On Dec. 3, a little more than a month after receiving LifeCanada`s Mother Teresa Award for outstanding pro-life activism, Heather Stilwell, a culture warrior and pro-life heroine, passed away after losing a two-year battle with breast cancer.
While not unexpected, the news hit pro-lifers hard. Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes told The Interim that her death is the most significant loss to the pro-life movement since the 1996 death of Joseph Borowski. Hughes described her as “a powerhouse in the pro-life movement” and said he will miss her friendship and counsel, calling her judgement “razor sharp.”
He said that they talked regularly for decades on strategy and tactics and that she was “unusually wise and perceptive” and thus sought and valued her input. Hughes said she was “gentle and kind and tough as nails.” Stilwell showed respect to her allies and opponents alike, but was uncompromising and challenged pro-lifers to be more than armchair warriors and get into the trenches.
John Hof, president of CLC BC, told The Interim that he is one person who took her advice to heart, saying that although he was already involved in pro-life, he became head of the Campaign Life Coalition British Columbia at her urging.
Hof said Stilwell contributed so much to the pro-life movement in both B.C. and Canada that her passing “felt like my right arm has been cut off.”
Obituaries noted that Stilwell was involved in practically every local, provincial and national pro-life group: Alliance for Life, Campaign Life Coalition, REAL Women, the Christian Heritage Party, the Family Coalition Party of B.C., the Pro-Life Society of B.C., and the Surrey-Delta Pro-Life Society.
Stilwell said that the movement had to make politicians out of pro-lifers rather than pro-lifers out of politicians, and she thus encouraged like-minded Canadians to run for office at the municipal, provincial and federal level. Provincially she was a candidate for the FCP, federally a candidate and leader of the CHP, and in 2008 she ran for the nomination of the federal Conservative Party in her riding, but it was as school board trustee where she had electoral success. Hof jokes that he was kept busy “working on nomination meetings for everything she ran for.”
In 1990 she was elected to the Surrey School Board – the only non-NDP on a seven member board. She did not run for re-election in 1993, but returned in 1996 and eventually became chair of the board. She opposed sex education and condom machines in schools. In 1997, she led a successful effort – backed by the majority of trustees – to keep Heather Has Two Mommies and two other books featuring same-sex parents out of the board’s optional learning resources after a kindergarten teacher requested they be ordered to help him teach his four- and five-year-old pupils about diversity and tolerance. A legal battle ensued and the case made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which in 2002 overturned the elected school board’s decision (Chamberlain v. Surrey School District). When Stilwell ran for re-election in 2005, she won handily.
Two years later, she made headlines again by proposing a motion that passed unanimously requiring resources presenting an opposing viewpoint whenever Al Gore’s environmentalist film An Inconvenient Truth was shown in class.
She also provided educational choice within the public school system by promoting traditional schools that operated independently within the school system and were more responsive to the parents of students than to bureaucrats.
Other causes that Stilwell took up as a trustee included autism training for special education assistants, providing religious texts from multiple faiths to school libraries, reviving public speaking contests, and her personal book bag programme that provided books for young children. On Nov. 27, 2008, at her last school board meeting, the chair of the board stated, “It would be impossible to adequately summarize the contribution and impact Trustee Stilwell has made in our district since she was first elected in November 1991.”
But it will be for her pro-life activism that Stilwell is best known. Grace Petrasek writes in Silhouettes in the Snow: Profiles of Canadian Defenders of Life that the “first time Heather remembers thinking about abortion was in 1967 while listening to a radio program on the issue.” She told her husband that she thought a woman should be able to have an abortion if she had been raped but her husband Bill replied “abortion is always wrong.” Stilwell would go on to become an uncompromising champion of the unborn and vulnerable.
After moving from Winnipeg to Surrey, B.C., in 1972, she became involved in hospital politics, and ran for Vancouver General Hospital Society to vote for pro-life directors. She told Petrasek that “the seed was sown.” Soon afterward she began working with Betty Green of Vancouver Right to Life and Dr. Walter Kazun of Canadian Physicians for Life.
The Stilwells bought a second-hand store and Heather soon founded the local Cloverdale Merchants Association and became involved in the local Board of Trade. By the cash register, they erected a sign which said “Abortion kills. Does your doctor?” Soon their involvement in the movement was so great, they had to close the store.
She began giving presentations to church groups and from there her activism was unceasing. She appeared on local television, collected pro-life information, and founded the Surrey-Delta Pro-Life Society. She soon had her own series on television, Lifeline, in which she interviewed a wide range of subjects from teenagers who were pregnant to people with disabilities.
She would become president of the Pro-Life Society of B.C., and in 1985 was elected president of Alliance of Life Canada after the sudden deaths of Harry Schadenberg and Ed Newell. Initially given the interim title, she was twice re-elected president. Jim Hughes said that in following Schadenberg and Newell, Stilwell “had big shoes to fill – she like shoes and travelled with many pairs of them, and she filled them amply.”
