In 2012, those of us at the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform launched our EndtheKilling Plan to change public opinion on abortion in Canada with the New Abortion Caravan, a cross-country tour that followed in the steps of the 1970 Abortion Caravan, which left the Vancouver Art Gallery and headed across the country to Ottawa 45 years ago. For years I had heard my history professors at Simon Fraser University brag about the Abortion Caravan, as one contingent had actually left from SFU. It was, we students were told, a great moment in Canadian history.
Hundreds of women had gathered in Vancouver to protest limited access to abortion. They then climbed into vehicles and began to drive across the country. Many Canadian historians credit this Caravan with laying the groundwork to the 1988 Supreme Court decision to strike down all abortion laws.
A core team of pro-abortion protestors drove from Vancouver to Ottawa, protesting and demonstrating in every city they stopped at. When they arrived they left a black coffin—representing women who died from illegal abortions—at the Prime Minister’s house and forced Parliament to shut down for over half an hour by chaining themselves to railings. The nation was forced to consider an issue they had previously ignored.
These abortion advocates used vivid imagery—coffins and coat hangers—to draw attention away from the pre-born and force politicians and the public to focus on the women in front of them.
In 2012, we retraced their steps. Our first goal was to expose the injustice those activists had fought to enshrine in Canadian law. Our second goal was to hijack the history of Canada’s abortion movement—to co-opt one of their defining moments, so that every time the 1970 Caravan was discussed, the 2012 Caravan would be brought up as well. Point, and counter-point. Past, and present. At the end of the journey, we laid a white child’s coffin at 24 Sussex to symbolize the millions of Canadian children who had perished in abortion clinics and hospitals. And on Canada Day, we sat on the roof of one of our dusty vans and watched the fireworks go off in the night sky over Ottawa. It was just the beginning.
Our work was just starting. But the impact on how the history of the 1970 Abortion Caravan was discussed was immediate. Joyce Arthur of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada was the first to weigh in, while the New Abortion Caravan was still underway:
The real Abortion Caravan was part of second wave feminist efforts to decriminalize abortion. In 1970, a group of revolutionary women traveled from Vancouver to Ottawa, infiltrated Parliament, and closed it down for the first time in history – all to protest the new abortion law that was written to protect doctors, not help women access abortion.
The new anti-choice version of this event bears no resemblance to it whatsoever, as explained in this CBC podcast interview with Margo Dunn, an original pioneering Caravaner who is of course horrified at this appropriation of one of the most revered and successful activist events in Canadian history.
Of course, when Joyce has to refer to something as the “real” one, she is already being forced to differentiate between two Caravans—something that made her very angry.
Following Ms. Arthur’s article was the Abortion Gang on June 12, 2012:
It is so important to remember the history of the Abortion Caravan, not least of all because it happened so relatively recently. But it is also important to remember and honour this history because we should never confuse the Abortion Caravan with the “New Abortion Caravan”, an initiative of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, a truly loathesome group of people
Indeed, the abortion rights crowd was very angry at our successful co-opting—in fact, just a short while after the Caravan, when Joyce Arthur was delivering a lecture on Canadian feminist history in Kelowna and referred to the Abortion Caravan, she was immediately and innocently asked by one attendee: “Which one?” To which she snapped back: “The real one!”
But the New Abortion Caravan had already become irreversibly part of the discussion. When Maisonneuve magazine ran their “expose” of the pro-life movement after a year’s research in August of 2013, they asked the question: “Abortion rights, long considered sacrosanct in Canada, are suddenly up for debate. Is this the start of the new culture war?” One of the evidences of this, the authors noted, was the Caravan:
One such demonstration inverted a key historical symbol of the pro-choice movement. In 1970, the Abortion Caravan travelled from British Columbia to Ottawa before depositing a coffin—representing women who died during unsafe, illegal abortions—at the prime minister’s house. On May 29, 2012, the New Abortion Caravan left the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery and retraced its opposition’s route across the country, displaying graphic images of aborted fetuses. When the protesters reached Ottawa on June 30, they took an infant-sized coffin to 24 Sussex Drive.
It’s telling that pro-choicers had their symbolic moment in 1970 while pro-lifers had theirs in 2012.
When ActiveHistory began running a series earlier this year on the history of abortion rights in Canada, I was interested to see whether or not the scholars involved in the series would mention the New Abortion Caravan, or whether they would attempt to avoid it. And sure enough, the most recent article in the series, by Karissa Patton of the University of Lethbridge, is titled “The New Abortion Caravan”:
The Abortion Caravan of 1970 brought an issue that was primarily confined to letters and opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines, and to the Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, to the streets of Canadian cities and towns. Caravaners were successful in raising awareness about, and building support for, the notion that women must have a choice in accessing abortion services regardless of opposition to abortion. In 2012 the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform (CCBR) began a campaign calling for a “New Abortion Caravan.” This campaign mimicked not just the original Caravan’s name and route but also its narrative of risk-taking in the name of social justice and human rights. Furthermore, the CCBR Caravan sought to change the historical meaning of the original Caravan, portraying abortion as genocide. Consequently, fetuses—which are referred to as the “pre-born”—are identified as needing legal protections. Its website states: “Using historical precedent while exposing an undeniable injustice, the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform’s New Abortion Caravan will save lives.”
…At face value, the CCBR’s ultimate goal in mimicking the original Caravan is to legitimize the CCBR Caravan by asserting that it has a historical precedent upon which to base its anti-abortion protest. However, the deeper meaning of this mimicry is to change forever the meaning of the original Caravan. Significantly, the promotional video intones that while the original Caravan, “once signaled the coming of a great injustice,” the CCBR Caravan “will make the invisible victims visible” by reversing “the bloody legacy” of the original Caravan. These statements signal that the CCBR wishes to erase the original Caravan’s legacy that was based on abortion rights and replace it with the new Caravan’s message of abortion as a genocidal atrocity, thereby focusing on fetal rights. To build opposition to the CCBR’s “Genocide Awareness” message campaigns, and to preserve and celebrate the history of the original Abortion Caravan and its significant contribution to women’s reproductive rights in Canada, the CCBR’s imitation of the 1970 Abortion Caravan needs to be critiqued. The original Caravan is often nodded to in abortion historiography as a significant step in the full decriminalization of abortion services in Canada in 1988. The CCBR’s efforts to co-opt the meaning and remembrance of the original Caravan is an attempt not only to overturn women’s reproductive rights, but to erase a crucial aspect in feminist history.
Even in historical articles, the 1970 Abortion Caravan is now referred to throughout as “the original Caravan.” When we began planning our cross-country Caravan several years ago, I had hoped that we might be successful in impacting not just the present discussion on abortion, but the discussion of past historical events regarding abortion rights as well. I had no idea how successful it would be.