When Section 15 of the Charter (the “equal rights” section) came into effect in April, the federal government set up a parliamentary sub-committee to conduct public hearings. In cities across Canada, special interest groups appeared before the Committee to promote their views as to how “equality” should be interpreted.
In every city, the hearings were dominated by homosexual, feminist, and pro-abortion groups. Sexual orientation should be specifically protected under the Charter, they said; mandatory affirmative action and equal value programmes are necessary; government-subsidized day-care is needed; abortion must be removed as an offence under the Criminal Code; free-standing abortion clinics should be established. In addition, many feminist groups demanded that the federal government should financially support the LEAF (Legal Education and Action Fund) fund, set up by feminists to bring court challenges under Section 15.
Members of the Committee are: Patrick Boyer (PC, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) Chairman; Svend Robinson (NDP, Burnaby); Mary Collins (PC, Capilano); Pauline Browes (PC, Scarborough Centre); Roger Clinch (PC, Gloucester, N.B.); Sheila Finestone (Lib., Mount Royal) and Maurice Tremblay (PC, Lotbiniere).
At this moment, I do not have all the Minutes of the public hearings. However, from telephone conversations across the country, I know that the Minutes I have seen (Edmonton, Halifax, Regina, and Toronto) are representative of the hearings conducted in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Ottawa as well.
Protection and recognition
The message sent to the committee by many activists representing homosexuals and lesbians differed from group to group. Some groups argued that Section 15 is “open-ended,” meaning that even though the term “sexual orientation” is not mentioned specifically homosexuals are protected. Others want “sexual orientation” to be added to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination (such as age, sex, race and religion) to give “a legal base from which to fight back against the daily realities of legal discrimination and sexual harassment” (Lynn Murphy, Gay Alliance for Equality, speaking in Halifax). Despite different approaches, the message was clear. Homosexuals want special protection in all sectors of society: housing, employment, custody of children, equality in age-of-consent laws, and recognition of homosexual relationships in order to qualify for spouses’ benefits, pensions, medical care and other services.
It is not possible too list in this space the names of all the homosexual organizations appearing before the committee. However, the following gives an idea of just how well-organized this particular movement has become. In Edmonton, groups included Gay and Lesbian Awareness, Gay Alliance Towards Equality, Dignity Edmonton, Womonspace and Saskatchewan Association on Human Rights Gay Committee. In Regina, groups represented were Gay Community of Regina, the Gay Athletic
Guild, Parents Family and Friends of Gays, Gay Parents Group, Gay Religious Group, Lesbian Phone Lines, Lavender Social Club, Gay and Lesbian Rights and Freedoms Association of Saskatchewan. In Toronto, Rites (a homosexual newspaper), the Right to Privacy Committee, and the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario (which claimed to represent 20 groups in 10 cities across Ontario).
Most of the organizations presented personal testimonies of hardship (such as discrimination in employment and housing), and incidents of violence and losing custody of children, to involve the committee emotionally in their cause. This tactic worked quite well, for one parliamentarian after another applauded the individuals for their “courage” in speaking out in such a forum, while expressing shock and indignation at hearing of such personal misfortunes.
Individuals spoke of living “happily, healthily and productively outside the norm of being compulsively heterosexual, of “hatred and bias,” of “homophobia,” of psychic and physical violence and “queer-bashing,” of schools being “an instrument of oppression, of violence, physical and emotional.” In Regina, Anita Bryant, Gerry Falwell and “our famous Archbishop Gerald Emmett Carter” were likened to “Adolph Hitler for his executions and Joseph McCarthy for his persecutions.”
In Edmonton, spokesmen for Dignity (a group for homosexual Catholics) claimed American, British and Canadian Roman Catholic Bishops, as well as the Anglican and United Churches, as supporting homosexual rights. Mr. Bill Curtin, chairman of the Edmonton Chapter of Dignity, said,
“the social justice commission of our own archdiocese here in Edmonton strongly urged in writing to the Premier of Alberta that they were unanimous in their support of entrenching in law the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”
Mr. Stephen McLellan of the Gay Alliance Towards Equality claimed similar support “on the record” from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Yet, when The Interim contacted both the social justice commission of the Edmonton archdiocese and the CCCB for clarification of these statements, a spokeswoman for the Edmonton Commission said that the letter to the Premier applied to discrimination in housing and employment and did not address “the moral issue of homosexuality.” A CCCB spokesman could not find any statement from the Bishops regarding homosexual rights, but suggested the groups may have been referring to a paper called “Witness to Justice,” which discussed the issue of discrimination based on sex.
