by Jarrah Hodge
In the late 70′s and 80′s feminists involved in BC’s labour movement launched “Union Sisters”, regular gatherings of union women who would share a meal, listen to a speaker, and organize on important issues.
This fall a handful of union women decided to re-launch these gatherings. Using only emails, Facebook, and social media they put the word out and attracted about fifty women to the first meeting in September, which featured Dr. Marjorie Griffin-Cohen speaking on the negative impacts of BC Liberal policy on women in BC.
I’m pleased I was able to attend the second “Union Sisters” evening in New Westminster earlier this week. The theme of the night was: “The Current Challenges to our Reproductive Rights” and included an oral history on the 1970s Abortion Caravan, as well as a presentation by Joyce Arthur, Executive Director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.
Addressing the current situation, Arthur put the lie to Harper’s claim that he doesn’t want to “re-open the abortion debate”, noting right off the bat by limiting funding to organizations that provide abortion and contraception in developing countries for the first time in decades, that’s exactly what the Harper government did.
Arthur also touched on the defeat of the anti-choice M-312 in Parliament this fall:
“It was quite a strong defeat but nobody was really happy about it… it was disturbing because 1/3 of the cabinet voted in favour of it, including Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose.”
“They’re usually demeaning to women in some way,” Arthur said of the ads.
Other ongoing issues Arthur and the ARCC are working on include the effort to have Diamond Jubilee medals withdrawn from two convicted anti-abortion recipients (you can sign the petition here); access issues, particularly in the Maritimes; and regulation of so-called crisis pregnancy centres.
Arthur warned that the anti-choice movement in Canada gets ideas, support, and energy from the movement in the US.
“The opposition is never going to go away because the opposition is so dogmatic,” she said. However, she did have suggestions for what can be done:
- Fight stigma and shame – talk about abortion and don’t keep it a secret
- Keep in touch with your MP
- Attend pro-choice events
- Don’t vote for anti-choice Candidates
After Arthur finished her talk, two well-known “union sisters”, Jackie Larkin and Judy Darcy, took the floor to give an oral history of their time on the “Abortion Caravan” in 1970.
When women started organizing the “caravan” from BC to Ottawa, the birth control pill had only been legal for a year. Women who wanted an abortion had to receive sign-off from a panel of three doctors, and many women – particularly poor and working-class women and Indigenous women – were dying from complications due to illegal abortion.
Led by another union sister, Cathy Walker, driving a VW bus, carloads of women – 500 in all – left Vancouver and headed to Ottawa to protest for the right to safe, legal abortion.
“There are enthusiastic crowds of women and local media that meet us at every stop among the way…for the first time many women begin to speak about the abortions that they’ve had,” said Larkin, recounting the trip.
“On Saturday may 8, 1970, we marched through the streets of Ottawa,” said Darcy. Though representatives from all parties had agreed to meet with the protestors, in the end only 3 NDP MPs came to their meeting, so the group headed to 24 Sussex Drive, where they deposited a coffin and a coat hanger on Trudeau’s doorstep as a message about the consequences of the criminalization of abortion.
The media was paying attention and Darcy recounted one reporter’s commentary:
“These women’s libbers refuse to wear makeup, even on TV! And refuse to answer questions about whether they’re married or not!”
Through that night the women strategized and argued about what to do the next day. In the end they split up, with 80 women conducting a protest at the peace flame outside Parliament, while 30 more donned their most “ladylike” attire and used passes given to them by NDP staffers to get into the House of Commons visitors’ gallery. Once inside the women took out the chains and locks they’d been hiding under their clothes and chained themselves to their chairs while jointly reading a statement. Police came in and struggled to get the women out, eventually resorting to bolt-cutters. The chaos shut down House business.
“We’ve shut down the House of Commons for the first time in Canadian history and we’re sure we’ll all be arrested,” remembered Larkin. But eventually the women were let go and joined their fellow protestors at the flame.
Although it would be 18 years before abortion was decriminalized in Canada, the Abortion Caravan brought the issue to public attention and really started women speaking out about their experiences.
(1st photo by me, 2nd photo of Abortion Caravan protest via York University library online).