|This year is turning out to be one of anniversaries. Our very own Interim newspaper is marking 20 years of publication. Pope John Paul II celebrates 25 years in the papacy this October. And this month, Canada’s dynamic political pro-life organization will have been in existence for a quarter-century.
It was on May 25, 1978 that representatives from pro-life groups across Canada met in Winnipeg to form a national organization, Campaign Life. The new entity brought together the combined efforts and talents of people from Campagne-Vie Quebec, Campaign Life groups in Ontario and Western Coalition groups from Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. They dedicated themselves to questioning political candidates and raising public concerns on life issues.
That mission remains to this day, along with numerous other responsibilities, in what is now Campaign Life Coalition. As Stephen McDonnell, president of Campaign Life Toronto, noted at the formation of the new organization: “The abortion law will only be changed when a large number of Canadians publicly demand, with unified voice, a change. The creation of Campaign Life Canada brings that day a little closer.”
Unfortunately, the number of abortions yearly in Canada has risen from 54,000 to over 100,000 since McDonnell stated those words. But many shudder to think what would have happened if an organization like Campaign Life had not been around to address the abortion question, as well as the myriad other life-related issues that have arisen since then.
Gwen Landolt, one of Campaign Life’s founders with Paul Formby and Paul Dodds, said the organization was formed out of the realization that educational pro-life groups were being stymied in their attempts to get involved politically. She credited the Toronto priests of the Basilian order with an integral role in the startup of the new pro-life organization.
“The Basilian fathers were wonderfully generous,” she said. “We used rooms and equipment at their seminary. They also freed up Paul Formby, who at that time was a seminarian, to carry on with his pro-life responsibilities. Without them, there would be no Campaign Life Coalition today.”
Landolt performed an array of duties for the new group in its early years, ranging from media work, writing press releases, political strategizing, analysis and arranging press conferences, among others.
Formby had been involved with another politically oriented pro-life organization of the time, the Coalition for Life, for about six months before he jumped over to the new group and began to serve as its national co-ordinator. He noted that Campaign Life was basically a grassroots entity supported by professionals and intellectuals such as Landolt.
Formby left the seminary to study law, and stayed as national co-ordinator with Campaign Life until 1983, when he married and went on to assist the pro-life movement in the legal end.
Kathleen Toth of Alberta was named the first president. She had gotten involved in pro-life work through Birthright in her previous home in B.C., and plunged into the political end of things at the prompting of Father Ian Boyd of Saskatoon, who emphasized the need for a political arm of the pro-life movement. He urged her to “just do it.” She honed her skills with Campaign Life Alberta, before moving to the new national group.
Formby said Campaign Life was effective in its early years, especially when it defeated two pro-abortion NDP candidates who were running in ethnic, west Toronto ridings. “The candidates who were defeated blamed us. We got a lot of ink in the press. They saw how effective we were, even though we were being criticized. After that point, the media blacked us out.”
Long-time pro-lifers were unanimous in pointing to the battle over the Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms as being the most important and demanding challenge Campaign Life faced, at least in its early years. Many remember the exhaustive work that went into scuttling a Charter that they thought would open the doors to unrestricted abortion on demand – which is what happened.
“As a lawyer, I said, ‘This will strike down the abortion law,'” said Landolt. “But we had an unbelievable impact. We worked like we had never worked in our lives. It was very much an uphill struggle. We were marginalized in the media, as we are now.”
Formby remembers it as a “burnout time,” but pro-lifers were inspired by another saying of Father Boyd: “Go on, do the work and ignore the buzz in the background.” Formby set out to alert people to the dangers of the proposed Charter by taking out ads in publications like the Catholic Register and the Toronto Star.
“We were effective in waking people up to the issues,” he said. “We put up a good fight, made a good account of ourselves and did what we could to prevent the Charter from going through. We tried to get the unborn protected in the Charter.”
Toth remembered the battle over the Charter as “the hardest part” of her pro-life work, especially when the standing committee taking input from the public refused to grant Campaign Life an appointment. That didn’t deter Toth, Landolt and company, who brazenly went to Ottawa anyway and walked right into the hearings.
