Some time before lunch on Monday, March 18, a group of four to six people arrived on the sidewalk outside Harbord Collegiate. Youngish, in winter coats, they each carried a placard displaying an image of an aborted fetus.
This was today's stop for the protesters, and it would result in criminal charges being laid. Not against them 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.
The altercation between the well-known coffee proprietor and the anti-abortion protesters captured headlines.
But arguably more troubling than any one bizarre incident is the revelation that "Choice" Chains have been recently showing up at local high schools on a regular basis.
(The quotation marks around the word "Choice" are their preferred usage.)
It's a systematic campaign to target teenagers in the Toronto area - one for which the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform is happy to take the credit. Stephanie Gray, its executive director and co-founder, says they have been visiting GTA high schools five days a week since the new year. "So I think by February," she says, "we were getting in to the groove of things."
The precise regularity is difficult to independently verify, as the CCBR won't publish schedules "for security reasons." And neither the Toronto District School Board nor the Ontario Public School Boards' Association have been keeping close track.
But they are becoming aware of a pattern.
"I hear it anecdotally," says TDSB spokesperson Shari Schwartz-Maltz, who says "it seems to be the same in every situation: they stand off school property, they protest peacefully and then they leave."
Because the protesters aren't on school property, they're outside the board's jurisdiction. "And the truth is," she says, "if members of the community have issue with any form of protest, they can call the police."
Adding, "But, you know, barring it being a hate crime, I don't think there's much the police can do about it."
In an email, OPSBA president Michael Barrett concurs. "For example," he says,
"we can regulate smoking on school property, but once a student moves on to 'public' property, adjacent to a school, our scope of control diminishes."
And he is similarly unable to confirm the frequency and geographic scope. "I did make some calls last night, but the protests seem to be Toronto-centric, and I cannot get other boards to verify any type of action taking place at their schools, or within their boards."
The anti-abortion movement appears to have have literally tiptoed up to the line separating legal from illegal, moral from immoral, and ethical from unethical. And they seem to enjoy occupying that provocative space.
Michael Erickson teaches social sciences at Harbord. He is also a queer activist and a co-owner of Glad Day Bookshop.
He didn't witness the protest himself. "But my students came to class in various degrees of rage and frustration and upsetness," he says.
That class happened to be a gender studies course which he fashioned from the grade 12 philosophy curriculum.
And so he turned the encounter into a teaching moment.
"So we talked about what motivates people to be part of a movement like this, and then who benefits from messaging that tells women what they should do with their bodies, and that they should feel guilty about having the choice to make decisions about their own bodies," he says.
Erickson and his students reasoned that any serious quest to reduce abortions would not focus exclusively on women, and so they satirically brainstormed potential roles that men might play in such a push. They came up with such ideas as a "Mandatory Sex Savings Fund," which would require men to pay $25,000 into an account prior to having sex; the cash would then be transferred to a woman if she becomes impregnated. Another notion was "Mandatory Vasectomies in Grade 7."
"Because when you think about that, it's ridiculous," Erickson says. "But yet when we talk about women's bodies, unfortunately it doesn't seem ridiculous."
His students are fairly sophisticated, and they resent the medium as much as the message.
"Obviously," he says, "I believe that people have a freedom of speech but, you know, something that one of the kids said was that: the students actually don't get to choose to go to school. So on 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" - giant posters of dead fetuses displayed "prominently" in front of their school.
(To view a photo of the protesters outside of Harbord brandishing their graphic signs, please click the link to this jpg.)
"My kids said, you know, it's one thing if you hear the preacher [outside] of the Eaton Centre, but it's another thing when you have to hear something when you're going to school.
"We know there's students in our building who have had abortions, so, you know, that kid is coming to school to try and do well; the last thing they need is to sort of feel guilty about it and maybe relive the difficult decision that they had to make around having an abortion, right?" He says it's contrary to "the school as a safe space that's focused on learning and equity."
As Erickson discussed with his class, the protestors are disregarding the concept of consent.
A couple of weeks earlier, in a different corner of the city, Liz Geddes's students had their own yank on the "Choice" Chain.
Geddes teaches English at George Harvey Collegiate, on Keele between Eglinton and Rogers.
The grade twelves she has in her final period "came in, and just about all of them were, like, raging. Couldn't believe that these people were outside of the school. They stormed into my room, and they were incredulous, and they were angry that these people were allowed out in public."
She explained to her students that, well, the protestors do have a right to demonstrate. But she was also proud of her pupils' disdain. "Not because they were upset about the messaging specifically," she says, but at the notion "that anybody would have the audacity to come in and try to impose their beliefs on anyone else. Especially high school students."
Her own teaching moment involved a class debate about the extent of free speech and how to "sensibly react" to things with which you strongly disagree. "It was kind of nice to see that they wanted to engage with what was going on but sort of saddening that they didn't know how to do that, because they reacted so emotionally."
