This post is part of a series that we’re running looking back on the history of the feminist movement in Canada. Check out Lisa’s post on the Royal Commission.
In 1970, women from across the country organized around women’s reproductive rights. Judy Rebick calls this moment in history the “…first national action of the women’s movement in Canada” (pg. 35). The idea for the abortion caravan originated in Vancouver when members of the Vancouver Women’s Caucus decided that they needed to respond to recent changes made to abortion laws in Canada.
Before 1969, abortion was illegal. This did not stop women from obtaining abortions illegally, however, and many risked their health and lives to terminate unwanted pregnancies. This reality provided a strong argument for legal reform. However, the law passed in 1969 did not completely legalize abortion. Instead, it limited access to abortions by requiring women to obtain the approval of a committee of four doctors. Reflecting on this law, Marcy Cohen articulated what this this legal change meant for women in the following way:
At that point the law was interpreted in such a way that you had to say you were not together emotionally to get an abortion. You had to go to a psychiatrist. A law doesn’t mean much unless you change the climate (quoted in Rebick 2005, pg. 37).
The limitations of this law led to a well-organized and effective challenge from the women’s movement.
The abortion caravan traveled across the country, stopping in cities and towns to mobilize women around this issue. As a conscious strategy, the group engaged with media and received a lot of publicity in return. One of the organizers, Betsy Meadley Wood remembers:
We had sent out our poster, which was fabulous, to every paper across the country along with our schedule. Everywhere we went there was publicity waiting for us. In Calgary, I opened up the paper and I couldn’t believe it. It seemed to me that the paper was all about reproduction, and before the caravan you wouldn’t have seen that. That’s how fast it changed (quoted in Rebick 2005, pg. 39).
The caravan arrived in Ottawa on Friday, May 8th. On the Saturday, activists gathered at Parliament Hill and then held a meeting inside the Parliament Buildings. No government representatives were there to meet them and so they continued to Prime Minister Trudeau’s house. He was away so the women left a coffin on his doorstep to represent women who had died from illegal abortions in Canada. The following Monday, the activists staged an elaborate protest. Outside, about 80 protesters, attired in black headscarves, circled the Centennial flame carrying signs reading “Twelve thousand women die” as well as a coffin to represent those women lost.
However, in many ways, the protest outside was a diversion for the 30 protesters discreetly entering the Parliament Buildings to stage the second part of the organized action. These women filed into the buildings in ones and twos, attired in “respectable” dresses, gloves and pantyhose. In their purses, they hid chains which they intended to use to shackle themselves to their chairs in the House of Commons. Just before 3 o’clock the women began to chain themselves to their chairs while some stood up and began to recite a speech the group had agreed to deliver. Some of the women were dragged away. No one was arrested (the protesters had prepared for this possibility in advance) although ten women were taken to the police station and the police took away the women’s chains. The group managed to shut down the House of Commons for 45 minutes, with the Vancouver Sun reporting that this was the “…first adjournment provoked by a gallery disturbance in its 103-year history” (Gallop 2007). Meanwhile, outside, women took off their black scarves to reveal red scarves underneath. They raced up the steps and burned a placard which contained the text of the law the activists were protesting.
Although some of the members of the Vancouver Women’s Caucus had not originally felt drawn to feminist activism, because of reproductive rights, they had decided this was an issue which would unify women from diverse perspectives and it was something that they could “…go after the state on” (Bonnie Beckman quoted in Rebick 2005, pg. 38) to make real changes in women’s lives.
Abortion was not struck from the criminal code until 1988; however, the abortion caravan represents an important moment in the feminist herstory of Canada. It was successful in organizing women from across the country and began a national dialogue about reproductive rights.
“Abortion Caravan” Rabble. Available online: http://rabble.ca/toolkit/on-this-day/abortion-caravan
Gallop, Angie (2007) “Abortion Caravan, 1970: Ladies Close the House” This Magazine Available online: http://www.thismagazine.ca/issues/2007/07/risingup.php
Rebick, Judy (2005) Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution. Toronto: Penguin Canada.
To read more about the current state of access to abortion in Canada, visit: http://www.canadiansforchoice.ca/reportspeech.pdf