A pro-life group covering the Welland-Port Colborne area of Ontario has been turfed from setting up an exhibit at a well-attended local festival, apparently at the instigation of the owner of a local newspaper.

The Welland-Port Col- borne Pro-Life Association had applied in early June to take part in the Port Colborne Canal Days event August 1-4. The association had purchased some extra materials – such as fetal models, brochures and giveaway items – to bring along to its display and had recruited some volunteers to staff a display table. Organizers of the festival cashed the cheque the association sent with its application on June 18.

Although the association has been appearing at the Niagara Regional Fair for a number of years without a problem, it received a phone call on July 21, advising that its permit to appear at Canal Days was being revoked. The official explanation given was that there was no policy in place for displays by organizations such as right-to-life ones.

In follow-up calls, Welland-Port Colborne Pro-Life Association president Margaret Purcell was again told that a policy was not in place for organizations outside of food and retail entities. Port Colborne mayor Vance Badawey told Purcell that the festival desired a measure of “balance” because the right-to-life group was putting forth a certain point of view. This would entail an appearance by a group or groups with opposing positions. Purcell pointed out that non-retail and non-food groups, such as a teachers’ federation, were taking part and fundraising at the event.

Through continuing research, Purcell was able to determine that opposition to a pro-life exhibit at the festival was being led by media-related elements on the festival’s committee, including Port Colborne Leader publisher-editor Gail Todd.

In fact, in a “Publisher’s Pen” column July 23 entitled, “Risky business,” Todd pointed out that “the Canal Days committee voted after all to reject the anti-abortion booth from Vendors Village.” She added that her “compatriate (sic) from the Dark Side … made sure my motion lived before the minutes were accepted and seven or eight vote-eligible members made it happen … And wouldn’t you know, the pro-lifers are on my tail now.”

Todd wouldn’t return Purcell’s calls for clarification, nor has anyone else from the Canal Days committee commented on the matter. “Her comments were quite caustic,” Purcell told The Interim. “She doesn’t say who her ‘compatriot’ is. It was rather childish, I would say … She’s got a nerve, writing the things she did. It just exposes her agenda, as far as I can tell.”

Purcell has written a letter of inquiry to the Ontario Press Council, asking whether Todd, as publisher of a local newspaper, overstepped her bounds in agitating for the expulsion of a group from a community event. She also intends to reapply next year.

“I’d like to put them in the position of having to declare themselves,” she said. “I don’t think we’re out of place … The big thing is the power of the press. That’s what I find astonishing. You might expect this from the big conglomerates, but not in Port Colborne, for heaven’s sake.”

Purcell said she intends to let other local groups know about the kafuffle, including the Catholic Women’s League, Knights of Columbus and advertisers in the weekly Leader.

“I intend to” turn some heat on the paper, she said. “I get tired of seeing a situation where people think it must be right or the press wouldn’t have covered it.”

Purcell added that the Welland-Port Colborne Pro-Life Association’s cheque for the Canal Days event has still not been refunded.