Geddes herself is pregnant and was asked by her students what her own position is in light of that. She says she explained, "Now more than ever, because I am pregnant, and I have a kid, and I understand the realities of having a child: you shouldn't be forced."
But more than anything, she was concerned that students in her school might be uncommonly susceptible to the activists' messages; she says many come from religious backgrounds that may have seen such ideas drummed into them from a young age. "They're really conflicted about what they want to believe and how to deal with the messaging that they've received - either at home or through various institutions - and what they feel for themselves."
She worries that the protesters "were maybe exploiting my kids' belief systems," right at the time her students are struggling to carve out their own ideas around how to navigate life.
"It's that whole 'being made to feel bad about a choice that nobody makes but themselves,' right? I think I was just concerned that - like, I know some kids would be really vulnerable to that, and I was like 'Fuck you and how dare you?' You know?"
Stephanie Gray, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, is - as I suspected she would be - quite charming.
I am more caught off guard by how forthright she is about her group's activities. But it makes sense: she is, after all, very proud of what it does.
The things others describe to me with horror, she details with chipper enthusiasm.
"So our team goes out five days a week during peak times of engagement, which near high schools would be basically over the lunch hour, when teens are leaving the school property and going to a corner store to get a snack or lunch or something," she says. "And we stand on public sidewalks and ask them what they think about abortion and basically bring what's in the darkness into the light: that being the reality of abortion, which has largely been kept hidden from all of the public, really."
Why have they turned their attention to high schools all of a sudden? "It is kind of a newer strategy of ours, and we're big on constantly evaluating and improving upon what we do. So we don't always do the same thing because we've always done it."
While they still target universities, they also want to intercept students who may become pregnant at a younger age. She says they want to "communicate the facts about who the baby is and what abortion does to the baby. And when we've gone to high schools, we've had incredible conversations. You know, what we find 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 are living infants with identities. And she occasionally drops phrases that, removed from context, could just as well come from Kang or Kodos: "our society is tolerating the dismemberment of the youngest of our kind"; "the images merely depict the act of aggression, the act of injustice, which is the targeting of the most vulnerable of our family of humans."
But everything she says is eccentrically fascinating. She explains the value of framing the "abortion debate" in anti-bullying terms. She outlines her logic of how women who have already had an abortion are supposedly more likely have a second one, as a means of justifying the first (because to have the baby, she says, would "somehow call into question whether what they did the first time was wrong").
And she observes that confronting students with these signs does not deprive them of consent any more so than does any other advertisement in the public realm: "Well, in terms of kind of being confronted with the message, what we do with the signs held in our hand is no different from what, let's say, an advertiser does on the side of a bus stop or the side of a bus itself or on a large billboard alongside a freeway. And that is, do we ever hear people complain, 'Oh, you've taken away my choice when you advertise that I should wear my seatbelt or that I shouldn't smoke or whatever'?"
The comparison is a fair one - but I do dislike outdoor advertising, for precisely that reason, and strongly believe that schools should be ad-free zones.
If we follow the parallel, then the speeches Gray delivers to assemblies in Catholic schools are a form of product placement. "And so where we can get into schools on the inside and do an assembly, we would do that. But where we can't get an assembly, then we would venture to the outside."
The CCBR skews young. At 32, Gray says she is the oldest person on a staff of 16, distributed almost evenly between offices in Calgary and Toronto. At protests, they're supplemented by members of their volunteer corps, whom Gray estimates range in age from late teens to late twenties.
They also avoid mention of religion.
In these ways, the CCBR is consistent with larger trends in Canada's anti-abortion movement.
But the bloody fetuses are still kind of a throwback.
"I think [the CCBR's] tactics can be perceived as kind of alienating. I think a lot of that graphic imagery, it kind of just turns people off. So I've never really considered them much of a threat," says Kelly Gordon, who's doing her PhD at the University of Ottawa's School of Political Studies, and whose research includes the movement's changing discourse. Along with her advisor, Professor Paul Saurette, she has authored a book on the larger subject that's expected to come out later this year.
Gordon says the CCBR makes an effort to soften the bluntness of its posters with verbal engagement that's cushioned in a kinder, more conversational tone. She speculates that "that kind of imagery mobilizes anti-abortion protestors themselves. So it's appealing to their base, their base supporters, whereas this new language is really appealing to people that maybe are indifferent or uncomfortable with the idea of abortion."
Speaking generally, Prof. Saurette estimates 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."
He's been studying the movement for three or four years and thinks its intensification and refinement can probably be attributed to two things.
