A reply

Few women in Canada have a record of activities, accomplishments, and honours to surpass that of June Callwood.  In 1986, the Toronto YWCA presented her with one of its “Women of Distinction” awards.  She is already a member of the Order of Canada, and on May 9, she is to be inducted into the Order of Ontario.  She is also going to be given an honorary degree by the University of Toronto.

Announcing this distinction, the University’s Bulletin said that she had recently been in the news for founding as AIDS hospice.  Casey House, and that in the past she had been responsible wholly or in part for the establishment of Jessie’s Centre for Teenagers, Yorkville Digger House, and Nellie’s Hostel for Women.  “A columnist for the Globe and Mail” the article continued,” she call public attention to social causes and concerns that might otherwise go unnoticed in the community.”

One of the concerns she has recently taken up is the alleged violence occurring on Harbord Street in Toronto.  Because of a column of hers which appeared in the Globe on February 17, the impression has been spread all across Canada that the pro-life picketers at the Morgentaler clinic are violent fanatics.

Miss Callwood implied that the pro-life people had tried to burn the clinic down with a propane torch.  But this was only one of their illegal activities, according to Miss Callwood.  She went on to charge that they harassed David Butt, the clinic handyman, attacked him with sticks bearing placards, half blinded him, threatened his life, vandalized his work vehicles and even removed the bolts from one the wheels of his jeep.

Now the violence is escalating, she asserted.  The regulars on the picket line “have been augmented of late by such beef as construction workers in hard hats, dockyard employees and college football players, all shouting ‘baby killer’ at women entering the clinic.”  After giving many other examples of their unruly behaviour, Miss Callwood concluded, “It’s Toronto.  It’s not Beruit or Belfast, where such violent fanatics would be labeled terrorists.”

To the perceptive reader, the heavy slanting of this article would have been obvious.  It is all too black and white.   On the one hand are the hooligans, who harass, vilify, abuse vocally and physically, and even put people’s lives in danger, through their activities.  On the other hand are the devoted workers at the clinic, especially handyman Davit Butt, who is tough but oh so gentle, and willing to suffer persecution for justices’ sake.

The depiction of the heroic Butt is sentimental to a cloying degree.  Is it really possible that the workers in the clinic refer to him as “our hero?”  If they call him that, doesn’t he throw something at them?

If June Callwood has grounds for calling the picketers violent fanatics and terrorists, haven’t they proved to be ludicrously ineffective?  Over a four-year period, they have not found a way to put the clinic out of action: any terrorist worth his salt would have booby-trapped it and leveled it to the ground.

Similarly, if the “terrorists” wanted to vandalize Butt’s vehicles, why are those vehicles still running?  These must be the most pathetically ineffective terrorists on the face of the earth – or else June Callwood must be wildly in error in the labels she attaches to them.

Yet, surprisingly, the article gained credence all across Canada.  From Edmonton came a letter to the Campaign Life Coalition office in Toronto containing a warning:  “At this distance I cannot check for myself.  If you people are engaging in illegal actions it is not only illegal and immoral but foolish…”

From Antigonish, Nova Scotia, came a column from a pro-life supporter, Brian O’Connell, expressing considerable worry and concern.  He wrote in the local paper that though June Callwood was a militant feminist and advocate of abortion he considered her a reliable reporter.

“…I know her to be an experienced journalist and one generally regarded as totally honest.”  “Those of us striving to save the blood of the unborn,” he admonished, “cannot shed the blood of the living because they do not share our views.  We who believe in the sanctity of the unborn have no justification for violence in any form.”

In The Record Sentinel and Tottenham Times, Alan Anderson wrote on “Anti-abortion fury, Vicious, barbaric, horrifying.”  After repeating many of June Callwood’s accusation virtually word for word, he concluded with three forceful paragraphs of his own.

The actions of these Morgentaler Clinic demonstrators smear the entire anti-abortion movement.

…The Palestine Liberation Organization is a terrorist organization.  So is the anti-abortion gang.  They have the blood of David Butt on their hands.

“What the anti-abortion movement has done can be stated very simply, they have thrown away their Bibles and much vaunted Christianity, and they have joined the underworld of thugs and terrorists.  They are shrill, strident fanatics, who without any hesitation resort to save force.

“Let them remember that Jesus too, was a carpenter.”

Evidently, then, normally observant people are taking June Calwood’s words at their face value.  On the basis of the evidence she brings forward such as it is, they consider that she has proved that the picketers at the Morgentaler clinic are strident, unscrupulous fanatics.

At the end of Anderson’s column, however, the editor of the paper has added a comment of his own:

“Readers must understand that June Callwood is an ardent advocate of pro-choice.  She did not want to present a balanced view but provide a lot of half truths to try and discredit the pro-life movement.  The protesters outside the clinic are bad for business and Morgentaler wants them gone.

