1970: The Vancouver to Ottawa Abortion Caravan

1970: The Vancouver to Ottawa Abortion Caravan

In 1970 a group of Feminist embarked on a caravan tour from Vancouver to Ottawa to protest the lack of rights to access to abortion in Canada.

Reforms to the Canadian Criminal Code legalized abortion in 1969. Under the direction of Pierre Trudeau’s government, a constitutional amendment was made to Section 251 of the Code. The alteration limited legal abortions to be performed only when the mother’s health was at risk. In addition, abortions could only be performed in credible hospitals with licensed physicians and needed to be approved by a panel of doctors called Therapeutic Abortion Committees, which often consisted of all males.

All other abortions were considered illegal under the Criminal Code. The restrictions angered the Canadian citizens who had supported the recent legalization of abortion. Thousands of Canadian women continued to die or injure themselves each year causing self-performed abortions using coat hangers and knitting needles.

The Vancouver Women’s Caucus Group sped into action by organizing several actions around the abortion issue, the first beginning in Vancouver on 14 February 1970. These were also the first demonstrations calling for ‘abortion on demand’ in Canadian history. This concept means that it is the right of a pregnant woman to have an abortion performed solely at her request. The women's goal was to have abortion completely removed as a part of the Canadian Criminal Code, Section 251.

Most of the demonstrations took place at the Vancouver Court House and mainly involved picketing and rallying. The women also used guerilla theatre to push their demands; they organized a skit that featured a Therapeutic Action Committee of three doctors who turned away a majority of applicants seeking an abortion. The Committee in the skit only offered the procedure to one applicant – a woman wearing a fur coat and holding a silver spoon in her mouth to indicate her higher class and status in society.

Shortly after these demonstrations the Women’s Caucus announced their plans for an “Abortion Caravan.” The Caucus mapped out a plan to travel from Vancouver to Ottawa by caravan in order to protest the new abortion law at Parliament Hill, the nation’s capitol. In organizing this action, the organizers recognized that not all women would have the ability to participate, and attempted to create opportunities for women with less flexible schedules to show their support.

The Abortion Caravan set out for Ottawa on 27 April 1970 with seventeen women participating. They took three vehicles, one of which was a Volkswagen with a coffin full of coat hangers strapped to its rooftop, representing the thousands of women dying each year from botched abortions. While en route to Ottawa, the Women's Caucus held public meetings at stopovers in towns and cities every night. This gave women an opportunity to speak publicly about their own experiences and concerns in a supportive environment.

The Women’s Caucus gathered additional supporters as they travelled across Canada, then local citizens upon arrival in Ottawa. By the time the Caucus reached their destination, they totaled to 500. The Caravan symbolically arrived on 9 May, the eve of Mother’s Day weekend (9-11 May).

Dozens of these women visited local leftist and feminist co-ops in Ottawa to borrow an array of fancy clothing, including dresses, gloves, purses, high-heeled shoes, and panty hose. They also did their hair and wore makeup. All of this was done so the women could “…put on the camouflage of respectability to infiltrate the House of Commons.”

The Women’s Caucus was prepared for the possibility of arrest so they collected donations ahead to have bail money. The women also planned for some protestors to sit at lookout on benches around the gardens of the Ottawa Senate and on motorcycles nearby so they were prepared to follow any cars taking away arrested demonstrators.

Hundreds of women rallied for two days straight at the Ottawa Senate during Mother’s Day weekend. On the first day, 11 May, around eighty women wore black headscarves and began circling the Centennial flame. A few protestors carried the symbolic coffin, and many hoisted banners stating, ‘Twelve thousand women die.’

On the same day, another fifty women barged in on the sitting House, shackling themselves to seats with chains from their purses and chanting "free abortions on demand." Other women, who had successfully positioned themselves in the House seats unnoticed, then stood up in their seats one after another, delivering speeches and messages to the male-dominated constituency of MPs.

After about thirty minutes of these activities in the House, security guards escorted the women out of the building. This was the first time ever that the parliamentary gallery in the House of Commons needed to be forcibly adjourned and shut down in its 103-year history.

At the end of the second day, a few protestors dumped the symbolic coffin filled with coat hangers on Trudeau’s doorstep. They also burned an effigy of Trudeau and left it on his doorstep as well.

The Canadian parliament did not remove abortion from the Canadian Criminal Code until eighteen years later in 1988. The Women’s Caucus laid the foundations for other activist groups to continue their work and reach this goal many years later. The Women’s Caucus, soon after renamed The National Women's Political Caucus, continued to meet annually.

Sources:

89 Canadian Rebellions. Angie Gallop. 2007. This Magazine et al. July-August 2007. http://www.thismagazine.ca/issues/2007/07/risingup.php#ford
Ormsby, Mary. “The ‘Abortion Caravan’ succeeded. Or did it?” The Toronto Star 30 May. 2010, national ed. http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2010/05/30/the_abortion_caravan_succeeded_or_did_it.html

N/a. “The Fight for Reproductive Choice: The Vancouver Women’s Caucus.” Participant manual presented at the CAW Women’s Conference, n/a., 2010. http://www.ffaw.nf.ca/Docs/abortion%20caravan.pdf

Dionne Jr., E.J. “Women's Caucus Is Focusing on Abortion Rights.” The New York Times 6 Aug. 1989, U.S. Ed. http://www.nytimes.com/1989/08/06/us/women-s-caucus-is-focusing-on-abortion-rights.html

Sethna, Christabelle and Hewitt, Steve. “Clandestine Operations: The Vancouver Women’s Caucus, the Abortion Caravan and the RCMP.” The Canadian Historical Review 9.3 (Sept. 2009): 463-495. Project Muse Journals. 24 Apr. 2013 http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/can/summary/v090/90.3.sethna.html

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy:

Elizabeth J. Morrison, 06/03/2013

Published for the Global Nonviolent Action Database

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