Photo By R. Jeanette Martin / Demotix / Corbis
A clutch of people arrived on the sidewalk outside Harbord Collegiate on Monday, March 18. Youngish, they all carried placards displaying images of aborted fetuses.
The graphic images may be the same, but a new generation of anti-abortion activists is taking the campaign to previously untravelled territory. Seven years of Conservative rule have made the improbable seem possible, and the activists - skewing younger and younger - have broadened their sights.
Long a mainstay of campuses and major intersections, they are now showing up at Toronto high schools with regularity.
The Harbord foray was an especially notable stop because it resulted in criminal charges being laid. Not against the protesters, but against Sam James, the owner of a nearby coffee shop, who confronted them; he allegedly spat, threw coffee on their signs and assaulted one person who was carrying a camera.
But arguably more troubling than any one altercation are the implications of the movement's refocusing on high schoolers. And the determined apparatus they have assembled for doing so.
It's a systematic campaign - one for which the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform is happy to take credit. Its executive director, Stephanie Gray, says they have been visiting GTA schools five days a week since January.
Subverting the anti-choicers' traditionally grizzled image, Gray, 32, says she is the oldest among a staff of 16 that is distributed almost evenly between offices in Calgary and Toronto. At protests, they're supplemented by a volunteer corps, who Gray estimates range from their late teens to late 20s.
They avoid any mention of religion.
I am most caught off guard by how forthright Gray is. The things pro-choicers describe to me with horror, she details with chipper enthusiasm.
"Our team goes out five days a week during peak times of engagement, which near high schools would be basically over the lunch hour... and we stand on public sidewalks and ask [students] what they think about abortion and basically bring what's in the darkness into the light."
Why have they all of a sudden turned their attention to high schools? "It is a newer strategy of ours, and we're big on constantly evaluating and improving upon what we do."
While they still target universities, they also want to intercept younger students who may become pregnant. Gray says they "want to communicate the facts about who the baby is. Young people don't like being lied to, and a lot of them have been given misinformation about pregnancy, about abortion. And so when we show up with the truth, it really resonates with these young people, who also have a strong sense of justice."
"Who the baby is." Gray discusses fetuses as though they were living infants with identities. And she occasionally drops phrases that, out of context, could as well come from Kang or Kodos, e.g., "Our society is tolerating the dismemberment of the youngest of our kind."
But everything she says is eccentrically fascinating. She explains, for example, the value of framing the "abortion debate" in anti-bullying terms.
This modernized argument, according to University of Ottawa PhD student Kelly Gordon, who studies the movement, is part of the CCBR's attempts to make its verbal and written engagement more conversational. She speculates that the in-your-face bloody placard imagery, which alienates outsiders, serves the purpose of mobilizing the protesters themselves. It's appealing to the movement's base, whereas the new language, she says, "is really appealing to people who maybe are indifferent or uncomfortable with the idea of abortion."
U of Ottawa poli-sci prof Paul Saurette, who has co-authored a book with Gordon expected later this year, agrees that anti-abortion advocacy in Canada is "a growing movement, in terms of the thoughtfulness, the sophistication and the level of coordination, at a communications level and at an organizing level."
Saurette thinks the movement's intensification and refinement can be attributed to two things. "One, the resurgence of the Conservatives politically. It's built a lot of capacity in the conservative movement," which has trickled into social conservative circles. Some of the groups believe "they're facing a friendlier context in which to try and argue for legislation or cultural change."
He also believes it may be a cohort issue. "You've now got a generation between, basically, the fight for abortion rights and [now]. And so I think a lot of things can be forgotten and a lot of things can be taken for granted in that time."
Michael Erickson, a social sciences teacher at Harbord, weighs the protest's impacts. "Obviously, I believe that people have a freedom of speech," but "students don't actually get to choose to go to school. So on the one hand there's freedom of speech, but on the other hand there's [the fact that] kids actually aren't free to avoid those messages."
Moreover, he says there are students in the school who have had abortions. "The last thing they need," he says, "is to feel guilty about it." It's contrary to "the school as a safe space that's focused on learning and equity."
I ask Gray how long she anticipates the tour of GTA schools will continue. "We have put together an 18-year plan called End The Killing. We aim to saturate the Canadian culture."