Like many another British Columbian, Nina Hunter is “affronted and frightened” by her premier’s style of government. In a letter to the Toronto Globe on March 10, she added her voice to the chorus of others condemning the premier for his high-handedness. “While election confers the mandate to govern,” she wrote, “it also implies the obligation to govern wisely. The complexity of this obligation seems to elude Mr. Vander Zalm.” For many moderns, his type of “fundamentalist” thinking is based on religion rather than reason and is more than they can stomach.
The day before this letter appeared , the Globe carried a distasteful cartoon in which the premier, his mouth wide open, was shouting “MY kingdom come, MY will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It also featured a strong editorial headed “Mr. Vander Zalm out of bounds.” The writer complimented the B.C. Civil Liberties Association for getting a ruling from the B.C. Supreme Court bringing the premier to heel. The Court rebuked the cabinet for trying to remove abortion, “a procedure which is medically required,” from the definition of insured services. “Such a regulation is invalid,” the judgment said, “being one that is not authorized by the statute and is inconsistent with the statute and with common sense.”
Common sense? Was Premier Vander Zalm merely being arbitrary, merely pushing for his personal views, when he tried to maintain that his government ought not to pay for abortions unless there was evidence that they were medically required? Where does common sense lie in this matter of abortion? The Vander Zalm case puts such questions right before us.
Two years ago, when he was campaigning for the Social Credit leadership, Bill Vander Zalm was often described as a charismatic figure; he was smiling, charming, and approachable, with a beautiful wife to match. He was an outspoken populist, an enemy of big government. “I hate bureaucracy,” he said. “We’ve got too many rules that make it too hard for you to do your job.” In consequence, some of his critics, like Larry Kuehn of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and Cliff Andstein of the B.C. Federation of Labour, thought that he did not understand the complexities inevitable in modern administration and would reduce the provincial government to a state of chaos. Nevertheless, he won the leadership of his party easily and in the election the following October he won 49 seats to the NDP’s 20 for the biggest majority in provincial history.
How different are the headlines this year from those of two years ago. In the wake of the premier’s refusal to accept the apparent consequences of the Morgentaler decision, the papers and many of the public have turned against him. “2,000 demand premier, minister quit for B.C. abortion policy,” said the Toronto Star on February 25, reporting on a :pro-choice” demonstration demanding his resignation and that of Health Minister Peter Dueck. NDP leader Mike Harcourt attacked the premier for his “incredible contempt” for the court decision and for the women of British Columbia.
In February as well, he got into a fight with health officials over AIDS. Dr. John Blatherwick, Vancouver’s chief health officer, proposed a public awareness campaign stressing safe sexual practices, including teaching high-school students how to use condoms. Vander Zalm declared that condoms had no place in the classrooms of the province, and that abstinence, not “safe sex,” was the key to preventing AIDS among teenagers. Dr. Ted McLean, director of communicable disease control in Vancouver, was outraged: “There is no place for morality here,” he said. “We must do everything in our power to keep a lid on AIDS. If the premier can’t agree with that, he’ll have to live with the knowledge that some people may contract this disease out of ignorance.”
For four days a Victoria radio talk show’s open lines were dominated by the premier’s “condemnation.” Joe Easingwood, host of the show, said that “It’s like putting the ignition to the atomic bomb.” Seventy per cent of the callers opposed the premier, 30 per cent supported him. A Vancouver Province columnist called him a “bozo,” the Sun innocently referred to his views on abortion and asked “What could be more ‘pro-life’ than efforts to prevent a deadly virus spreading?” Up against the massive propaganda campaign in favour of so-called safe sex, the premier had little chance of making his emphasis on abstinence and chastity prevail. A series of headlines in the Vancouver Province tell the story of subsequent events in capsule form. On March 1: “Zalm Zaps ‘em. Fiery premier defends the unborn.” On March 2: “Socreds split. Premier’s abortion stand dividing party members.” On March 8: “Abortions free, Chief Justice vetoes Socred policy.” The premier had become a figure of fierce controversy because of his abortion views.
