 

In economic terms, women and racialized people have been most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Women suffered 63 per cent of job losses as of March 2020 and even as the economy rebounds women lag behind by 15 per cent.  The three industries hardest hit by job loss in the pandemic are all female-dominated. Women account for 82.4 per cent of the workforce in health care, 69.3 per cent in the education sector and 58.5 per cent in the food

You may remember the excellent paper recently put out by Yalnizyan and other feminist intellectuals and activists on the Care Economy. It is a call to recognize the centrality of the care economy as not only essential to our health and well-being, but also as a social infrastructure “that delivers economic stability and growth,” and “is a shared responsibility, not just a personal one.”

The care economy accounts for more than 21 per cent of all paid labour and 12 per cent of Canada’s GDP. That’s more than the oil and gas, auto, or manufacturing sectors. For all the talk from Justin Trudeau of a feminist government, Canada spends only 18 per cent of national income on social services—which is less than we did in the 1990s when we spent 20 per cent—and our population is aging more than before. Canada spends $46 billion a year on social spending, or 2 per cent less than other G7 countries. The NDP is the only party proposing a wealth tax to raise the money needed to improve wages and working conditions in the social services. 

But there has been very little debate on social spending, health care, education, long-term care or childcare so far in the election. These may be provincial responsibilities but the federal government has an important financing role and can impose national standards. The leaders’ debate was a lost opportunity for a thorough discussion of the difference between publicly funded universal non-profit childcare and tax credits for parents. It was more bickering than debate so let’s look at some of the key issues in this upcoming election as they affect women and gender-diverse people.

Both the Liberals and the NDP agree on a publicly funded, high quality, affordable, and mostly non-profit childcare system. Those who, like myself, think the Liberals never saw a promise they couldn’t break, know that $30 billion for childcare was included in the last budget and eight provinces have already signed on. This was more money than any childcare advocate had asked for. It was a huge victory for the women’s movement, who have been fighting for a childcare system like this for 50 years. 

The good news is that even the Conservatives and the corporate lobby industry support childcare today. Economists have shown without a doubt that an affordable childcare system is good for the economy and COVID-19 has made that even clearer. The question now is how to fund it. A Conservative victory would be a catastrophe for childcare because they are proposing tax credits. Economist Gordon Cleveland has crunched the numbers for Ontario and there is no doubt that the Conservative proposal saves little money for most parents. Even worse, it won’t create a single new childcare space.

Affordable childcare is essential for women, care givers, and children. One thing this pandemic has revealed is that women, including those who make more money their partners, still carry the primary responsibility for child rearing. In Ontario, where we have a patchwork system and tax credits, only half of pre-schoolers received care from someone other than their parents. In Quebec, which has a publicly funded system, that figure is 75 per cent.   

The Conservatives have said their proposal would encourage more flexibility in childcare because families would have the money but that is simply not true. Unless there are regulated childcare spaces, there is no flexibility in childcare options. Tax credits don’t create even one additional childcare space, and we already know that the market economy doesn’t deliver universal childcare. Flexibility is an especially important issue for self-employed people and shift workers, and this will be the next step in developing the childcare system we need and will get—if the Conservatives are defeated.

The other key issue dependent on a feminist defeat of the Conservatives is abortion. Erin O’Toole says he’s pro-choice but the majority of his caucus is anti-abortion. They won’t make abortion illegal but they will do everything within their power to restrict access to it. As we saw in Texas, you don’t need to criminalize abortion to restrict access to this healthcare. And while the Liberals and the NDP are willing to use the Canada Health Act to ensure abortion access, the Conservatives refuse to do so. In fact, the Conservatives are against any national standards, including in long-term care funding. The long-term care catastrophe in the first wave of COVID-19 was much worse in for-profit homes. Only the NDP will make sure federal money goes to non-profit homes. 

Article from Global news.
Article from the National Observer about the anti abortion debate in Canada after Texas.
The Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), a national group that works to nominate and elect candidates who oppose abortion at all levels of government, CLC vice-president Jeff Gunnarson told Maclean’s. in 2019 that sold more than 9,000 PC party memberships to support anti-abortion work.

