On Tuesday, word broke that Ottawa's mayor Jim Watson had signed a proclamation declaring today, May 12, as "Respect For Life Day." This was to honour the annual "March For Life" anti-choice/anti-abortion march that is taking place today.
The social media sphere exploded, with people unable to believe that the city would declare a day in honour of the anti-choice movement. Outrage at the mayor was widespread, along with renewed calls to join the ‘Pro-Choice Presence' at the March For Life. George Carlin's "Pro Life, Abortion, and the Sanctity of Life" stand up routine video was also making the rounds.
The mainstream media quickly picked up on it, and an Ottawa Citizen article tried to downplay the declaration as being virtually meaningless, picking up on the spin coming out of the mayor's office. They went so far as to re-title their original article on the issue with "Respect for Life Day proclamation by Watson carries no real weight," pointing out that a proclamation doesn't imply "a personal or civic endorsement."
But the march organizers expressed their happiness with the news. And others weren't having it. The Pro Choice Coalition of Ottawa (PCCO), the coordinators of the Pro Choice Presence at the march, highlighted some responses to the proclamation on their blog. One brought up the question of how this proclamation fit within a City policy that stated no proclamations would be issued that were "politically or religiously motivated."
According to the City's media relations department, "acknowledgement is given to the efforts and commitment of individuals and organizations within the City who enhance our community" through the proclamations that the city gives upon request from a person or organization. The mayor's press secretary added that the City "has a longstanding policy of issuing proclamations to a wide variety of individuals, campaigns and events as long as they do not violate the Ontario Human Rights Code" and that "the policy of depoliticizing ceremonial proclamations has worked well over the past nine years."
The mayor himself took to twitter (@JimWatsonOttawa) to defend his signing of the statement, proclaiming himself as ‘personally pro choice' four times on Wednesday, referring to "policy is clear- as long as request doesn't go against human rights code, we shall name it" or similar eight times. He didn't seem to notice the ‘fine print' of the policy, which has seven criteria upon which a request must be turned down, including if it (or the requesting group) is "politically or religiously motivated."
Jeanette Doucet, ‘officially' a pro-choice activist for seven years (20 years unofficially) who blogs at momforchoice.wordpress.com (and tweets at @momforchoice), said that "last time I checked, my rights to choice and to safe abortion is a human right. The other thing, that requests for proclamations can't be politically or religiously motivated, also doesn't ring true: we know that in 1988 they struck down laws against abortion on the basis that it was against ‘life, liberty and security of the person', so our right to an abortion is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. So if that's true, and we know it is, then the proclamation has to be either politically or religiously motivated. And further, in terms of the proclamation being religiously motivated, if you look at the people who submitted -- Campaign For Life, March For Life -- they are religiously affiliated: they talk about prayer vigils, they talk about the laws of God, and all of these things. So one has to assume that the proclamation is religiously based. The city isn't really respecting its own policy on granting this proclamation."
The Citizen reported that the proclamation from the City has been issued each year since 2002, and the march has been going on even longer. A counter-gathering, the pro choice presence at the march, has also been ongoing.
Doucet describes what it's like: "It's very difficult to be there, but that's why we go, because someone has to be there to have a pro choice presence. In some ways it's very frightening because there's a lot of people there and they're very vocal, and we're severely outnumbered when we're there. So just the sheer numbers is intimidating."
She also mentions the role of youth in the march. Citing the March For Life website where it states "Now it's time to begin plans in your school, classroom, or church", she describes how that makes her feel: "I'm a former teacher: in the school, in the classroom, you do not indoctrinate -- I find it morally reprehensible that schools and classrooms are used as recruiting grounds for this March For Life. Students are promised a field trip. When I was 15, I would've pretty much eaten dirt to go on a field trip. To show up in those numbers, and the way that they recruit all those numbers with a large portion of that being youth, is really disturbing. As a pro choice person, as a mother of kids in the classroom not in a faith-based school, I find that really frightening that classrooms and schools are being used to indoctrinate our young people to political views that are incredibly faith-based in their stance. It's incredibly disturbing from the standpoint of respecting youth and respecting their right not to be indoctrinated and being given all the evidence-based information they need to make an informed decision on what they believe and their philosophies are. The thousands of students who show up at these ‘Marches for Life' are being denied that right."
This ‘Respect For Life Day' proclamation is only the latest in a series of setbacks for the pro choice movement in Ottawa.
Melanie Stafford of the Pro Choice Coalition of Ottawa wrote an article in November expressing the frustrations of pro choice organizing in the face of well-funded and well-established anti-choice actions ("Anti-choice battle being waged on Canadian streets").
Just last month, Planned Parenthood Ottawa lost a 30-plus years line of funding support from the United Way for their community sexual health education program. "PPO is the only grassroots independent organization in Ottawa providing pro choice sexual health [education] and pregnancy options support," states PPO executive director Heather Holland. "We do the majority of public education in schools on sexual health, we've been the ‘go to' place forever. PPO's nearly 50 years old and that program has been in existence since 1975, so we are a central source for that." She made it clear they do not view the United Way decision as a political defunding; the United Way explained its decision in terms of a redirection of funding priorities for youth services, and PPO is working to figure out how it can continue to deliver this vital service to the community.
Noting that "the March for Life demonstrators represent a vocal minority of Canadians: polling on abortion views show that the majority of Canadians support a woman's right to make her own reproductive choices, and we simply can't go back to the days of coat hangers and botched abortions" Holland thinks that "it's important to shift the conversation from the march to, what we really need is a march for abortion access, improving access, because we have such a long way to go in improving access to abortion services in Canada. Currently less than 20 per cent of Canadian hospitals provide abortion services, and a number of free-standing public and private for-profit abortion clinics exist in major cities, but particularly women in rural areas often have to drive a significant distance to obtain an abortion. There are no abortion services in PEI, and it can be difficult for a woman to obtain an abortion in another province because the procedure isn't eligible for reciprocal billing. So yes abortion is an option for women in Canada, but there are a number of barriers that women are facing in accessing the service. I think that's an important focus for us."
Greg Macdougall is an educator, organizer and media activist based in Ottawa. He is a volunteer with Planned Parenthood Ottawa's community sexual health education program. More of his writings and other good things are at EquitableEducation.ca