In 1990, Denise Hounjet-Roth was asked to become president of Campaign Life Coalition Saskatchewan. The invitation came as a surprise for the young mother, pregnant with her second son. She had been a pro-life activist for less than three months. Her introduction to political activism had come in response to pro-life MP Tom Wappel’s announcing his bid for the federal Liberal leadership.
As a devout Catholic, Hounjet-Roth received mailings from the local pro-life group. However, she had never considered becoming active herself. Wappel’s leadership bid changed this. The campaign captured her imagination and she attended a CLC strategy meeting in Ste. Anne de Beaupre. There she met Wappel and Liberals for Life leader Dan McCash.
Their message resonated with the political rookie. “If everyone went back home and worked hard at selling memberships in the party, and selected a majority of pro-life delegates, then we could elect a pro-life prime minister,” she recalls thinking at the time. “I said: ‘Let’s do it!’”
Hounjet-Roth returned to Saskatchewan, where she sold memberships for the Liberal party and helped organize delegates for Wappel. He says she was the “head of a triumverate of ladies who organized his campaign in Saskatchewan.” The province was the only one not have a majority of elected delegates supporting Jean Chretien.
Her enthusiasm and organizational skills caught the attention of Saskatchewan’s pro-life community. Less than a month later, she was asked to assume the leadership of CLC Saskatchewan.
Although the Liberal leadership convention would elect Jean Chretien as the new party leader, Hounjet-Roth had found her calling to pro-life activism. As head of CLC Saskatchewan, she immersed herself in helping to identify and elect pro-life candidates. Over the years, she would also become active in the province’s annual Life Chains, regular hospital pickets, the 40 Days for Life campaign and other activities designed to raise awareness of life issues in the province. To this day, she is proud of the fact that Saskatchewan has no free-standing abortuary.
During the Saskatchewan provincial election in 1991, Hounjet-Roth worked with future MP and Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney to introduce a plebiscite to the province’s voters. (Kenney was then with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.) Noting that abortions were committed in Saskatchewan hospitals, the ballot asked: “Should the government of Saskatchewan pay for abortion procedures?” Nearly 63 per cent of Saskatchewan voters cast a ballot to defund abortion.
“We worked at getting our message out,” Hounjet-Roth said. “It was a matter of encouraging people to vote pro-life.”
While pro-lifers won the plebiscite, the NDP defeated Saskatchewan’s scandal-ridden Progressive Conservative government. “So nothing happened,” Hounjet-Roth said, despite attempts by Saskatchewan pro-lifers to follow up with a letter-writing campaign. “The government answered that funding for abortion was a federal issue,” she said.
Today, the current Saskatchewan Party government refuses to touch abortion as a political issue.
Nevertheless, Hounjet-Roth and Campaign Life Coalition Saskatchewan remain hopeful for several reasons. During the 2004 federal election, pro-life candidates won 13 out of 14 ridings in the province. Although the number has since dropped to 10, the province’s pro-life caucus still boasts a powerful presence in federal politics.
The emergence of Catholic Christian Outreach, a university and youth movement, provides Saskatchewan pro-lifers with other hopeful signs. CCO reaches out to Catholic youths and encourages them to become active in their parishes and various social movements. “They’re all pro-life,” Hounjet-Roth said. Many young people in the province are now active in the pro-life movement because of their involvement with CCO. “Because of CCO, we now have a university pro-life group on our local campus. I see them as a very hopeful sign of the future.”
In reflecting upon 20 years of pro-life activism, Hounjet-Roth says her faith has contributed significantly to her pro-life activism and convictions. “If it wasn’t for my Catholic faith, I probably wouldn’t be doing this work,” she said. “One can become discouraged when carrying out this work, but I keep remembering that God won this battle for us 2,000 years ago.”
Likewise, she believes her pro-life activism has made her a better Catholic. Her activism helped her better understand the connection between abortion, contraception and other life and family issues covered by Catholic moral teaching – and she appears to have passed that on to her children. Her oldest son, Gregory, is a seminarian with the Diocese of Saskatoon; he is currently in his pastoral year with St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont.
The provincial pro-life leader is confident that the next generation of Saskatchewan pro-lifers will be there picking up the activist mantle.