Just under 7,000 Canadians from coast to coast descended on Ottawa May 9-11 to send a loud and clear message that the “A” word is still very much an issue in this country.
The theme of the 10th annual March for Life, held to mark the infamous May 14, 1969 federal Omnibus bill that legalized abortion, was officially “Justice for the Unborn.” However, a feature article in the National Post newspaper the weekend before this year’s March somewhat overshadowed that, as it asked the question: “How did abortion, that most contentious of issues, become one that is simply not discussed publicly?”
The issue most certainly was discussed publicly during the three days, with large public address speakers on Parliament Hill proclaiming some uncomfortable truths to anyone within earshot and beyond. It was the largest event of its sort yet, bettering by about a thousand the attendance in 2006. Those who were present this year, and had gone to the inaugural March in 1998, remembered standing among large patches of green on the Hill lawn a decade ago, as attendance didn’t even crack the 1,000 mark.
Meanwhile, some of those who attended this year’s Rose Dinner, which was sold out weeks ahead of time, could remember years when such a banquet wasn’t even held.
There were no such problems this time, however, as a massive contingent of young people swelled the numbers to record heights. Organizers estimated that about three-quarters of the attendees were young people, lending an exuberance and energy that quickly spilled over to all others who were present.
March for Life 2007 co-chair Frank Mountain used the word “fabulous” generously when asked for his reflections on this year’s event. “I thought it was a great time. We had a good crowd … Pro-life crowds are always happy. You don’t get negatives at all … Everything seemed to go smoothly.”
Asked to point out what were for him highlights of this year’s event, Mountain basically recounted everything that took place during the three days. “The banquet was good. The speakers were great on the Hill. We had a young mistress of ceremonies this year, (MP) Pierre Lemieux’s daughter (Elizabeth). She did a fine job for a young gal doing it for the first time. She was excellent … We had a great crowd at the Mass at (St. Patrick’s Basilica). It was jammed out onto the streets … (Father Frank Pavone) is just fabulous … The two men from (the movie) Bella were fabulous … The young people were very enthusiastic.”
The March lucked out again in terms of weather – forecasters had been calling for showers and thunderstorms around the time of the journey through the streets, but the bad stuff held off. In fact, it turned into a pleasant day with comfortable temperatures and cloud cover that kept sunburn at bay. And so the March kept up its tradition of enjoying fine weather.
Mountain lamented the paucity of media coverage this year, but was resigned to the fact that the press usually ignore anything to do with the pro-life cause. “They’re terrible. They didn’t cover anything. The Citizen (newspaper) didn’t cover it at all. CFRA radio announced it was a national march and might have given it 35 seconds. After that, it announced a march in Petawawa to support the soldiers … It spent 2 ½ to 3 minutes on that for a couple of hundred people coming out.”
The March officially got underway with hundreds attending a Catholic Mass at St. Theresa of the Child Jesus church in downtown Ottawa. In his homily, the main celebrant and pastor of the parish, Father Vincent Pereira, emphasized that “life, once conceived, must be protected with the utmost care.” He added that the false promises of science, as well as a general malaise and apathy in our society, are contributing to the culture of death.
He decried a Canada that boasts of being democratic, yet extends fewer rights to the unborn – namely, none – than even non-democratic regimes. He also pointed out the hypocrisy evident in the claim that there is “justice for all,” when, once again, none is given to the unborn.
Pereira added pro-lifers must “walk the walk,” in addition to talking the talk, when it comes to providing generous assistance to mothers in troubled pregnancies. “Let us rise up, march for life with enthusiasm … defending life for the unborn. Amen,” he concluded.
After the Mass, the congregants lit candles and walked several blocks to the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights Monument, where they were joined by others for the commencement of a half-hour candlelight vigil. Founded by the late Dr. Andre Lafrance, the vigil this year was led by young people from Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Catholic church in downtown Ottawa.
From Sister Servants of the Cross, which was founded recently and is associated with the Companions of the Cross order of priests, Anna Chan served as master of ceremonies, while Erin Kinsella sang and Monique Bisson offered prayers. Fred Schubert, who is affiliated with Our Lady of His Mercy apostolate in downtown Ottawa, read the abortion-survivor story of Sara Smith and Mike Rehman presented announcements.