“And David Butt, with all his unproven allegations, is much more than a simple carpenter.  He is there to get people by the picketers.

Given the intensity of feelings on both sides, he adds, remarkably few conflicts have taken place.  And he concludes by saying, “Most of what June Callwood has written about appears to be a fairy tale.”

It is a sensible conclusion.  Here is one reader of June Callwood’s column who is able to put what she says in perspective.

If the Edmonton writer cannot check for himself, Torontonians can do so.  June Callwood describes the clinic as covered with graffiti: it is not.  She describes the picketers as foul-mouthed hooligans; they are decent people whom she is vilifying maliciously.

Their purpose after all, is to persuade women who have appointments at the clinic to change their minds, and shouting at them would be utterly pointless.  Otherwise they carry out a quiet vigil.  Many of them pray.  They pray for the women having abortions, and even for the abortionists as well.  There are no goon squads in evidence.  The “beef” June Callwood refers to is not in evidence either.  One construction worker (without his hat) pickets regularly; so does one dockyard worker, in the off-season: and nobody knows anything about football players.  There has been no escalation of violence.  Most of the violence is in June Callwood’s imagination.

She gives a graphic description of one incident in which Butt was hit over the head and left bloody and half blinded.  “As he flailed around trying to protect himself,” she writes, “other demonstrators piled on.”  How does she know this?  Presumably it is what Butt, himself, told her.

Others standing on the steps of The Way Inn, next to the clinic, saw it differently.  They say that Butt himself was the initial aggressor that he was not hit on the head or left half blinded, and that demonstrators did not pile on him.

In relation to the alleged removal of wheel bolts from Butt’s jeep, June Callwood quotes a Police Inspector as saying, “It’s very frustrating for us.  We think we know who did it, but we have no proof to lay charges.”  Two of the picketers mentioned by occupation in June Callwood’s column – retired nurse Helen Burnie and insurance agent Tom Brown – telephoned Inspector Brown, and he told them that this was not what he said at all.

As noted by the Tottenham editor, June Callwood failed to mention that Butt is not merely a handyman but also an escort for women going into the clinic. He performs his duties aggressively; in fact some of the regular picketers call him “Morgentaler’s bully boy.”  They do not like his language.  They do not like the habit he has of driving within inches of them with his van or jeep.

In a video filmed on February 25, 1986, his face appears right against the lens: he is pushing the person taking the film back, and he is heard saying, “What’s in there?  Then he and an abortionist doctor, Michael Soucie, are seen heading for the back door of the clinic with Soucie saying, “Too bad the police are here.  Otherwise we could push his face in and smash his camera.”

June Callwood says nothing about the horrifying violence of the side she supports, both inside and outside the clinic.

Her column may have had one result, which she did not anticipate.  There has been an act of harassment and terrorism recently, not at the clinic, and not the responsibility of members of pro-life organizations.

On February 29, someone did exactly what she alleged the picketers had done – tampered with the wheel of a car, a car belonging to a senior official of Campaign Life.  Fortunately he noticed that the car was not behaving properly and took it into the garage with which he usually deals, where the mechanic immediately saw that the left rear wheel was wobbling.  The garage man told me that the nuts and studs were stripped, that the wheel could easily have come off, and that if must have been the result of deliberate vandalism, since the nuts had been put on with an air hose.

I could point out other examples of unsupported allegations and factual inaccuracies in June Callwood’s column, presumable we have already seen enough to show that she has no business describing a mild-mannered insurance agent, a retired nurse, and the other Harbord Street “regulars” as resembling Belfast or Beirut terrorists or (in Anderson’s terms) members of the PLO.

Why does she slant her account so heavily?  There are at least two reasons.  Her husband Trent Frayne has said that the one group of people for whom she has no use consists of right-to-life supporters.

A second reasons has to do with one of her projects.  A week before her column of February 17, Rosemary Speirs wrote in the Toronto Star about a proposal for a women’s health centre, offering a full range of services from abortion to birthing, Henry Morgentaler’s establishment.  The proposal had been made to Health Minister Elinor Caplan by an influential group of women activists, headed by businesswoman Jane Hill and including “such well-known public figures as broadcaster Isabel Bassett, writer June Callwood, Alderman June Rowlands and lawyer Linda Silver-Dranoff.”

Obviously, the picketers at the Morgentaler clinic stand in the way of any such plan; at the very least they are an embarrassment.

When June Callwood has a pet project in mind, she goes at it with intense determination.  Her own fanaticism would put that of the pro-life picketers to shame.  But is she a reliable reporter?  Certainly not in this case!  Fanaticism inhibits her veracity.