Quebec and English-Canadian Feminists 40 Years after the Bird Commission

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Jill McCalla Vickers, Carleton University
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Portfolio’s ‘Equality Then and Now’ series, marking 40 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Look for more on this topic in upcoming posts and at Congress 2010.

I recently read in the Globe and Mail that Quebec’s MNAs had unanimously passed the following resolution, “that [Quebec’s] National Assembly reaffirms the right of women to free choice and to free and accessible abortion services, and asks the Prime Minister ... to put an end to the current ambiguity on this issue.” Premier Charest explained, “the consensus [of]... the National Assembly reflects the Quebec society” that “abortion is an inalienable right.”

Given the puzzled and sometimes irate e-mails about the reported event, I thought exploring why such support exists in Quebec would be useful to English-speaking Canadians as we contemplate this anniversary of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women – called the Bird Commission after its chair, journalist Florence Bird.

In recent decades, most English-Canadian feminists ignore women’s politics in Quebec, and have little sense of its historical importance in getting the Bird commission, and in getting abortion decriminalized, first in Quebec in the 1970s and a decade later across the rest of Canada.

Watch Bird discuss Quebec women’s demand for change.

Indeed a feminist colleague was rather irate about Premier Charest’s statement. My colleague insisted that “everyone knows Quebec women owe their abortion rights to the Supreme Court, and that the Quebec nationalists wanted them to go on having dozens of babies.” After exploding about this ignorance of the struggle for reproductive rights in Canada, I realized many women in English-Canada may share her false conceptions and that few know about the leading role Quebec feminists played in the decriminalization of abortion. Moreover, few feminists in English-Canada today understand how important it has been to our rights that Quebec governments have steadfastly defended women’s rights to bodily integrity as the basis of their citizenship.

So I decided the best contribution that I could make to this blog would be to explain the role federalism and Quebec feminists’ alliance with nationalism have played in the relative success of feminist activism in Canada generally. Without the strength of the movement in Quebec and the consensus of support for women’s rights, I believe English-Canadian women would be fighting to keep their rights from conservative erosion as has happened in the United States.

English-Canadian feminists tend to consider federalism a barrier to women’s equality because of the difficulty they’ve had getting a pan-Canadian childcare program established. They also are somewhat resentful that women have provincially-supported childcare in Quebec, which they have failed to achieve across English Canada. But this ignores the fact that the Canada’s women’s movement was successful in achieving many equality-supporting programs because of the asymmetrical division of powers, the Quebec movement’s activism, and the solidarity in support of women which emerged in the context of the threat of Quebec separatism.

In her comparison of the women’s movements’ achievements in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s, Sylvia Bashevkin’s Living Through Conservative Times shows the value of multi-governance levels in the federations.

Watch Sylvia Bashevkin discuss ‘Women, Power and Politics’.

Multi-level governance denied central decision-makers the “reliable power of veto” over feminist initiatives which Margaret Thatcher, for example, had in the United Kingdom. The political dynamics of Canadian federalism helped feminists achieve constitutional gender equality initiatives, for example, because federal and Quebec governments were in competition for their support; and their support for the nationalist project helped feminists develop considerable influence with Quebec’s nationalist governments.

English-Canadian accounts about the campaign to decriminalize abortion generally ignore the role played by Quebec feminists and the Quebec government in establishing de facto reproductive freedom as an entitlement of women’s citizenship a full decade before the Supreme Court’s decision. They treat Canada as if it were a unitary state by focusing only on events at the federal level and ignoring the leverage Canadian women gained from the clout Quebec feminists could exercise with the Parti Québécois (PQ) government in the 1970s. Moreover, their clout has stayed strong and has influenced both Liberal and PQ governments.

To contextualize how this clout developed, we need to understand a bit more about the Bird Commission and especially the abortion rights issue. In 1969, at the behest of the medical profession, the federal Liberal government ‘modernized’ the Criminal Code by decriminalizing therapeutic abortions if performed in hospitals and with the approval of a (3 doctor) therapeutic abortion committee (TAC). Women weren’t consulted about these changes, but they quickly mobilized against the new provisions’ unfair applications and the delays they created. There was strong mobilization in the big cities, especially in Montreal, where no hospital established a TAC.

A key vehicle in canvassing women’s experiences was the Bird Commission. The commission was a joint initiative of Quebec and English-speaking feminists; as was the pan-Canadian National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) created in 1972 to monitor governments’ implementation of the commission’s recommendations, 80 percent of which were in provincial jurisdictions. NAC was formed as an umbrella organization representing a coalition of provincial and territorial umbrella groups, including the Quebec Federation of Women (FFQ). NAC provided a vehicle for the increasingly fragile English-French feminist alliance to work together for about a decade.

Listen to Monique Bégin discuss the Bird Commission 30 years on.

Competitive nation-building between the Quebec and federal governments created valuable political space, which the two women’s movements used effectively to promote equality demands until the constitutional conflicts divided them. The same competition also made Quebec the first battleground in the abortion right campaign.

