| [ THIS Magazine ] July 2007 |
The stereotype is wrong. Our history isn't that peaceful. A retrospective on four under-appreciated Canadian rebellions whose effects are still with us.
by Angie Gallop, Craig Saunders, Jim Stanford and Carla Tonelli
Canadian history. Those two words have caused generations of eyes to glaze over. Like so many other kids, I went through school bored with history lessons filled with Great Men and Worthy Causes. There were a handful of Major Rebellions, such as the Patriotes and Riel, but by and large, Canada was presented as a nation of peaceful negotiators. It was a line that fed well into the myth of the middle power.
But then I started reading the stories our history textbooks didn't cover'or at least glossed over. Canada has a rich history, full of bloodthirsty, lusty and diabolical acts that would make our southern neighbours envious. Unfortunately, we don't celebrate those events.
To help fill in some of the gaps of our history, This Magazine set out to find other events that don't necessarily make it into the classroom, searching for our most underrated rebellions' events that should inspire new generations to find their uppity souls and strike out to create a new and better Canada. We surveyed a broad range of experts to develop a long list of events' which in the end comprised more than 80, from the Great Peace of 1701 to the ongoing disagreement at Caledonia.
The list was then narrowed down by a panel including the writers of this feature; professors Steven High of Concordia University and Christabelle Sethna of the University of Ottawa; and Robert Chodos, who has written more books on Canadian politics, Quebec history and other subjects than most people have even read.
The four chosen events have each had a lasting effect on the country, and none has received the attention it deserves.
Abortion caravan, 1970: Ladies close the House
by Angie Gallop
Early on Monday May 11, 1970, women were rushing all over Ottawa, gathering their implements of war. Two hit the fabric shop, while dozens went around to all the lefty and feminist co-ops to borrow dresses, makeup, high-heeled shoes, jewellery, hats and gloves. Donations were gathered for bail.
Pantyhose were donned. Hair was done. Makeup was applied. More than 30 women put on the camouflage of respectability to infiltrate the House of Commons. In those innocent days before metal detectors, each carried a chain in her purse.
When they were ready, about 80 women in black headscarves started circling the Centennial flame, carrying a symbolic coffin and banners proclaiming, 'Twelve thousand women die.' They were ignored by those in heels and skirts walking by singly and in pairs on their way to the House. Others sat lookout on benches around the gardens and on motorcycles nearby, ready to follow any cars carrying arrested demonstrators.
Jackie Larkin remembers pretending not to know her cohorts while going up in the parliamentary elevator. One MP who spotted her later said he had found it 'odd' to see the national organizer for the NDP's radical Waffle wing wearing a pair of gloves.
As the women took their seats in the various galleries circling the House, NDP MP Andrew Brewin asked the Minister of Justice John Turner if he would consider reviewing the abortion law. Although it had legalized the procedure, in practice it meant women needed approval from a committee of, almost always, male doctors. This meant that, in one four-month sampling from Vancouver, only one in 30 women was approved. Turner said he doubted the law would be reviewed.
Ellen Woodsworth remembers how hard it was to get the chain out of her purse quietly. Once shackled to her chair, she says she looked down at all of the men in the House of Commons and was flooded with a powerful sense of her mission to raise women's concerns. Her cousin, the NDP's Grace MacInnis, was the only woman MP at the time.
Just before 3 p.m., one of the women stood up and started giving the group's speech. As the guards closed in on her, another stood up in another gallery and continued. One guard told The Globe and Mail's Clyde Sanger that the women were 'popping up all over the place.' They shut down the House of Commons, and the Vancouver Sun reported it was the first adjournment provoked by a gallery disturbance in its 103-year history.
This was the climax of the Abortion Caravan. As they travelled to Ottawa, members of the Vancouver Women's Caucus stopped in cities and towns every night to listen to women so they could bring their voices to the government. And they inspired women throughout the country to create a national women's movement in their wake.
According to Frances Wasserlein, whose masters thesis, 'An Arrow Aimed at the Heart: The Vancouver Women's Caucus and the Abortion Caravan of 1970,' has become an important document for researchers, it transformed the public discussion about abortion. 'The caravan changed newspaper stories from people talking about women who were dead from botched abortions to women's own voices speaking about their own experiences.'
The women in the caravan didn't see abortion completely struck from the Criminal Code until 18 years later, in 1988. But they laid the foundations for the well-organized pro-choice movement that activists like Judy Rebick joined in the early '80s. 'One lesson of the Abortion Caravan is that in political action and social struggle you have to take risks,' says Rebick, a longtime feminist and author of Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution. 'They made the road by walking it and they could have failed. But it worked magnificently. They put abortion on the map, they put birth control on the map and they put a grassroots women's movement on the map.'
For those who weren't alive in 1969, the year doctors were first allowed to prescribe the birth control pill for uses other than 'cycle regulation,' the idea of women throwing themselves down sets of stairs, puncturing their uteruses with knitting needles or having abortions on a kitchen table may seem positively medieval.
For those who haven't faced the hundreds of calls from desperate women only to see a few dozen accepted for legal hospital abortions ' for those who haven't seen supportive doctors arrested while colleagues stood silently by ' for those who don't know any of the estimated one million North American women having abortions every year by 1969, it is easy to dismiss the rebellion on Parliament Hill as quaint, even forgettable.
For Christabelle Sethna, a historian well published in the area of women's sexuality, the Abortion Caravan expanded the definition of 'rebellion' to include women and their fight to control their reproductive labour. As a teacher, she warns her students of the danger in viewing this rebellion as 'over and done with.'
In fact, she points to early warning signs that this story has the potential to circle backward against women's right to choose.
Canadians for Choice researcher Jessica Shaw experienced this when she called hospitals across the country posing as a young woman, 10-weeks pregnant. Her findings, released in April 2007, indicate the availability of safe abortions has decreased in the past three years. Now, only 15.9 percent of Canadian hospitals provide abortions. Hospital closures and fewer younger doctors filling the shoes of retired abortion providers are among the many contributing factors.
What's more, Shaw found three-quarters of the hospitals she called that did provide abortions had front-line staff who couldn't answer her questions. Neither could some hospital executive directors. During her research, Shaw was laughed at, told myths about abortion and hung up on. 'The fight for women's sexual and reproductive rights is not only a forgotten rebellion, but many people think it is over,' she says.
'I speak on the phone every day with young women who honestly believe they are the only one who has ever been in their situation,' says Shaw. 'We shouldn't be making these young girls feel like they are an anomaly in Canadian society when that is not the case at all.'
Canadians clearly need to start talking about abortion again.
Click here to see media coverage in French