Heather Stilwell is a name known to many right to life activists in Canada. “I’ve been in the right to life movement since 1978, just shy of 30 years,” states the public school board trustee from Surrey, BC. “One of the girls at my church got me signed up with the Vancouver Hospital Board. One thing led to another and we ended up founding the Surrey Delta Pro-Life Society.”
Along with other founding members of this society, Stilwell spent many volunteer hours fighting for the rights of children in the womb. She became such a strong advocate for the unborn that the society eventually elected her as its president. “I was not the first president,” Stilwell explains, “but I was a founding member and I ended up becoming president. From there, I became president of the Pro-Life Society of B.C. They sent me to an Alliance for Life meeting, where I was asked to serve on the board of directors. From there, I ended up president of Alliance for Life Canada.”
As president of Alliance for Life Canada, Stilwell networked with other Canadians who upheld the sanctity of human life. She was horrified by the inadequate legal protection for children in the womb and the ease with which abortions were obtained. She brought together many other Canadians who shared her pro-life convictions and played an instrumental role in shaping the early direction of Canada’s right to life movement.
“I took part in the meetings to amalgamate Coalition for Life and Campaign Life,” she states with a hint of pride in her voice. “There were two major pro-life political lobby groups at the time. Unfortunately, we didn’t work together.” The division was nothing personal; the right to life movement had arisen from a number of local grassroots efforts and had simply not had the time to coalesce. I was the one who put forward the motion that we join together under the name Campaign Life Coalition.”
In 1990, Stilwell’s right to life activism took another successful turn, as voters in Surrey elected her a public school trustee. “We’re the largest school district in B.C., with 65,000 students and 125 schools,” she states. “We also have about 40,000 adult learners through our continuing education department. We train English teachers from China, Korea and Japan.”
Stilwell served for three years, then took three years off to focus on federal politics. “I was working nationally with the Christian Heritage Party,” she explains. Yet, federal politics could not hold her attention nearly as well as local politics. “I ran again for school board trustee and have been elected every three years since.”
Stilwell notes that a right to life activist can have a tremendous impact as a school board trustee. “There are a number of things about the education system that impact the family,” she explains. “I ran on a campaign that we must listen to parents and respect them as the primary educators of their children. During my first term, I was alone with six NDPers on the board. I had many opportunities to bring family issues to the fore and other common-sense issues as well.” She worked to establish better communication between the school board and parents, as well as better stewardship of finances. “I wanted parents to be better informed of decisions affecting their children’s education.
“I helped established the first traditional schools in Surrey,” she adds. “These are public schools that are consistent in their delivery, teacher-led classrooms. The children wear uniforms. The classrooms are very parent-friendly and welcome parental input.”
The impact has been nothing short of miraculous. “We now have three such schools in Surrey and a waiting list of over 1,000,” Stilwell states. “We also have fine arts schools and French immersion schools. We’ve been able to respond to the different needs of parents in the community. This has forced the other schools to become parent-friendly.
“This is a pro-life issue, because the family’s values must be respected within the education system,” she continues. “We should not be teaching values contrary to those of parents and the family. Pro-life is being pro-family. We have managed to fight the influence of anti-life forces in our schools. The NDP tried to impose some of this agenda, but was not successful.”
Stilwell encourages other right to life activists to put their names forward as candidates for school board trustee. “As a trustee, you get to talk to other politicians at other levels,” she explains. “Over time, you can make a difference. For example, Planned Parenthood does not get into Surrey schools.”
Stilwell concludes the interview by reiterating how her background as an organizer within the right to life movement prepared her for public office. “Pro-life work prepares us for politics very, very well,” she states. “We spend a lot of time talking about things. We spend a lot of time looking at issues to the very bottom. We look at the principles involved. And this is a good thing in politics. Because when you’re in politics, you get all types of pressure about all sorts of things from all directions. So you have to be able to take yourself back to basic questions such as, ‘What’s the right thing to do here?’ We’re used to standing up for what we believe in, even when it is not popular with the world.”