Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau

On March 7, the day before the National March for Life, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said during a scrum in the halls of Parliament that future candidates for the Liberal Party must support a woman’s right to choose to kill her unborn baby. He said candidates will be screened in the party’s “open nominations” process to ensure they support Liberal policy on abortion and same-sex “marriage,” as endorsed by previous party policy conventions. He added that existing MPs who are pro-life would be allowed to run again, although former MPs seeking to return to elected politics would not be grandfathered in, and Trudeau would not answer questions about whether the handful of sitting pro-life Liberal MPs would be allowed to vote pro-life or whether he would whip votes on abortion in the future.

During the scrum, in which the Liberal leader seemed to be creating policy on the fly, Trudeau said: “I have made it clear that future candidates need to be completely understanding that they will be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills.”

He said that despite committing the Liberals to “open nominations,” that did not prevent him from screening candidates as the party is by the so-called “green light committee.” Trudeau said, “we make sure that the people who are stepping forward are consistent with the Liberal Party as it is now, as it stands under my leadership and under the feedback we’re getting from Canadians across the country.”

Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes told The Interim that Trudeau “is speaking out of both sides of his mouth.”

Asked if he would whip votes on abortion, Trudeau was cryptic and non-committal. “It’s a tough one,” he said before explaining, “we are steadfast in our belief … it is not for any government to legislate what a woman chooses to do with her body. And that is the bottom line.” He also said it was imperative “our party must speak with one voice” on abortion. That would seem to indicate that sitting pro-life Liberals would not be able to vote their conscience if abortion came before the House.

In attempting to clarify how this would affect sitting MPs he was vague: “The existing MPs will be respected to a certain extent in their choices, but our position as a party is we do not reopen that debate.” Hughes said Trudeau is implying that pro-life MPs could run again but might not be allowed to vote their conscience. “It is terribly troubling and totally undemocratic that Members of Parliament would not be allowed to vote their conscience on important moral issues,” he said. Hughes took issue with Trudeau’s comment that sitting pro-life Liberal MPs “will be respected to a certain extent” wondering “what does that mean in practice?” At best, said Hughes, Trudeau is establishing a two-tier caucus in the future where some MPs will be allowed to vote their conscience on pro-life, while others will not.

According to Campaign Life Coalition’s rating system that looks at votes, public statements, and questionnaires, three Liberal MPs might be considered pro-life: John MacKay (Scarborough—Guildwood), Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North) and Lawrence MacAulay (Cardigan), or about one in 11 Liberal MPs. Appearing on the CBC’s Power and Politics, McKay said, “I would prefer to have a situation where the party was of a more pluralistic view, but the party’s made that choice and the leader reflects that choice.”

Hughes notes that during the Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien years, nearly a quarter of the Liberal caucus was pro-life. “While there was plenty of arm-bending and cajoling going on, at least those pro-abortion Liberal leaders allowed pro-lifers to run for office.”

The CBC reported that former Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, an ordained United Church minister who supports abortion and is seeking the Liberal nomination in his old riding of Don Valley West, said he was troubled by Trudeau’s hard-line policy. Oliphant said he would tell the green light committee he supports “a woman’s right to choose” but that he had “a concern that people who hold another value or different religious view or whatever would be stopped from running, would not be green-lit.” He said one of the strengths of the Liberals is that they are a “big tent party.”

Former Liberal MP Tom Wappel (Scarborough West and later Scarborough Southwest) wrote in the National Post that he won his riding six times by upholding certain principles, including his pro-life stance. He reported that there were numerous other pro-life Liberal MPs. Today, however, Wappel lamented, “people like us, are now, suddenly, persona non grata in the Liberal Party of Canada.”

Trudeau’s edict was also criticized from the left, when pro-abortion NDP leader Tom Mulcair charged the Liberal leader with compromising his principles by creating a double-standard within the party as it would still permit pro-lifers to sit as MPs. Mulcair vowed that no current or future NDP MP “will ever vote against a woman’s right to choose.”

Liberal Party spokesman Kate Purchase told the CBC, “people deserve the assurance that if they vote Liberal, they will get an MP that supports a woman’s right to choose.”

Faced with a storm of criticism that included opposition MPs, five Catholic bishops, and numerous media commentators, Trudeau seemed to back away from his May 8 pronouncement, but the substance of his policy is unchanged.

For the first few days after the controversy, Trudeau did not make himself available for scrums and his spokesman handled media inquiries through email, clearly avoiding follow-up questions. This included ignoring Cardinal Thomas Collins condemning the policy as excluding faithful Catholics and Archbishop Terrence Prendergast’s comments reiterating that Catholics must oppose abortion.

On May 19, Trudeau issued an open letter to party supporters. He stated, “two weeks ago, I repeated my position, saying I would expect incoming MPs to vote in favour of a woman’s right to choose, which has historically found protection under Section 7 of the Charter.” Critics pointed out that the Charter was silent on abortion and even the 1988 Morgentaler decision did not declare a right to an abortion, instead throwing out the existing law on narrow technical grounds. Section 7 does not speak directly to abortion, saying, “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”

Trudeau spoke directly to Liberal pro-lifers in his letter: “I care deeply that you are working hard to reconcile your beliefs with this Party policy.” Yet, he reiterated that the Party under his leadership would brook no dissent.

Invoking his famous father, Justin Trudeau said Pierre Trudeau raised his family “very religiously, as Catholics,” but that as political leaders, “our utmost responsibility is to stand up for people’s rights.”

He indicated that contrary to his May 8 edict, pro-life Liberals could run for the nomination, but that they would have to commit to voting pro-abortion if they are elected. Justin Trudeau said that “Canadians of all views are welcome within the Liberal Party of Canada,” but maintained that “under my leadership, incoming Liberal MPs will always vote in favour of a woman’s fundamental rights.” He insisted, “when it comes to actively supporting women’s rights, our party must speak with one voice.”

CLC’s Hughes said that Trudeau does not seem to understand the contradiction in trying to welcome pro-life voters while excluding pro-life candidates. “Why would a pro-life Canadian vote Liberal when its leader is so adamant that MPs could never represent their pro-life values?”

Fr. Raymond de Souza, a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston and a columnist for the National Post, told the CBC that Catholics and pro-lifers “would feel that the message from the Liberal Party here is that you’re not welcome, you’re not allowed to even have a voice in the caucus.”

Former Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis who resigned his Scarborough Agincourt seat in March to run for Toronto city council, said Trudeau’s position will hurt the Liberal Party electorally and harm MPs who are being sent the message that “they’re not allowed to think” on their own. He called on Trudeau to reconsider his policy of both banning pro-life candidates and whipping votes.