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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 per cent 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 per cent 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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Activism & Action Our Voices

Lunch with a Feminist Icon

A feminist icon has lunch at The Pilot in Toronto

Let me gift you with a feminist trivia game for your next feminist holiday gathering. And I’ll wrap it up with a big hint: the questions all have the same answer.

Question #1: Who was the woman who saved the life of abortion rights advocate, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, by fearlessly stepping in front of an attacker wielding garden shears at Morgentaler during the opening of Toronto’s first abortion clinic on Harbord Street?

Question #2: Who led the fight to get abortion legalized in Canada in the 1980s, while serving as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NACS), the feminist lobby group that represented more than 700 women’s rights groups across Canada and, from 1971 to 2007, successfully pressured the government to take action on daycare, birth control, women’s right to choose, maternity leave, family law, poverty, racism, women’s equality in Canada’s Charter of Rights, and violence against women—to name just a few issues?

Question #3: Who is Canada’s Gloria Steinem? Okay, that’s not an entirely fair question as we like to think Canada has a few. But, on top of authoring seven books, hosting a prime-time TV show, and writing countless articles about the women’s movement and social justice, this woman also co-founded rabble.ca, Canada’s largest independent, alternative news outlet and discussion site, and served as its publisher?

Question #4: Who understood and acted on intersectional feminism—social justice for all women—long before it was a thing?

Still stumped? You can imagine my frustration when I excitedly gabbed to everyone I knew that I was meeting Judy Rebick for lunch! Too often, the response was, Who is Judy Rebick?

Judy Rebick’s latest book is a memoir titled Heroes in My Head

 Who is Judy Rebick?

Well, I can tell you that Judy Rebick is a woman who not only shows up when she’s needed—she gets there early. She was already waiting for us at The Pilot tavern, a hangout for writers, musicians, and artists since Toronto’s Yorkville hippie days in the 1970s. Gordon Lightfoot performed with Bob Dylan here. It’s also steps away from the Toronto Reference Library, a place where writers spend a lot of time.

When I arrived, Rebick looked up. Though we had never met, we recognized each other immediately. Her stance, head of thick but now graying curls, and iconic glasses gave her away. Rebick greeted me with a big “in solidarity” hug. LiisBeth’s associate editor Lana Pesch, rushed from her day job, as eager to meet this feminist icon as I was, joined us soon after.

We quickly ordered coffee and lunch so that we could get down to talking without further interruptions. Rebick, now 73, was as keen to know about us as we were her. We shared histories and some great stories, then I shifted the conversation to a topic we came to learn more about: growing a sustainable media outlet in a time of turmoil for media enterprises in general.

Judy Rebick on Idle No More

I asked her what we, as feminist changemakers and publishers, could learn from her experience both as a long-time feminist journalist and as a co-founder/publisher/editor of rabble.ca, an alternative online publication (launched 2001) and now one of the country’s most successful, attracting 800 members, two million page views, and 350,000 unique visitors per month according to Google Analytics.

Specifically, for LiisBeth and our readers, I wanted to know the path to rabble.ca’s success. How did it ever get off the ground and survive this long, without a major foundation footing bills, angel investors or sponsors, or even a paywall?

Rebick told us that she and her co-founders were convinced that Canadians were frustrated by the mainstream press extolling neoliberal narratives. They wanted and deserved an alternative point of view on current issues and events. So Rebick and friends created a plan and hit the road to find funding. In one year, they raised $200,000 in startup funding including $120,000 from the Atkinson Foundation along with funds from some 18 unions—enough to code and launch rabble.ca.

Seventeen years later, Vancouver-based rabble.ca now generates approximately $350,408 in revenues, of which $121,000 (34.8 percent) come from reader donations. Income from sustaining partners (unions) represented another 50 percent while 14 percent comes from grants and various sponsorships. While the site promotes its advertising utility, less than 1 percent of its revenue comes from ads.

Rebick explained that unions backed rabble.ca as the publication offered a way for the left to connect and unions to connect with their constituents about ideas, critiques of policy, and economic analysis that the mainstream media largely ignored.

The idea of an online newspaper and participative forum for readers was totally rad at the time. That was early-stage internet and way before Facebook or Google.

Since its launch, some 90-plus independent news and magazine channels have appeared, and none have readership figures as high as rabble.ca yet. In Canada. But as Rebick filled us in on rabble.ca’s journey—the type of stories they chased and how—we were reminded how critically important alternative media is to any functioning democracy. Such media organizations hold political and business leaders accountable, bring new business models to light and offer an outlet for ideas of alternative world–making.

We were also reminded that financially sustaining an alternative indie media enterprise is a little like figuring out how to keep a fish alive and healthy out of water. After all, how do you challenge the status quo if you’re trying to raise money from people who benefit from systemic inequality?

Rebick certainly got us thinking, because at LiisBeth, we have similar values and face many of the same challenges as rabble.ca. We believe passionately that feminist entrepreneurs can change the world. We have faith in the idea that grassroots storytelling and discussion opportunities matter. And we dig deep to figure out what it takes to create, grow, and leverage a sustainable, social justice–forward digital media enterprise in today’s world.

Rebick believes that technology-enabled movements, aided by aligned alternative media outlets, are transforming power. Social movements—not governments, lobby groups, or corporate social responsibility initiatives—are correcting the course, exploding our ability to imagine new worlds, advance democracy and human rights, and force action on climate change. Rebick explained how different recent tech-enabled protests such as Arab Spring, Idle No More, and Occupy were to the anti-globalization rally in Quebec in the late 1990s. And she should know. She was there. On the ground. Involved in it all.

And suddenly, it was 2 p.m. Rebick was in demand again, at another meeting. She signed my copy of Ten Thousand Roses, the book she wrote on the making of a feminist revolution, and graciously rushed out.

Lana and I lingered, talking about how our conversation with Rebick was like getting drawn into an incredible living book on Canadian feminist action and social progress. The entire meeting was so engrossing that we completely forgot to document the occasion. No group selfie or even a picture of Judy. And we are a social media organization, with an online magazine and newsletter!

How will anyone ever recognize this incredible feminist icon? Chagrined, we took a picture of the chair she sat in.


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https://www.liisbeth.com/2018/12/19/meeting-a-feminist-icon-liisbeth-publisher-pk-mutch-on-encountering-the-leading-feminist-activist-of-her-life/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2015/11/30/a-sit-down-with-ruth-bader-ginsburg-and-gloria-steinem/