In February 1970, members of the Vancouver Women’s Caucus (1968–1971) gathered to begin planning the Abortion Caravan, Canada’s first national feminist protest. The Abortion Caravan was the articulation of a culmination of opposition to the 1969 amendments to section 251 of the Canadian Criminal Code, which legalized abortion only in cases where pregnancy threatened the health of the mother. Under the amendment, abortions could only be performed by a licensed physician in an accredited hospital, and only after being approved by a therapeutic abortion committee (T.A.C.) which is a three-member panel of doctors (usually all male); all other abortions, performed without the approval of a T.A.C. or in free-standing clinics, continued to be illegal and subject to Criminal Code sanctions.
By mid-April 1970, with preparations in place, a delegation of the Vancouver Women’s Caucus set out from Vancouver in a yellow convertible, a pickup truck, and a Volkswagen bus complete with a black coffin strapped on the roof. Aimed at emulating the On-to-Ottawa Trek of the Depression era, the Abortion Caravan traveled over five thousand kilometers from Vancouver to Ottawa, gathering numbers and galvanizing support in communities across the nation. As they traveled to Ottawa, members of the Vancouver Women's Caucus stopped in cities and towns every night, holding public meetings and listening to women’s concerns so they could bring their voices to the government.
The Abortion Caravan arrived in Ottawa on Mother’s Day weekend 1970. A convoy of Canadian women, over five hundred strong in support, arrived- coat hangers and a black coffin in tow- to demand the legalization of unrestricted access to abortion services for all Canadian women.
Participants of the Abortion Caravan declared “war on the Government of Canada”, with hundreds of women from across Canada rallying for two days on Parliament Hill. At 24 Sussex Drive, official residence of the Prime Minister, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was burned in effigy. A black coffin adorned with coat hangers- representing the pregnant women who had died from underground back-alley abortion procedures or their own attempts with knitting needles or coat hangers- was left at the Prime Minister’s front door.
On May 11, 1970 approximately 80 women donning black headscarves arrived at the House of Commons and began circling the centennial flame carrying a black coffin, and banners proclaiming “twelve thousand women die”. Other women sat lookout on benches around the gardens of Parliament, while others waited on motorcycles nearby, ready to follow any vehicles carrying arrested demonstrators.
Approximately three dozen women, dressed in feminine attire, including heels and skirts, pantyhose and gloves, entered the House of Commons singly and in pairs, taking their seats in the various galleries circling the House. Once seated, the women quietly chained themselves to their seats, listening intently as, on the House floor, NDP MP Andrew Brewin asked the Minister of Justice John Turner if he would consider reviewing the abortion law; Turner said he doubted the law would be reviewed, closing discussion on the matter.
Just before 3 p.m., one of the women rose from her seat in the gallery and began reciting the Abortion Caravan’s prepared speech, interrupting debate on the floor of the House of Commons. As parliamentary guards approached the woman, a second woman stood up in another area of the gallery and continued to give the group’s speech. One by one, the women rose from their seats, adding their voices to the group’s speech and chanting “free abortions on demand”. One parliamentary guard remarked to The Globe and Mail 's Clyde Sanger that the women were “popping up all over the place”.
As Parliamentary guards moved through the galleries apprehending the protestors and forcibly removing the women from their seats, one woman reportedly “hurled a water bomb at the government benches before being rushed by security officers and marched from the building”; other women had their chains “removed by bolt-cutting guards and were heckled by onlookers as they were escorted from House”. The gallery disturbance caused by activists served as the climax of the Abortion Caravan, provoking the first adjournment of Parliament in its 103-year history, shutting down the House of Commons for over an hour.
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