“The chairman invited us to come in and we sat down,” said Toth. “Svend Robinson and another MP were outraged at this. They picked up their books as if to walk out in protest … We made our presentation and were very well received, but we weren’t able to the get the unborn into the Charter.”
The battle over the Charter exhausted Toth to such a point that she was happy to have Toronto’s Jim Hughes take over the reins of Campaign Life in 1982. He retains the post to this day. Toth went on to tackle the threats posed by feminist agendas in the Catholic church and in recent years, has cared full-time for her mother.
Hughes had been involved in a number of pro-life related activities in Toronto and was present at the first meeting of the new, national Campaign Life in Toronto in 1978. He joined the movement with the intention of volunteering work and applyinig his business skills to help the organization off the ground. Later, he volunteered full-time for a period of two years, after which he found he could not leave.
He remembers starting with a modest mailing list of 200 names, which quickly grew to 8,000 as people woke up to the seriousness of the threats facing human life in Canada. The first office was “about the size of a large clothes closet.”
After taking over as national president, Hughes attempted to set up Campaign Life in such a way that everyone would be able to correspond with everyone else regularly. He also worked to spawn spin-off groups and entities such as the short-lived Pro-Life Party of Canada, the Family Coalition Party of Ontario, The Interim newspaper, Tories for Life and Liberals for Life. It also supported the establishment of the Christian Heritage Party.
“In the early days of Campaign Life, we didn’t have two nickels to rub together, so we were constantly making do however possible. The spirit was very good back then.”
Also playing a key role in Campaign Life’s history has been Mary Ellen Douglas, from Kingston, Ont. She got involved in pro-life work with Birthright in 1971 and helped start a group called Vita (Latin for “life”). She joined the Campaign Life team in 1978 as Kingston’s representative and went on to perform a variety of other tasks before becoming national organizer.
“It was a wonderful calling,” said Douglas. “I’ve never looked back and have always thanked God for the opportunity to work with Campaign Life. It’s such a great organization and a great group of people.”
Douglas said Campaign Life is “a force to be reckoned with” and has been since its very beginning. “Politicians and everyone else know that Campaign Life does not compromise on anything. We expect politicians to stand up for life and we only endorse those who do.”
She credits Hughes with being a large part of Campaign Life’s success story, especially his skills in negotiating the merger of his group with Canada’s other political pro-life organization, Coalition for Life, in 1987.
“A lot has come about because of Jim’s leadership. He’s been a gift from God, as far as the pro-life movement is concerned. His leadership has been consistent. His determination to bring all pro-life groups under one banner is something he did faithfully. He’s given so much time and effort to this work. You won’t find this in any other work or movement.”
Douglas says the challenges posed by stem cell research and new reproductive technologies have once again thrust what is now Campaign Life Coalition into the forefront of the battle for life.
“With stem cell research, there’s so much that’s déjà vu. The idea that there are disposable people is much like it was in 1969. We’re at another pivotal crossroads. We’ve thrown everything into this to prevent a terrible evil from taking place.” Hughes added that Campaign Life Coalition’s involvement at the UN has been another vital aspect of its work in recent years.
All would agree that despite an increasingly dominant culture of death that has taken over Canada, Campaign Life Coalition has a proud history of battling it without compromise, and that things would have been much worse without its presence.
“We’ve kept growing and getting stronger all the way,” said Hughes. “We’ve managed to influence people to run for public office and get elected. A lot of people associated with us have joined the clergy. All kinds of babies have been saved.”
“The purpose of the movement has been to make mileage for the unborn and for human life, and to keep those issues alive,” said Formby. “We’ve let the public know there’s a group that hasn’t given up on those issues. If it wasn’t for the efforts of people like Jim Hughes, you can imagine where we’d be on all the other issues.”
“It was amazing, what we got done, from nothing,” said Toth. “I’m just so proud of everyone now. Campaign Life has grown into such a big tree, with so many branches.”“We started out by saying we’re here to obtain a law to protect the unborn,” said Douglas. “We’ll be here until that happens. We’ve never backed down from anything. We never didn’t do anything that had to be done. It’s a faith commitment. We know we’re doing God’s work. We do it with Him leading us.”