The Liberal and NDP platforms talk about violence against women but don’t propose anything substantial to reduce it. In my view, the only way to reduce violence against women is to stop relying on the justice system to do this work. I have been involved in battles to strengthen the laws and to educate judges and cops, but the system remains deeply patriarchal and racist. Public attitudes towards gendered violence have changed, but the rate of violence has not gone down. I think we need an intersectional approach that joins the Black Lives Matter movement in calling to defund the police. Money reacquired by defunding the police can in turn be used to fund shelters and rape crisis centres; to create programs and develop resources to change social conditions that encourage violence and sexism among young men; and to educate all boys on gender equality. We need a systemic approach to violence against women that also recognizes and addresses the deep sexism and racism embedded in both our justice system and our culture. 

Despite the powerful rise of an anti-Black racism movement, only the NDP has a proposal in place to deal with systemic racism. They also have the best proposals regarding Indigenous rights, and are promising $3 billion in funding to move towards reconciliation. 

In the final days of the election campaign, the Liberals have told us that a vote for any other party is a vote for the Conservatives. This is utter bullshit. Studies have shown that strategic voting doesn’t work. Last election the Liberals promised to move toward proportional representation where votes are more accurately reflected in parliamentary seats. Another broken promise. History shows that the only way we get a more progressive agenda is if the Liberals face pressure as a minority government.

Vote for the candidate you support. Having strong local and progressive representation in government matters. 

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Activism & Action

Fighting Fascism: Lessons from the pro-choice struggle

Photo of alt right protest crowd, Million Maga in Washington DC
Washington, DC, USA | Dec 12, 2020 | Million Maga March: Proud Boys in DC. Photo by Johnny Silvercloud

The assault on Congress on January 6 has provoked extensive discussion about the rise and breadth of the far right in the United States. But what of Canada?

Over 6,600 right-wing extremist social media channels, accounts linked to Canada, study finds

Well, I can tell you that I once received a bullet in the mail at my home in Toronto, one of twelve “prominent Jews” in the city to get that threat, serious enough for a police investigation. That was 1994, and I had just stepped down as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

Like many negative things in our history we don’t like to talk about, Canada has always had fascists in our political spectrum.  They had enough influence during World War II for the government to turn away a boatload of Jews fleeing the Nazi holocaust in Europe. Since Trump’s election in 2016, fascism — or at least far-right extremism expressing white supremacy, racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny — has been on the rise in Canada.  As reported in NOW Magazine, there are now 300 far-right extremist groups in Canada, 30 percent more since Trump came to office. Canada is among the most active countries on white supremacy discussion forums, just behind the U.S. and Britain.  Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise. A 2019 EKOS poll found that some 40 percent of white Canadians now view immigration as a “threat.” And there has been more than a 700% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in Vancouver since Covid hit.

So how do we stem the rise of fascism and far-right extremism, even turn it back? From the 1980s, I was deeply involved in a battle to secure the most important victory the women’s movement in Canada has ever had – the legalization of abortion. There are important lessons to be gleaned from that struggle that might serve us well in the battle against white supremacy and neofascism.

Picture of Judy Rebick
Writer, activist, feminist Judy Rebick (Photo via Rabble)

Lessons Learned from Fighting Anti-choice Activists

The pro-choice movement faced a well-organized, ideologically rigid, anti-feminist, fanatical anti-choice faction not afraid to use violence and threats, and it had ties to both Church and the Conservative Party. 

Beginning with the Abortion Caravan in 1970, pro-choice activists waged a nearly 20-year struggle — in the streets, in the courts and in the legislature, until the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the abortion law in a landmark decision citing women’s right to privacy—in effect women’s rights to control their own bodies.

I got involved in the struggle in the fall of 1981, when Carolyn Egan and her co-workers in a birth control centre called a community meeting with the idea of opening an illegal abortion clinic to challenge the law, along the model of Dr. Morgentaler’s in Montreal, which had been virtually legalized by the Quebec government after three juries acquitted Morgentaler of breaking the restrictive abortion law.