Hughes said that the relationship between the educational and political wings of the Canadian pro-life movement was never better than when Stilwell headed Alliance for Life. He says that cooperation was the norm. “She was 100 per cent cooperative,” Hughes recalls. He said that when an issue required a pro-life response, CLC and AFL would talk about how they would each tackle the issue from different angles, often working together on how to word their separate press releases and strategizing about how the educational wing of the movement would prepare the public for a political initiative CLC was undertaking.
Hughes said that when her term ended at AFL in 1989, they talked and Stilwell indicated that she wanted to become more involved in the political realm. She was named Western Development Coordinator of CLC in which she worked with the provincial presidents in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C., to help organize and set reasonable goals.
In 1988, Bill Stilwell helped found the Christian Heritage Party. Heather would later become its president and for the 1993 federal election, its leader. She criticized the Reform Party and its leader Preston Manning for failing to acknowledge Canada as a Christian country and refusing to commit to the defence of the unborn.
In 2007, she would leave the CHP and run for the nomination of the Conservatives in Newton-North Delta. She was a late entrant in the race and lost.
The Stilwells had eight children: Christina, Colleen, Billy, James, Paul, Andrew, Sarah, and Elizabeth. In a 1993 profile in the Vancouver Sun, Douglas Todd reported that for a while when Christina was an adult she was paid to help watch her siblings. Heather said elsewhere that employing family members was one way of supporting family in economically challenging times.
Asked how she managed a career in pro-life while raising a large family, Stilwell replied that she was flexible. Her friend, long-time pro-life activist Margaret Purcell is quoted in Silhouettes in the Snow that Stilwell “manages her home the way governments should be run – with a minimum of money and fuss.”
The family’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth, was born on Jan. 27, 1988. The next day, the Supreme Court of Canada issued its Morgentaler decision and Heather was on a conference call strategizing with other pro-life leaders. That was an example of her dedication, noted Hughes, who said that while she demanded much of others, she never asked for more than she would do herself.
According to Petrasek, Stilwell kept everything in perspective, with pro-life work following God and family in importance. “It seems to work well that way,” Stilwell said.
She maintained a sense of humour, as well. As the organization’s president for five years, she once wrote in the Alliance for Life newsletter, “When I took on this job I was 42 – now I am 107.”
John Hof says that Stilwell was gracious and “never slagged the opposition.” She looked for opportunities to insert abortion into the discussion without personally criticizing those with whom she disagreed.
Mary Polak, the present B.C. Minister of Children and Family Development and Minister Responsible for Child Care, gave one of two eulogies at Stilwell’s funeral. She said that “Even among her political foes, Heather was always held in high regard for the manner in which she engaged the debate.” She recalls that more than once Stilwell reminded her that “God expected us to act with love in our hearts.”
Like Hof, Polak gives credit to Stilwell for where she is today. “I’m involved in public service today simply because she asked me.” The two served together on the Surrey School Board.
In October at the Building a Culture of Life Conference in Ottawa, which she attended with youngest daughter Elizabeth, who pushed her the wheelchair that made mobility possible, Stilwell received LifeCanada’s Mother Teresa Award for her contribution to the pro-life cause. While at the conference, Hughes, who is also the vice president of the International Right to Life Federation, introduced Stilwell to the international leaders and arranged for her to sit in on their board meeting. Dr. Jack Willke congratulated Stilwell for her many contributions to the pro-life movement.
When given the Mother Teresa Award, she received a standing ovation. Monica Roddis, acting head of LifeCanada, said Stilwell is synonymous with the pro-life movement and will always be identified as being there at the beginning. But her personal qualities made her special. “Her deep faith and love of the most vulnerable have shone through,” said Roddis. “Those who have worked with her throughout the years have confirmed her kindness, her understanding, and her great encouragement as she endeavoured to be the voice for those who have no voice.”
In her acceptance remarks, Stilwell said that she would continue to battle against abortion as long as she was alive.
Stilwell provided an example of how to be both relentlessly pleasant while being uncompromisingly principled. Hughes said she disapproved of strategies that accepted of lesser of two evils, “because at the end of the day all we have got left is evil.” Yet, he said “She supported incremental steps to get to the goal of outlawing abortions, but refused to compromise the life of one baby to achieve it.”
In her eulogy, Polak said that “Heather Stilwell did not have a political career, she had a political life.” She added, “Whether the cause was exceedingly popular or seemingly hopeless, if it was right, Heather was there.”
Stilwell once wrote in the Alliance for Life newsletter, “Each person must find out what part you are supposed to be playing as we try to mend this broken society back into one where each and every human being is valued for what they are – a unique and irreplaceable gift form God.”
Through four decades of pro-life activism, Stilwell found what parts she was supposed to play.