"One would be the resurgence of the Conservatives politically and a conservative movement over the last 15, 20 years. It's built a lot of capacity in the conservative movement," which has trickled in to social conservative circles. Some of the groups believe that because the Conservatives are now in power, "they're facing a friendlier context in which to try and argue for either legislation or cultural change, etc."
He also believes it may be a generational thing. "You've now got a generation between, basically, the fight for abortion rights and us. And so I think a lot of things can be forgotten and a lot of things can be taken for granted in that time."
John Bowker lives directly across the street from Harbord Collegiate. He was not happy about the "Choice" Chain paying a visit to his neighbourhood.
"I was literally speechless, I kept on riding [past on my bike], and I just couldn't believe what I had seen," he says. "And once I got inside, and I was thinking, 'God, these guys are right outside my door with the high school students,' I just had no idea what to do. I had never thought I would see anything like that outside my front door."
The last time he had seen anything like it was decades ago, when Henry Morgentaler was still on trial. "I'm still, I'm in my mid-40s, so I'm old enough to remember when the Morgentaler clinic was blown up just down the street from where this protest took place."
I'm too embarrassed to admit that I'm not well enough versed in the history to have drawn that connection myself. And yet this happened as recently as 1992 [pdf].
Bowker explains that his neighbours - who recall the original abortion struggle all too well - have become fearful ever since the "Choice" Chain showed up across the street. "They feel nervous that they don't want some crazy anti-abortion protester throwing a rock through their window or harassing them on the street. And I've talked to more than one neighbour who has felt very violated by the fact that these people come in, 'cause they know how these people have conducted protests in the past: going right up to people's doors."
He's careful to say that he does not want to link these protesters to any particular acts of violence that have occurred in the past. "But, as I say, the last time we saw this type of protest, there were acts of violence that accompanied the anti-abortion protests. And people are very aware of that, they remember that history. And there are people here who are feeling, rightly or wrongly, that they have been intimidated."
On Tuesday, April 2, Toronto Police released an image of Sam James taken by a protestor's camera, seeking the public's help in identifying the man who committed the alleged assault outside Harbord [pdf]. The next day, James turned himself in at 14 Division.
On one of those two days, a message was left on the voicemail of a nearby restaurant, according to Emily Vandevelde, who works in its kitchen and asked that the establishment not be named, "to protect us from further targeting."
She says the "very slow, low voice," which she assumes belonged to an older gentleman, enunciated a series of threats against both the Sam James Coffee Bar and the restaurant at which she works (a restaurant which, years ago, had had an indirect relationship with James). The six- or seven-minute tirade, she says, made clear that the threatened actions would be retaliation for what James had allegedly done to the protesters.
Police are currently investigating.
The CCBR's Gray says she hadn't heard about the phone message prior to me asking her about it. "It certainly wouldn't be any of our team," she says. "We have very strict standards on engaging the public and how we do it and being very respectful."
(Indeed, the bottom of each page on the CCBR's site carries the statement: "CCBR condemns all forms of abortion-related violence and will not collaborate with groups or individuals who fail to condemn such violence.")
Something I have wrestled with, however, is whether ambushing high school students with graphic images of this nature might itself be considered an act of violence.
Erickson, the teacher at Harbord, believes it may be. "I think telling girls who find themselves in difficult situations, who have to make difficult choices, I think calling them a murderer, is an act of violence," he says. "I think putting a focus on women's bodies and increasing women's shame is an act of violence. And I think doing that in a space that students are forced to be in is potentially an act of violence."
Geddes, the teacher at George Harvey, calls the protest at her school "a kind of psycho-social act of violence" against her students. But she has some sympathy for the protesters. "I know it likely wasn't intended as an act of violence," she says. "I'm sure that the people who were doing this really believe that they're doing something good. But the effect of it on students must resonate with them in a traumatic way."
Bowker, however, thinks the "Choice" Chains know exactly what they're doing. "I would say someone who shows up in a residential neighbourhood, flashes huge signs with bloody fetuses to high school students as young as 14 or 15: they are not looking for a debate, they are not engaging, they are looking for a fight."
Gray, on the other hand, doesn't think it's an aggressive tactic. "No, because we believe that if someone is old enough to have an abortion or old enough to see an abortion, and that what we're really doing is merely communicating the facts. Now, the images are shocking and disturbing, which could cause some people to say, you know, 'That's aggressive.' But we would say actually what's aggressive is the act of abortion."
I ask her how long she anticipates the group's five-day-a-week appearances at high schools to continue. "Oh, this is going to very much be an ongoing thing," she says excitedly, eager to share what's in store.
"We have put together an 18-year plan called 'End the Killing,' and we aim to saturate the Canadian culture with the facts about who the baby is and what abortion does to the baby, so this will be not only maintained but increasing over the course of the next just-under two decades, so that we can eradicate abortion from our culture."
Sam James was just the beginning.