In Toronto, white middle-class women with connections had some access to abortion under the 1969 law, but birth control workers realized that poor women, immigrant women, rural women, and young women, couldn’t get access. So, they sought to open an abortion clinic and build a movement to support it. The Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC) brought together pro-choice groups to generate public support, even before the clinic opened. A rally of 1,000 people at a downtown auditorium, featuring Dr. Henry Morgentaler and activist/journalist June Callwood, kicked off the campaign.

The mass movement in the streets was key, but so was our community work. We would speak and debate the anti-choice anywhere and everywhere. I don’t think I’ve been in as many churches in the 30 years since that time. While it’s hard to change the mind of a true believer, you can convince their followers. For instance, a lot people opposed abortion for religious  reasons and fell prey to the anti-choice movement’s distortions of the procedure. We faced that head on. 

Debate Needs Action

In the fall of 1982, we introduced a resolution supporting the legalization of free-standing abortion clinics at the Ontario Federation of Labour convention. It was controversial but we mobilized almost all the women in the room to line up at the microphones to support it; the ones who spoke were passionate about the importance of the issue to working-class women.

The clinic opened in June 1983 on Harbord Street in downtown Toronto. Dr. Morgentaler arrived in the afternoon. It was my job to escort him across the street, which was crowded with both supporters and reporters with a huge bank of cameras waiting for something to happen. And it did. Half way across the street, a man leapt out at Dr. Morgentaler, threatening to stab him with garden shears. I blocked the attack and chased the man down the street. Courage in the face of threats and attacks is a must in fighting fanatics. Not everyone is able to do that, but some people have to and the rest have to back them up. Those of us who were spokespeople would get threats regularly at work, at home and sometimes in the street. Part of the job of fighting right-wing fanatics is facing their threats.

Three weeks after the clinic opened, the police arrested Morgentaler and the two other doctors working there. Dr. Morgentaler closed the clinic until the trial. Once again, as in Quebec, a jury acquitted him. That outraged the anti-choice activists, and we had to confront them. As the Crown prepared their appeal, the anti-choice faction demonstrated regularly in front of the clinic and harassed women seeking a procedure. We deployed people to be there every day, to help the women through the lines and keep the anti-choice off the property. Direct action, we might call it today. Labour activists who knew how to hold a picket line helped us a lot. 

A critical point came when the Catholic Church decided to call out their troops, asking priests to give their sermon on the evil of abortion and call on all their constituents to demonstrate in front of the clinic. Every day of that week, Monday to Thursday, 2,000 people, including children from Catholic schools, were bused in to demonstrate in front of the clinic. They garnered media coverage night after night.

Agree to Disagree, But Act

By this point, we had held many rallies, but none bigger than 2,000. We didn’t think we could mobilize that many people. A less radical but very important pro-choice group – the Canadian Association for Repeal of the Abortion Law (CARAL)—argued against mounting a counter demonstration, feeling it would make us look weak if fewer numbers showed up. OCAC discussed it and decided, whatever numbers, we had to fight back. Otherwise our people would get demoralized. We called a counter demonstration on Friday. CARAL was furious, but they pulled out all the stops trying to make to make the demonstration a success. At that moment, I learned something key about building a movement: You have to build broad coalitions with people you might disagree with, but it’s winning the struggle that matters. OCAC and CARAL had differences but both were committed to building the movement. Even though CARAL was sure the demonstration was a mistake, they knew once OCAC called it, they had to put everything into supporting it, even if it proved they were wrong. Here is another lesson: Unite in action, even if there are doubts.

In the days leading up to our rally, every media report of the Catholic protest announced the time and date of our rally as balance. People who had been quietly cheering on Dr. Morgentaler in the privacy of their own homes decided now was the time to show their colours. More than 15,000 people rallied at Queen’s Park, with people spilling out into the streets, then marched to the clinic. Until then, the anti-choice thought the majority sided with them, and I guess the government may have as well. But that night it was clear, as Henry had always said, “the people are with us.”

The pro-choice movement was the broadest and most successful social movement I have ever seen in Canada. We were able to turn back and marginalize a strong fanatical movement with strategies that might serve us well today in confronting the ugly rise of white supremacy and neofascism.

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