The start of the second day of March for Life activities was marked by two prayer services and another Catholic Mass. Pastor Marc Jagt led one prayer service at the Canadian Reformed Church of Ottawa. The prayer service at St. George’s Anglican Church in downtown Ottawa, meanwhile, featured an address by John Counsell, pastor of outreach and discipleship at Bethel Pentecostal Church in Ottawa. Counsell has a nightly radio program, Late Night Counsell, that can be heard on CFRA AM 580 from 10:00 p.m. to midnight.
At St. George’s, Counsell spoke about the need for pro-life people to rely on the strength provided by God in their battles. He recalled the example of the biblical figure Samson, whose exploits included tearing a lion apart with his bare hands, killing a company of the men of Ashdod, setting fire to their fields and orchards and slaughtering a thousand men with the jawbone of an donkey.
Counsell urged the crowd to not be afraid, as God’s strength comes through when his people do his work. He also warned against discouragement, emphasizing that believers must do what God is calling them to do, even if they do not see tangible results. Sometimes, the fruits of our labours are not seen in our lifetimes, he added.
Michael Trolley provided musical accompaniment for the service, performing two original songs that included lyrics such as: “Father, lighten our darkness and defend us from peril and the evils of this night, for the love of Christ thy Son.”
At St. Patrick’s Basilica, Father Frank Pavone, the U.S. national director of Priests for Life and keynote speaker at last year’s Rose Dinner, led the celebration of Mass with a number of other priests before well over 1,000 people who filled the church to overflowing.
Noting how pleased he was to be back in Canada among fellow pro-lifers, Pavone sounded a note of optimism as he observed the battle for life was one that “we are winning and will win.”
Christ’s Resurrection means the power of death has been broken and so the power of abortion will be broken, he thundered in his homily. “We stand over this evil in a stance of triumph … We are proclaiming a victory,” he said.
Pavone stressed that as Christ gave his all for us, we must in turn give our lives for one another. “The command is: love one another. Period … Without limit … We do not accept a boundary on our love,” he said, in reference to the fact that pro-abortionists believe love should be extended only to the born, not the unborn.
Countering the “pro-choice” line that abortion is a private matter, Pavone declared that, “The abortion somebody else has is our business, is our concern … The command of love doesn’t allow us to ignore or exclude anyone.”
He concluded by observing that the pro-life cause is gaining the upper hand, with the flow of conversions running exclusively in one direction – towards life and truth. “Let us move forward with greater confidence than ever before,” he said. “When history looks back at the pro-life movement … people will not say, ‘Why didn’t somebody do something?’ People will say, ‘Thank God, somebody did something.’”
MPs Maurice Vellacott, Paul Steckle and Harold Albrecht, members of the Parliamentary Pro-Life caucus, led a press conference the morning of the march through the streets, focusing attention on the issue of sex-selection abortions. Canadian Catholic News reported that Vellacott cited the “systemic violence against women, both pre-born and pregnant, through prenatal sex selection.” Steckle noted, “Selecting pre-born girls for termination, simply because they are female, is an important example of the violence and discrimination that still exists against women and girls today.”
Gathering on Parliament Hill and march
As noon approached, buses full of young people pulled up and thousands began to assemble on the front lawn of the Parliament Buildings to the songs of musician David MacDonald and his band. In addition to various schools and churches, they represented numerous organizations – banners and signs were visible from the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Women’s League, Physicians for Life, LifeLine, St. Catharines, Ont. Right to Life, the National Campus Life Network, Guelph Youth for Life and more.
For the next hour or so, they heard short speeches from members of Parliament and figures including Campaign Life Coalition president Jim Hughes, former MP Pat O’Brien and Pavone, along with Janet Morana and Angelina Steenstra of the Silent No More Awareness Campaign.
Introduced by master of ceremonies Elizabeth Lemieux, daughter of MP Pierre Lemieux, the MPs included Lemieux, Conservatives Harold Albrecht, Maurice Vellacott, Jeff Watson, Mark Warawa, Myron Thompson, James Lunney, David Anderson, Dean Del Mastro, Rod Bruinooge. Bev Shipley and Cheryl Gallant were on scene, but did not address the crowd. The National Post reported Kevin Sorenson was present as well. Rick Dykstra, Jason Kenney, Garry Breitkreuz, Ken Epp, Brad Trost and Leon Benoit sat in on the Rose Dinner later in the evening, while Stockwell Day sent written regards. Liberals on the Hill included Paul Szabo and Paul Steckle. Tom Wappell and Andrew Sheer were not able to attend, as they were engaged in parliamentary duties at the time.
