Gwen Landolt is a lawyer, long-time pro-life activist and a co-founder of Toronto Right to Life, the Coalition for Life and REAL Women of Canada. But most important, she says, she is a wife and mother.
Landolt’s involvement with Canada’s pro-life movement began in 1971. She and her husband had just returned to Canada, settling in Toronto, after living in the United States for a couple years while her husband pursued graduate studies. A devout Catholic, Landolt was horrified to return and discover that Canada now permitted abortion.
“Although the law at the time required a woman to go before a medical board,” Landolt told The Interim, “practically speaking, this did nothing to curtail the number of abortions in Canada.” Thus, the young lawyer felt compelled to get involved and do something to protect children in the womb. However, she was unable to find a local organization dedicated to this goal.
“It surprised me that there was no pro-life group in Toronto at the time,” Landolt said. “Toronto was the largest city in Canada and the centre of the Canadian media.” Undeterred, Landolt contacted a friend who ran a pro-life newsletter out of Ottawa. She got names and phone numbers for all of the publication’s Toronto-area subscribers. She then contacted each member of the list about possibly holding a meeting.
Yet, Landolt was reluctant to bring strangers into her home, not only because she did not know them, but because her home was small and could not fit everybody who was interested. Fortunately, Anne Kostuik offered to host the gathering in her much larger house. About 25 people showed up for the initial meeting and Toronto Right to Life was founded that very night, Landolt said.
“Of course, as a lawyer, my thoughts then turned to incorporating the group so as to protect the individual members,” she said. “Abortion was a very high-profile and vitriolic issue at the time.”
Under Landolt’s direction, Toronto Right to Life became the first pro-life organization in Canada to incorporate and the second to receive tax-exempt status.
Landolt’s experience as a law student at the University of British Columbia Law School had helped shape her pro-life convictions. She had learned that an unborn child could be the subject of a trust fund as well as inherit property.
She also recalls a case she undertook early in her legal career, prior to Canada decriminalizing abortion. It involved a teenaged girl who had been the victim of incest. She had obtained an illegal abortion with the help of a police officer. “But that’s against the law,” Landolt recalls saying while scolding the police officer. “My reaction was that you don’t kill human life. The hand of justice must be impartial. Even when a child is conceived under the most untoward circumstances, such as incest, a child is still a human life.”
Landolt remembers fondly those first few years of Toronto Right to Life. The organization had little money, but somehow managed to obtain a tiny office downtown. “We sat on boxes because we couldn’t afford to furnish it,” she laughed.
More important, Landolt began to see the need for a national pro-life network. She began to write newsletters for Alliance for Life and would eventually serve as its national president. However, the organization’s tax-exempt status prevented the alliance from lobbying or engaging in political controversies.
“I realized that the pro-life movement needed a political arm,” Landolt said. She banded together with Steve McDonnell – who was in formation with the Basilian fathers and who later became a banker – and Paul Formby – a Basilian seminarian who became a lawyer and is now practising in B.C. – to found Coalition for Life, which later merged with another pro-life group to become Campaign Life Coalition. The new organization would organize petitions, lobby politicians and ensure that the voice of pro-lifers was heard on the political issues of the day.
With Toronto Right to Life in the “very capable hands” of Laura MacArthur, Landolt said, she turned her attention to the political wing and began writing prolifically in defence of the unborn child.
In 1980, Landolt caught wind that Pierre Trudeau, then prime minister of Canada, was proposing a Charter of Rights and Freedoms as part of Canada’s new Constitution. The pro-life lawyer expressed several concerns at the time, most of which have come to pass in subsequent years.
“The concern was that Parliament would lose its central role in government and the appointed members of the Supreme Court of Canada would be determining social policy,” Landolt said. “I wrote a brief for CLC and presented it to the joint committee between the senators and the members of Parliament. They were horrified that I would suggest that judges might not be impartial.” Her warnings proved prophetic, if unpopular at the time.
Yet Landolt’s greatest concern was that the Charter offered no protection for children in the womb. Should the Charter pass, she predicted, the courts could strike down the abortion law and permit abortion on demand. “As limited as it was,” she said, “the abortion law was still a law.”
A number of political machinations led to the Charter passing, despite a hard-fought battle by the pro-life movement. The battle was lost when Cardinal Emmett Carter, then Archbishop of Toronto, came out in support of the Charter. This allowed devout Catholic politicians from all three parties who had been struggling with the issue to come onboard, she said.
Landolt was furious. She confronted Cardinal Carter and, noting that Bill Davis had played king-maker for the Charter within other contexts, asked him whether he had been promised full funding for Ontario’s Catholic schools in exchange for his support. “He gasped,” Landolt recalled. “Then there was a terrible silence.”
In 1984, the Davis government extended full funding to Catholic education in Ontario.
The Supreme Court struck down Canada’s abortion law in 1988. All of Landolt’s other dire predictions concerning the Charter would also come to pass.
Landolt’s experience during the charter debate would lead her and other pro-life women to found REAL Women of Canada. “I would watch these feminists on television during the debate say things like, ‘The women of Canada believe this and the women of Canada support that,’” Landolt recalled. “I said to myself: ‘Who the heck are these women?’ They never consulted me and I knew that I was a woman.”
The final straw was when Judy Erola, the federal minister for the status of women, came out and said that homemakers and stay-at-home mothers were not deserving of a tax credit because they were wasting time. Landolt was insulted. “I knew there needed to be another voice for women,” she said, so she called a meeting of pro-life women.
A number of issues were raised at the gathering. “We kept asking ourselves: ‘How do real women feel about this issue?’” Landolt said. “That’s when someone said that we should call ourselves The Real Women of Canada.”
Over the years REAL (Realistic, Equal, Active, for Life) Women has grown into one of Canada’s largest and most reliable pro-family organizations. Under the leadership of Landolt (and others), the organization has worked to defend the dignity of women, as well as the sanctity of life, marriage and family. In defence of family and the unborn, some of her battles, including defending the right of parents to discipline their children and against same-sex “marriage,” have been fought all the way to the Supreme Court.
What is truly amazing is that while Landolt often sacrificed her career as a lawyer and her personal leisure time for the pro-life cause, she would never sacrifice her family life. “My husband and children always came first,” she said. “My greatest accomplishment is being mother to five children.”
Landolt was always home when her kids arrived from school. She was there for meals and to tuck her children into bed at night. “The children were the centre of our life,” she said.
She is grateful to her husband Jack for making her pro-life activism possible. “He agreed with me on the issues and he was very supportive during many of these battles,” she said. “I never could have done what I did if he had not shared my concerns.”