YOU SHOULD KNOW: How Vancouver’s Women Seized Their “Freedom Of Choice”
by Stevie Wilson | Unless you’ve were living under a rock over the last few months, you’re probably aware of the seriously misguided and dangerous views belonging to a number of Republican politicians who were running for office in the United States. After talking about “legitimate” rape and rape as God’s will, they lost. Nevertheless, up here in the “safe” north it was an incredible spectacle to observe, one that made plenty of Canadian women thankful that we don’t have to have our health and bodies governed by somebody’s old grandpa. But while we take for granted the protected rights of women in our own country, the legacy of Vancouver’s legislation on the subject is one that warrants a second glance.
The 1960′s in Vancouver were a time of liberation and civic action. The decade featured many “firsts” on the road towards economic and social equality for women. To this end, in 1968, the Vancouver Women’s Caucus was formed, a group that would ultimately change the face of protest in Canada and pave the way for the freedom of choice in our country. The Caucus united around the ideals of human rights and the repeal of Canada’s abortion laws, which until a reform in 1969 under the Trudeau administration had been illegal, including in instances where the mother’s life was at risk. The Criminal Code was amended in that year to allow licensed physicians to perform abortions once it had been approved (by a white male doctor), with the definition of “mother’s health” still vague and inherently subjective. Prior to this amendment, it’s estimated that twelve thousand Canadian women died each year from botched self-attempts. The Criminal Code had no provisions for rape victims.
The inadequacies of this ruling provoked several Caucus demonstrations across Vancouver, the first of them – and the very first in Canada of its kind – taking place in 1970. Shortly after, the Caucus arranged what became known as the “Abortion Caravan” and set out across Canada attracting support and volunteers to protest in Ottawa. A coffin filled with coat hangers atop a Volkswagen van (a powerful, if disturbing display) arrived in Ottawa with over 500 women – a far cry from the 17 they had started with – and set to work organizing a scheme which included circling the Centennial flame with the aforementioned coffin. Other ladies, under the guise of “respectable” women with heels, lipstick, and fancy blouses, partnered with other local feminist groups and marched into the House of Commons to demand pro-choice legislation.
In true protest fashion, the women chained themselves to the parliamentary gallery, each taking their turn to demand the right to choose for themselves. Minister of Justice John Turner was ultimately swayed by their efforts, and agreed to “review” the law that approved only 3% of Vancouver women who applied for licensed abortions. This would mark the first time in 103 years the House of Commons was shut down by a “gallery disturbance”.
In 1988 the Criminal Code was finally amended to legalize abortions, with a second wave of feminist pro-choice movements, including Take Back the Night, gaining momentum in the subsequent years. Though the modern feminist may not identify with the whole coffin full of coat hangers thing, one may still agree that sometimes you’ve got to yell to have your voice heard.
Stevie Wilson is an historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to show you the things that you already see. Just nod your head and pretend you’re paying attention.