The 1970 Bird Commission’s Report recommended provision of elective abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy; and thereafter if one physician stated that continuing the pregnancy would endanger the woman’s physical or mental health. In Quebec, feminists promoted these recommendations within a nationalist framework. The PQ’s need for support from progressive organizations, plus their own intense mobilization and initially effective English-French cooperation, gave Montreal feminists the political clout needed to get the first elected PQ government to accept feminists’ demands that ‘free abortion on demand’ be established as an entitlement of Quebec women's citizenship.

While the constitution gives the federal government the sole power to legislate on abortion, Quebec feminists and other progressives persuaded the new PQ government not to enforce the federal law. Decriminalization resulted when a modernist-nationalist PQ government, pressured by Montreal-based, radical, Marxist feminists within the PQ, demanded ‘free abortion on demand,’ with support from the unions and other progressive, nationalist organizations. The newly elected PQ government made the 1969 federal Criminal Code provisions moot, thereby decriminalizing abortion, by refusing to enforce a federal law.

Why did the campaign for decriminalization succeed? A key actor around which the decriminalization campaign revolved was Dr Henry Morgentaler. He opened clinics in large cities, starting in Montreal, and performed abortions without TAC approvals, thereby inviting prosecution. His Montreal clinic was supported by a high-profile committee charged with educating the public about the necessity of abortion (common law permits doctors the defense of necessity), a strategy later replicated in other large cities. Morgentaler was supported by the Humanist League and a coalition that included activists, doctors and lawyers. English-Canadian feminists involved in the Morgentaler coalition promoted abortion as a right of women’s liberation.

Watch Dr Morgentaler discuss women’s right to reproductive freedom.

For Quebec feminists the main struggle was to make ‘the woman question’ as important as Quebec nationalism. Hence, their equality-rights campaign was located within a nationalist framework and promoted abortion as an essential to women’s exercise of (Quebec) citizenship. They combined demands for the liberation of women, the liberation of Quebec and the liberation of society. This resulted in social acceptance of reproductive self-determination as an entitlement of Quebec women’s citizenship. This was posed in a competitive nation-building context with the Canadian government, which seemed determined to limit women’s citizenship by denying them reproductive self-determination.

Quebec feminists were also able to frame federal government actions against abortion within this nationalist framework. When Dr Morgentaler was first prosecuted in 1973, and a Montreal jury acquitted him, the federal government’s actions of over-turning the acquittal, while widely condemned, hadn’t been framed as an action against the emerging Quebec nation’s rights to determine citizenship. Moreover, pressured by feminists, the PQ government used its power to administer the criminal law, and declined to prosecute Dr Morgentaler when he was charged again. The issue was reframed within the nationalist context between the federal government and the government of Quebec, who became women’s oppressors and defenders respectively.

The PQ government’s refused to prosecute effectively decriminalized abortion in Quebec, winning many women’s support. The PQ government also announced the opening of new women’s health clinics, which would provide additional abortion and reproductive health services. The strategy developed in Montreal also was used in other large cities where Dr. Morgentaler was invited to open clinics, but no other provincial government followed the PQ’s lead in decriminalizing abortion by declining to prosecute Dr Morgentaler. In 1988, after the new Charter of Rights had come into effect, a Toronto Morgentaler case went before the Supreme Court, based on Section 7 (‘life, liberty and security of the person’). The abortion provisions of 1969 Criminal Code were ruled unconstitutional.

The Court deferred to the federal government the task of designing replacement legislation; but the only attempt at re-criminalization by the Brian Mulroney federal government failed. However, nothing in the Court’s decision would prevent any federal government from introducing new legislation to re-criminalize abortions. The Court has prevented back-door re-criminalization by the provinces by ruling that only the federal government can legislate about abortion. It subsequently also decided cases about fathers’ rights, fetal rights to life under the Quebec Charter and Canadian Charters, and about provinces’ rights to ban clinic abortions, all in ways which strengthened women’s reproductive rights.

Hence, multi-level governance; a favourable division of powers; the federal asymmetry created by progressive Quebec governments; and competitive nation-building which opened space for feminist activism – all of these factors converged to promote equality-rights in Canada and, notably, de facto decriminalization of abortion in Quebec.

Canada’s federal characteristics shaped earlier feminist campaigns for bodily integrity rights before the era of silence and disconnection between the two feminist movements had begun. Together they ‘played’ the federal system effectively and gained from cooperation between them. Without cooperation between French- and English-Canadian feminists, for example, it is unlikely the Bird Commission would have been established; or that NAC have been successful in first decade.

It is important that we learn from the successes of the era of the Bird Commission. That means rebuilding links of friendship and cooperation between English and French-Canadian feminists. Only by rebuilding our earlier alliance can we ensure reproductive rights, including access to safe abortion for women, in provinces and in the communities currently without services. Certainly without such an alliance, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper will get away with denying women in poor countries the reproductive services that we have, even while claiming to be promoting maternal health.

If feminists better understand the importance of a more unified activism and strategic use of the federal system in getting where we are today, perhaps a new generation will rebuild the links for future activism together.

Jill Vickers, FRSC, is a distinguished Chancellor’s Professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University.


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