The abortion debate: behind Canada’s bilingualism

The idea of having a Conservative government under Andrew Scheer reopening the debate on abortion comes as a shock, as most Quebecers believe it’s a vested right.

On Aug. 29, Tourism Minister Mélanie Joly tweeted a video of a pro-life organization leader, Scott Hayward, confirming that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was on board with his cabinet ministers raising issues related to abortion. The claims of RightNow’s founder were received as mixed messages from the Tories, while a few party members were saying that such a debate was definitely closed.

The very same day as the video was shared online, Scheer expressed his position on the issue in a press conference, saying there is no contradiction in his discourse. Instead, he argued that “a Conservative government will not reopen this issue and I, as prime minister, will oppose measures that reopen this issue,

But as reported by CBC, RightNow, which is currently registered as a third party with Elections Canada for the upcoming election, has the intention of recruiting and training more than 50 volunteers to run as electoral candidates. This raised concerns among experts as to whether Scheer would have the authority over his caucus to truly shut down debate on abortion.

“In the past weeks, people have been comparing Scheer with Harper, saying Harper said the same thing that [he would not reopen the debate],” said Anne-Marie Rivard, a PhD student at Concordia, whose research mainly focuses on post-Morgentaler abortion rights in Canada, and political translation surrounding the issue. “The thing is that Harper had some control over his caucus, whereas Scheer being the new guy, I’m not sure he has the same type of stronghold over his caucus the same way Harper did. So when he says that he wouldn’t allow a private member to propose private bills, that remains to be seen.”

The anti-abortion group is tackling mostly English provinces such as British Columbia and Alberta, where such discourse seems to resonate the most. Indeed, the questions on abortion have always divided Canada’s francophones and anglophone provinces. According to a Léger survey, close to 90 per cent of Quebecers believe that abortion should be completely legal, whereas the percentage drops considerably in the rest of Canada.

Rivard argues that the disparity comes from Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the ‘60s which provoked a great nationalist-separatist movement, but also a separation from the church. The wide religious dissolution also nourished feminism across Quebec, stronger than elsewhere in the country, said Rivard. Such an empowering movement arguably caused the approach to abortion in a more humane way and secured its access in Quebec. The province was even reimbursing and offering the procedure a few years before the 1988 Morgentaler’s decision to decriminalize abortion.

“Comparing the English and French vocabulary, I have found that words in English use baby instead of fetus or mother,” said Rivard. “Whereas when it’s translated into French or even just originally spoken, they will use femme instead. Even the term abortion, in French, you will often hear “interruption volontaire de grossesse” which, obviously, with the term volunteer, implies that it’s a choice.”

Talks about reopening the debate might then come as a surprise for most Quebecers. But what most people tend to ignore is that, while the Supreme Court decriminalized the procedure, it is still unprotected by law; nor is it a constitutional right. This is where anti-abortion groups such as RightNow could gain leverage if they were to be backed by a government, as there is no law governing its access.

Indeed, conversations regarding abortion are arduous to bring into a province where its citizens believe it’s a vested right. Such confusion also leads to the belief that its access is guaranteed because of its legality, which is unfortunately not the case in provinces such as New Brunswick, as shown in a 2016-2017 annual report by Health Canada.

Andrew Scheer, a known devotee of Catholicism, insisted on the fact that whatever his own beliefs are, his party will not reopen the debate. But will he be willing to actively support and even improve the system? The answer is yet to be determined.


Graphic by @sundaeghost

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