The papers, pro-choice activists, the B.C. Medical association, and even members of his own party denounced him for defying the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling, failing to provide health care for women who needed it, and imposing his personal health care beliefs on the people of the province. Kim Campbell, a Socred backbencher, called her leader a bigot and said she might run as a Conservative in the next federal election. In fact there were reports in April that a senior cabinet minister might bolt the caucus and breathe new life into the provincial Conservative party, taking perhaps ten MLAs with him. Henry Morgentaler set the premier a telegram suggesting he resign because of his remarks on abortion, “which I attribute to your religious fanaticism which, in my opinion, makes you unfit to be premier of a democratic, pluralistic province.”
When Chief Justice Allan McEachern of the B.C. Supreme Court nullified a provincial Cabinet decision refusing public financing of abortion, the premier suffered a major defeat.
The judge said that he could not ignore the realities arising out of the Morgentaler decision: “Our highest court seems to have declared that in some circumstances, a pregnant woman is constitutionally entitled to terminate a pregnancy as part of her right to liberty and the security of her person. This right is presently “unregulated.” He continued, “I can and do take judicial notice of the fact that if there is to be a lawful abortion, such a procedure requires medical services.”
The province’s Attorney-General, Brian Smith, said, “I read the decision this way: It not only says that to de-insure abortion from the Medical Services Act is flawed, but there’s a strong suggestion that if we were to re-enact it, or to do it another way, we would fail under the Charter.” “We have to respect the law,” he added. “The law today is that our regulation is not valid.”
Opposition leader Michael Marcourt was delighted. The decision, he said, makes it clear that Vander Zalm cannot inflict “personal views on the women of this province” and that he has to “stop acting like a despot.” “The Supreme Court of Canada and the Constitution prevail, not the whim of a premier.” Norah Hutchinson, speaking for a pro-choice group, also stresses the premier’s despotic tendencies: “Sometimes with Vander Zalm, it takes the higher courts to tell him to obey the law. He doesn’t listen to us or what most people think. He’s always been an outlaw on this issue.”
It seemed that every time he opened his mouth he provided his opponents and the newspapers with opportunities for derisive reactions. The milder headlines read “Vander Zalm making a vice of his virtues” or “Dark days for Vander Zalm,” but there were others like “Zalm ‘a bigot.’” When he told a prayer breakfast in Trail that welfare recipients and women with unwanted pregnancies would find it easier to cope if they turned to Jesus for support, he left himself wide open to attack.
A very nasty editorial, accompanied by a very nasty cartoon, appeared in the Toronto Star on April 27 under the heading “Vander Zalm offends.” The editors did not object to his “classic right-wing agenda,” including drastic reductions in government services, attacks on organized labour, and plans for massive privatization. “But,” they continued, “Vander Zalm crosses the line of propriety when he tries to force his religious beliefs on a province whose citizenry cross a whole range of religious and cultural belief.” They mentioned three instances – his stated aim to reduce the number of abortions and reduce it dramatically, his desire to have all B.C. school children say the Lord’s Prayer in the classroom, and his advice to welfare recipients and others in distress to now Jesus Christ – “This from a premier whose government has just decided to cut benefits to these same people.”
“Such sophistry mixed with religious intolerance,” the editorial concluded, “serves only to inflame, not calm. The people of B.C. deserve better. Meanwhile Canadians of every belief cringe.”
An enlightening comment had been made in February by Rev. Robert Smith, an active New Democrat and a former moderator of the United Church of Canada. He said that he was disturbed by the premier’s “naïve presumption that this is a Christian society.” On sex education, abortion and prayer in schools, he observed, the United Church has a very different position from that of the Catholic Church. “Mr. Vander Zalm has every right to hold his position,” he declared. “But he does not have a right to impose it. The difference between his position and the United Church position is that ours is acceptable in a pluralistic society and his isn’t.”
To be continued.