Many other groups appearing before the committee endorsed special protection for homosexuals under the Charter. If their briefs did not touch upon the subject, MP Svend Robinson (NDP, Burnaby) often made it a point to find out where they stood. He reminded people that he has tabled a private member’s bill in the House of Commons prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Some of the groups thus questioned by Robinson on the subject of homosexual rights, who then indicated they support the concept, are: Saskatchewan Government Employees’ Union, Saskatchewan Action Committee on the Status of Women, Canadian Teachers’ Federation and the Communist Party of Canada. Stephen McLellan offered names of more supporters: the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the Human Rights Commissions for the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, the Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Edmonton Journal, the Globe and Mail, the New Democratic Party, the Canadian Psychiatric Association, and the Canadian Psychological Association.
Feminists and lesbians
Of special concern to the feminist groups were lesbian rights. In Toronto, Lynn Kayes, an executive member of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) told the committee that NAC’s primary lobby focus this year is the inclusion of “sexual orientation” as a prohibited grounds of discrimination. In Edmonton, Amanda Le Ragetel of the Alberta Status of Women Committee said that “we see connections between our rights to control the reproductive functions of our bodies and our right freely to choose heterosexual or homosexual lifestyles.”
With the exception of feminist groups whose primary focus is women’s health (see below), most other women’s groups appearing before the committee supported homosexual rights in a more low-key fashion. The issue was merely one among many, such as equal pay for work of equal value, mandatory affirmative action programmes, universal day care and the removal of abortion from the Criminal Code.
Women and health
Two feminist health organizations appeared before the committee: in Toronto, the Women’s Health Network, which claims to represent “over 100 groups and agencies (not named) as well as individuals from whom discrimination and health care on the basis of sex is a central focus”; and, in Halifax, the Women’s Health Education Network, “an information-sharing network for individuals and groups involved in health-related projects in Nova Scotia” no numbers given.
Both groups share similar objectives: health issues unique to women which do not get enough attention and funding from government such as legalized midwifery, health hazards in the workplace and more research dollars for birth control.
On abortion, both groups want the abortion law changed – favouring “wider access” and decriminalization. The Toronto group called for federal support of free-standing abortion clinics. The Halifax group was lower-keyed, saying that “the present law does not permit Canadian women freedom of conscience.” They stressed that their stand should not be interpreted as “a pro-choice stand in sort of the quotation marks phrase. It does not mean we are pro-abortion; it means we are in favour of supporting women in whatever personal decision they might make…”
On lesbians, the Toronto Network asserted that they are often victims of discrimination on the basis of their sexual preference by health care providers:
“Health care providers ore often insensitive and unaware of the specific health care needs of lesbian women. We recommend that the federal government contribute funds for special courses designed to sensitize medical students and other health care personnel in training about the specific health care needs of lesbian women.”
The Halifax group was less explicit:
“We recommend that sexual orientation be included in the list of grounds on which discrimination must be prohibited. Some of our members have experienced most bitterly the consequences of harassment, loss of employment or housing or even their children, and invasion of privacy, often based on no more than suspicion.”
The pro-abortion point of view was well-represented in these hearings, somewhat to the surprise of at least one parliamentarian. Chairman Patrick Boyer, observed that he ha not thought at the outset that this committee would be an appropriate forum for either side of the abortion debate. He very quickly learned whose rights were at stake.
The following pro-abortion groups, whose minutes I have read, appeared before the committee: in Halifax, Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL), Halifax chapter; in Edmonton, Abortion by Choice Edmonton and Abortion by Choice Calgary; in Regina, Planned Parenthood Saskatchewan and Citizens for Reproductive Choice; in Toronto, the national office of CARAL. In addition, most of the feminist groups appearing before the committee supported the pro-abortion platform, as did the YWCA of Metro Toronto, National Association of Women and the Law, Toronto Women’s Health Network, the Communist Party of Canada, and the Women’s Health Education Network.
All these groups said the same thing: abortion is a personal choice of a women, it should therefore be decriminalized. Canada-wide, access is uneven because of requirements for Therapeutic Abortion Committees, and because of restrictions to licensed hospitals. These restrictions should be removed and free-standing government-funded abortion clinics should be put in their place. Also, abortion can be prevented by more sex education and better methods of birth control. (All of these arguments are familiar enough to those who have paid attention to the issues.)
