Caravan across Canada for Abortion Rights
By: Jason Tockman
In late spring 1970, UBC student Ellen Woodsworth was one of several leaders of a caravan of cars and vans that traversed the nation to demand free access to safe abortions for all Canadians.
The procession began with just seventeen women departing in three vehicles from Vancouver in late April, amassing greater numbers as it travelled across the country before arriving in Ottawa eleven days later.
On May 9, those who had made the journey rallied in front of Parliament, brandishing signs and banners that read “Abortion Is Our Right” and “Free Abortion on Demand Now!” When virtually all Members of Parliament declined to meet with them, a contingent of several dozen took their struggle into the Parliament building, chained themselves to gallery chairs during an active session of the House of Commons, and and disruptively stated their case until Parliament was recessed for the day.
“In those days, we didn’t even have access to birth control, which shows how little power women had at that time,” Woodsworth recounts. “We felt that abortion should be a right, and it should be available within the Canadian health care system.”
Their message: “Women have the right to control their own bodies – and birth control and abortion have to be part of that. It should be part of our rights as a human being,” Woodsworth adds.
At the time, Woodsworth was head of the students’ Speakers Bureau at UBC, responsible for bringing speakers to campus – a position she secured in the AMS’s annual election. Through this role, Woodsworth built connections with others concerned about women’s rights across the city and became involved with the Vancouver Women’s Caucus (VWC) – the association that organized what later became known as the Abortion Caravan.
Woodsworth describes the VWC as a group of female workers, students and housewives connected with Simon Fraser University and UBC. Their focus on access to birth control and abortion followed Canada’s 1969 revisions to the Criminal Code, which legalized abortion but only in very narrow circumstances and after being approved by a panel of three physicians – almost always male doctors. The VWC and the Abortion Caravan demanded that abortion services be fully removed from the Criminal Code, and be made available “on demand” by anyone who wanted to terminate a pregnancy.
On the road, the women of the Abortion Caravan organized events in cities across the country, stopping and staying in United Church halls and school basements, giving speeches, doing street theatre, and holding interviews. Karin Wells, CBC radio documentarian and author of The Abortion Caravan, says that with every stop, the number of people in attendance multiplied – growing to 300 in Toronto. As they passed through cities, Woodsworth recalls, “Some were hostile, and some were friendly, and a lot had no idea what we were saying.”
For Woodsworth, the most memorable aspects of this journey across Canada were the women’s stories. Hearing various narratives of the many lives lost from illegal abortions, she came to several realizations: that thousands of women had died from unsafe procedures, and that Indigenous women were being sterilized against their will and, in some cases, without their knowledge. It was through those stories, Woodsworth reflects, that they gained the strength and determination to storm the House of Commons and chain themselves to the gallery seats.
“It really wasn’t just an intellectual understanding anymore,” she asserts, “it was a deep, emotional understanding that we had to get the ear of the electeds and get it changed.”
When the Caravan arrived in Ottawa, it was overwhelmingly greeted by people on the streets waving, cheering and raising fists in support. However, federal ministers refused to meet with the women, and Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was out of town. The women organized an open meeting in Parliament’s Railway Room, which was attended by a few Members of Parliament (MPs). As Gwen Hauser reported in the Pedestal, [Ed: a feminist periodical published by the VWC from1969-1976] one of the Caravan presenters, Doris Powers, spoke powerfully about how she had sought an abortion but, as a low-income woman, was “granted a sterilization” instead. Hauser emphasized that the MPs present, mostly with the New Democratic Party, did not offer quick action.
The women of the Caravan and their supporters took to Ottawa’s streets, donning white aprons tied around their waists that read, “This uterus is not government property.” They also visited the Prime Minister’s residence, setting a coffin on the veranda that they had transported all the way from Vancouver (and which had stashed their sleeping bags between cities).
By the following day, the women managed to secure forged passes into Parliament. They dressed in “middle-class clothes” so as not to draw attention, Wells explains, keeping their chains well hidden in their purses. One-by-one or in groups of two, around three dozen women entered the building and made their way up to the Gallery.
As soon as Question Period started, one woman jumped up and began speaking.
“We took turns – one at a time – standing up and demanding, ‘Abortion is a right – women are dying,’” Woodsworth explains, while others chanted, “Free abortion on demand!” Shocked Members of Parliament yelled up to the Gallery as guards scrambled to silence and remove the women.
“They just were so furious,” Woodsworth says with a laugh. “It was all men at that time, and they hadn’t a clue what we were talking about. They were just angry that a group of women were disrupting their normal discussion – the group of men running the country.”
It took some time for the guards to find clippers to cut through the chains. Eventually, all the women were cleared from the chamber, escorted outside and released – without arrest. By then the Speaker had adjourned the meeting of the House.
What was the legacy of the Abortion Caravan? As Wells tells it, the Caravan “put abortion on the table. It was the first time anybody had spoken about abortion in a public meeting… Nobody talked about it, and until you talk about stuff nothing changes.” But more broadly than just the issue of abortion, she views the event as “the first grassroots national women’s movement where anything public and big had ever happened” in Canada.
Woodsworth similarly characterizes the Abortion Caravan as a “breakthrough moment – a seminal moment” in Canada’s history where a group of citizens showed that “government could be held accountable.” It was bigger than the issue of abortion, she asserts – or even women’s rights; it influenced and gave strength to broader social movements for justice and equity.
While the Caravan made abortion a national conversation and created political space to talk about it more openly, it would not be until 1988 that the Supreme Court of Canada would fully legalize abortion. Woodsworth celebrates that decision, but laments that abortion remains unavailable in much of the North, in New Brunswick and other Eastern provinces, as well as hospitals run by the Catholic Church. She points out that there is still important work to be done to ensure that everyone in Canada who seeks an abortion can access the service.