A poster on the conservative website freedominion.ca said Liberal MP Hedy Fry could be seen at the March, “but certainly not to offer her support. She stormed past a few of us as we were making our way back to Centre Block, chatting on her cellphone and cutting us dirty glances. Once she passed my girlfriend and I, she sort of shoved a Filipino woman out of the way (so much for feminism), exclaiming: ‘Excuse me, I’m a member of Parliament and you’ve taken over our precinct’ … What a spectacularly horrible human being she seems to be.”
The masses then moved through the streets of downtown Ottawa, praying, waving banners, signs and flags, chanting, singing and beating drums. After about one hour, the crowd returned to Parliament Hill to more music from David MacDonald and band before the Silent No More Awareness Campaign began its annual presentation of first-hand accounts of how abortion has hurt women.
The Eastern Catholic Chaplaincy of Ottawa closed the afternoon later with a prayer service on the Hill.
About 1,000 people filled a large room at the Hampton Inn in the evening for a Rose Dinner event that was sold out weeks in advance. Attended by a number of MPs and the retiring Catholic archbishop of Ottawa, Marcel Gervais, attendees were treated to a scrumptious dinner of creamy leek and potato soup, a medley of mixed greens and a main course of grilled New York striploin with onions, potatoes and seasonal vegetables. The meal was topped off with delicious New York cheesecake smothered in fruit coulis.
Canada’s unofficial pro-life chaplain, Father Ted Colleton, sent greetings and blessings by video from his home in Toronto, as he was unable to attend the dinner personally because of health complications. Emceed by Elizabeth Lemieux, the dinner also featured more comments from Hughes, Pavone and Morana.
The keynote speakers were the two main figures responsible for a work that is creating a lot of excitement in the film world: Bella. The movie captured the Smithsonian Latino Centre’s Legacy Award, as well as the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award. Producer Leo Severino of Metanoia Films told the crowd the movie was created in response to a realization of the power of media.
Bella tells the story of a young single waitress in New York City who becomes pregnant, loses her job and struggles with the decision of whether or not to keep her child. In the meantime, she encounters a mysteriously compassionate Latino chef, who has suffered a tragedy in his past, and is perhaps the only person in her life who really cares about her. During the course of the film, a decision is reached that will change both of their lives.
“The media are shaping our culture,” said Severino, noting that Virginia Tech mass killer Cho Seung-Hui was addicted to the film Natural Born Killers. He added the pro-life ethic embodied in Bella has the potential to touch and save lives and called for pro-life people everywhere to help ensure the film has a big opening weekend when it is released in theatres later this summer.
Bella star Eduardo Verastegui then had the girls swooning as he took the podium. Known as “the Brad Pitt of Latin America,” Verastegui now renounces a past that included lead roles in racy films of various sorts. “I poisoned society with the material with which I was involved,” he says now. “Most of all, I offended God.”
Verastegui has had a conversion and now attends Mass every day. His resolve to not be involved in films offensive to God meant he did not work in the field for two years before Bella came along. But he is excited about the potential Metanoia Films and Bella have to make a difference.
“If we want to make a difference, we have to be together,” he emphasized, quoting Plato in observing that art is more powerful than politics. “The media our poisoning our society, poisoning our children,” Verastegui said, adding that Bella was produced with “a lot of heart and a lot of soul.”
The Toronto Film Festival victory opened up a lot of doors, he concluded, before being mobbed by throngs of young girls seeking photographs and autographs as he made his way from the stage.
More than 600 young people attended an all-day youth conference at the Hampton Inn to hear again from Severino and Verastegui of Bella, as well as Stephanie Gray, executive director of the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, and Faytene Krysow, author of the book Stand on Guard: A Prophetic Call and Research on the Righteous Foundations of Canada. Hughes offered opening remarks, while Samantha Singson, Joanna Miller and Theresa Matters shared emceeing duties.
Sponsored by Niagara Right to Life, the conference featured music provided by Gethsemane Ministries and discussion groups facilitated by the National Campus Life Network. Co-organizer Suresh Dominic said students and teachers were extremely happy with the event and pledged they will encourage their classmates and colleagues to attend next year.
See Theresa Matters’s separate article on the youth conference elsewhere in this issue.
Plans for next year
Mountain said organizers would take a few weeks to rest and assess the 2007 March for Life before plunging ahead with plans for next year’s event. The first orders of business will be to come up with a keynote speaker and contact major church leaders to solicit their co-operation. “You think it’s so long before the next one, then all of a sudden, it’s there creeping up on you a week before,” he said.