Committee members seemed to have heard the pro-abortion presentations sympathetically for the most part. In Edmonton, Svend Robinson (NDP, Burnaby) told Ellen Ticoll (Abortion by Choice, Calgary) “that the present abortion laws do in fact constitute an inequality against women.” He noted that he had tabled a private member’s bill in the House of Commons to repeal the provisions of the Criminal Code which “would implement freedom of choice.”
Roger Clinch (PC, Gloucester) had some difficulty with the brief presented be Abortion By Choice Edmonton. They used the standard feminist argument that abortion is like any other surgical intervention and that there is no comparable medical procedure for men which requires permission from a committee. “One can imagine,” stated the brief, “the outcry if males had to obtain the approval of a committee of doctors to have a vasectomy.” Mr. Clinch wondered then if abortion is a form of birth control. Sheila Grekel of Edmonton denied it, while Pamela Bouler from Calgary added to the confusion when she tried to explain that there is not a perfect method of birth control “at this point in time, so I do not think any of us are suggesting that abortion be used as a method of birth control.”
In Toronto, Norma Scarborough, president of CARAL, put the same idea slightly differently. “Our law discriminates by limiting a woman’s right to control her fertility,” she said. “A man suffers no such restrictions on his reproductive choice. Further, the law treats a medical procedure that pertains only to women in a way it treats no other medical problems.
In Regina, the Planned Parenthood brief, presented by Margaret Fern, executive director of Planned Parenthood (and also a trustee on the Regina Board of Education), stressed the need for “good sex education, combined with access to birth control” to counter “the alarming increase in teen-aged pregnancy.” She asked for increased funding for the Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada as it is “the only national organization providing education and materials on contraception and birth control.”
Maurice Tremblay (Lib., Lotbiniere) picked up on the funding question. He said (addressing Ms. Fern),
“you say that it is the established groups that must be supported by the population in general and by the government in particular. I think that this view is important and we will analyze, in our discussions, what we could do to help these groups gain ground. I congratulate you and thank you for your presentation.”
(For Ms. Fern’s comments relating directly to Planned Parenthood Saskatchewan’s approval of free-standing abortion clinics, see article about International Planned Parenthood Federation in the September issue of The Interim.)
In Halifax, speaking for CARAL, Kathryn Coffin called for the decriminalization of abortion and for free-standing clinics. The current abortion law,
“places many obstacles in the way of women seeking terminations of unwanted pregnancy, and, in fact, denies abortions to many Canadian women who need them. As it stands, the law has serious shortcomings which contribute to a situation of unequal access to abortion services, thus denying women equality before the law.”
The abortion law, Ms. Coffin said, discriminates against poor women because, in the Maritimes, women have to travel outside their communities to obtain an abortion and only wealthy women can afford to do this. Naturally, Svend Robinson wholeheartedly agreed. “I personally cannot think of a law which personally cannot think of a law which discriminates more flagrantly, more blatantly against women, and particularly against poorer women,” he said, “than the current Criminal Code provisions on abortion.”
In Toronto, Norma Scarborough, CARAL’s president, reiterated demands to decriminalize abortion and set up free-standing clinics. She also took the opportunity to ridicule pro-life views, talking about “potential human life” and arguing that the present law is “demeaning to women.”
The radical feminists, homosexuals and pro-abortion groups were listened to sympathetically by the MPs. Question periods were a polite exchange of views and often occasions for the parliamentarians to make speeches in support of the groups’ positions. Such courtesy was not always shown to the pro-life, pro-family groups who were in the minority in every city, as we will see in Part two, next month.
It now appears that this committee intends to hold another round of public hearings this fall. The radical groups have already been heard from but more are bound to come forward. In most cities only one or two groups presented the pro-family, pro-life view. The strongly-held principles of the majority of Canadians may well appear to be a minority view in the eyes of the committee.
We urge readers to pay close attention to local newspapers for announcements that the committee will be holding hearings in their area. Please urge all pro-family, pro-life and church groups in your area to request time before the committee and to submit written briefs. Also consider writing to the committee giving them your view as to how the equality sections of the Charter should be interpreted. Make certain your local MPs and MPPs or MLAs receive copies. If a radical interpretation is eventually recommended by the committee, it will be even harder to protest the lack of support for the family and to stop free-standing abortion clinics across Canada.
The committee can be contacted care of Mr. David Cooke, Clerk to the Committee on Equality Rights, House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6.