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John Bonnar is an independent journalist covering social justice events in and around Toronto through print, photo, audio, video and slideshows. You can connect with him on Facebook (John Bonnar) or on Twitter at @johnb98 or on YouTube at johnb98.

Protesters demand G8/G20 leaders address rights of women and girls around the world

| June 22, 2010
Protesters demand G8/G20 leaders address rights of women and girls around the world

Standing in the courtyard outside Pitman Hall at Ryerson University, Jessica Yee clutched the megaphone and eyed the crowd of over 200 demonstrators.

As she began to speak, the television cameras, reporters and photographers inched closer.

“We’re here today because if we don’t have rights over our own bodies, what do we have?” asked Yee, a self-described Indigenous feminist reproductive justice freedom fighter.

Her commanding voice thundered through the crowd, some of whom were holding signs that read “Maternal Health Includes Abortion”, “Sex Work Is Real Work” and “Hey G8, Support For Women Everywhere.”

“We’re here today because women aren’t shutting the fuck up and because sex workers make a valuable contribution to society.”

The 24-year-old founder and Executive Director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, a CanAmerica wide organization by youth and for youth, has spent half her life motivating people to make their own decisions about their bodies.

“We’re here today because the anti-choicers bussed Catholic board high school students to Ottawa to exploit their age but of course didn’t ask them what they think before coercing and co-opting them.”

When she was 10, Yee came home from Catholic school and asked her mother if abortion was wrong, after her teachers had told her “it’s like grinding babies” and “God won’t love you if you have an abortion”, she wrote in a blog entry earlier this year.

Her mother explained that she had two abortions, before giving birth to Jessica and her sister when she was finally “old enough, mature enough” to give them the life they deserved.

“We’re here today because the death rate for aboriginal babies is two times the national average no matter how close they live to cities,” said Yee.

A recent study published in the Journal of Rural Health revealed that the death rate for aboriginal babies is more than twice the Canadian average and doesn't improve no matter how close their mothers live to sophisticated health-care facilities.

“Shame, shame,” a few protesters called out.

After her speech, Yee introduced award-winning Medicine Song Woman Brenda MacIntyre, who inspired everyone with her hand drumming song.

Winding their way through downtown Toronto on crowded sidewalks, protesters chanted, clapped their hands and blew their party horns on their way to the Ministry of Health at 900 Bay Street.

At the front of the march, Yee and two others carried a large white banner with “CHOICE” written in big, bold red letters in the middle, with “Maternal Health includes Abortion” and “Sex Education Matters For Youth” scrawled near the borders.

“Keep your rosaries, off my ovaries,” chanted a contingent from the Canadian Federation of Students, just behind the lead group.

Further back, a group chanted, “Women’s Rights Under Attack, What do we do Stand up fight Back.”

Even half a dozen people in wheelchairs were able to participate in the fully accessible rally and march.

When poverty activists, students, sex trade workers and women’s rights advocates reached the Macdonald Block, they were greeted by slew of television cameras (including one operated by a plain-clothes police officer) and reporters.

“It’s absolutely shameful that between 19 million and 20 million women a year worldwide have unsafe abortions,” said Carolyn Egan, representing the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC).

“Approximately 70,000 of them every year in the developing world die from unsafe abortions.”

Originally organized to fight the federal abortion law, OCAC is involved in a range of struggles for reproductive rights.

“It’s utter hypocrisy to say you’re going to introduce a policy to deal with maternal health and leave out the question of abortion,” she said.

Yet that’s exactly what Canada has vowed to do. Harper will veto any use of Canada’s contribution to a proposed G8 funding effort for abortions in developing countries.

“Who feels like phoning Harper today?” asked Jessica Yee.

The crowd erupted in cheers.

“We want you to flood the Prime Minister’s office today, telling him you’re not shutting the fuck up, that we want full reproductive choice and access and full funding for abortions all over the world starting in Canada.”

Despite being legal, abortions are still not accessible for all Canadians. Women in rural and northern communities must travel hundreds of kilometres to southern, urban centres to obtain their abortions.

At Saturday’s rally, Planned Parenthood Toronto sent a strong message to the Premier, who in April decided to shelve a new sex education curriculum for Ontario schools.

Under the changes, Grade 1 children were to be taught to identify genitalia using the correct words, such as penis, vagina and testicle. 

In Grade 5, children were to be taught to identify parts of the reproductive system and describe how the body changes during puberty.

In Grade 7, the plan was to teach kids how to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

“We believe that youth have the right to accurate information about sexual health and sexuality and healthy relationships,” said Sarah Hobbs, Executive Director, Planned Parenthood Toronto.

“Access to relevant sexual health information is essential to being able to make real choices.”

Jessica Yee then reminded supporters that the rally wasn’t only about sex education and choice but also about a labour right “that everybody seems to be uncomfortable with” yet has been around forever and “deserves to be respected.”

“Sec work is real work,” she said.

“We are tired of people speaking for sex workers, tired of having to hide to keep our families and our day jobs and tired of dying from neglect,” said a board member at Maggie’s: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, an organization run by and for local sex workers.

“We are not criminals.”

Sex workers simply want to be known as workers that want their choices respected, their jobs de-criminalized and an end to police harassment.

“You can be sure that lots of those big-wigs and those cops that are rolling into town today will be using sex worker services but they will never offer us a place at the table where the decisions that affect our lives are made.”

Before the last speaker of the day, Jessica Yee asked if anyone had called Harper.

A young woman sprinted out of the crowd.

“Tell us what you left on Harper’s voice mail.”

“I told Harper that there’s hundreds of women and men in the streets and we will continue calling his office, banging on his door until he starts giving us what we demand,” she said. “Because that is his job and if he doesn’t do it we will take it away from him.”

“Whooooooo,” yelled the crowd.

Shane, a 17-year-old high school student, was at Saturday’s rally as a voice for young people who believe that they should be in control of their own bodies.

When he attended a mainstream school, he said the extent of his sex education was limited to procreation.

“And that’s just not good enough,” he said.

But when he transferred to an alternative school for LGBT youth, he took a three week course where he learned “everything you could possibly know about sexual health education for queer and trans youth.”

He also volunteers at the Youthline, which gets hundreds of calls a month from queer youth, who possess little knowledge about sexual health.

“Because schools are not educating them about how to keep themselves safe,” said Shane. “So how can we expect youth to know what they’re doing?”

When the rally ended, Jessica Yee reminded everyone that the fight for reproductive justice was far from over -- even in Canada.

Click here to see photos from the rally and march.

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