Saturday November 19th, 2011 was the date set by the PEI Reproductive Rights Organization (PRRO) for the first rally for reproductive justice to happen in almost 25 years. The Campaign Life Coalition announced that they too would hold a rally – same time, same place - a counter rally to the renewed demands for access to abortion services on PEI.
Saturday was a chilly but sunny November day. On Friday evening I had volunteered to distribute flyers to promote the rally at the Charlottetown farmers market - a weekly event, where folks shop for local produce, chat with friends and enjoy brunch. My Saturday morning routine involves the leisurely enjoyment of this weekend ritual; bean burritos and lattes, socializing, and stocking up on eggs and veggies.
But this week anxiety churned in my gut - I was on a mission. In a place like PEI, the countless familiar faces and can be overwhelming at the best of times. Despite my convictions and my eagerness to promote the rally, taking a public stand on reproductive rights in PEI is speaking the unspeakable, and I felt unsure of the responses to expect. I didn’t feel prepared for this on an empty stomach.
My partner took on the mission of acquiring the requisite food and coffee, and I got nervously got to work distributing flyers. I made my way through the busy market, handing the flyers to anyone with a free hand. “Oh, good for you!” and elderly lady told me. A man approached me trying to sell tickets for an AIDS PEI fundraiser – what a relief. AIDS PEI is an underfunded, overworked organization. In addition to their core mandate and member services, they also serve as the go-to organization for every aspect of sexual and reproductive health that the powers-that-be wish would just go away. I visited their booth and bought a raffle ticket. We exchanged flyers, and I was hearted by the moral support and solidarity.
It became easier after I was fed and caffeinated– the support was verbal, the indifference or opposition silent, for once. Vendors and farmers bound to work the market until close expressed their support and their anger about PEI’s lack of access.
By the time my partner and I made our way to the rally, I was buoyant. It had been 25 years since anything similar had happened in PEI, and I knew it would be awesome. When we arrived, the well-funded religious right was already present, their chartered bus parked nearby. Evangelicals and conservative Catholics held professionally printed signs and banners. They lined the street, and congregated on one side of the rally. At 15 minutes to high noon they outnumbered us.
But when noon hit, our numbers exploded. People with creative, handmade signs showed up; some claimed space facing the street to keep the rally accessible. Tables offered not just information, but hot coffee, tea, water, and homemade muffins, cupcakes and cookies. Friends greeted each other with hugs and tears, and the positive energy grew. The excitement and joy was indescribable - we were finally here, at the steps of our government, demanding equal access, demanding rights that had been won over 20 years ago. Each person who was present had moved beyond fear of right-wing backlash.
The brave and fierce Kandace Hagen spoke these words to open the rally:
I am grateful to be here today. By which I mean we are indebted joyfully to those men and women who have been fighting for decades for the civil liberties of women.
We are assembled here to take back the right to abortion services that was stripped from us in 1982. As the majority, we will no longer be silent, we will no long fear discrimination and we will ensure our women have the right to fully funded abortion services on their own soil.
We live in Canada’s only province that not only refuses to fund all abortion services sought by Island women, but also tolerates physicians who do not ensure a woman’s safety during this period by denying a referral to the QE II in Halifax and denying access to medical requirements related to the procedure.
We are endangering our women.
We need to send a clear message that is not, nor has it ever been acceptable.
That we will not tolerate being denied the same health access as the rest of Canada…
We are not assembled here today to debate the morality that clouds the issue of abortion.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1988 that each woman’s body is her own. With that control comes the right to decline the call to motherhood when it impedes on the sanctity of our person. We are here today, to demand that right as our own.
Following Kandace, I read a from the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) letter to the PEI Health Minister. Representatives from the Womens’ Network of PEI, PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women, and a midwife spoke, as well the NDP and the Green Party leaders. A particular treat was J’Nan Brown’s presence. Her stories are the history of this movement. J’Nan is a local elder of feminist activism, and was instrumental in founding the pro-choice movement on PEI.
The media, which normally refuses to cover events that occur on evenings or weekends, was there, busy constructing the rally as a showdown, hoping that a violent shouting match would break out so that they could cast us as shrill, hysterical radicals. The rally remained peaceful, as was the intention.
Following the rally I was left with a feeling of gratitude. Tremendous, deep gratitute for the women who made this rally happen, who broke the long-standing silence, And gratitude for those who fought this fight in the 80’s and before. The many generations that I greeted warmed my heart.
I was left with hope. We may not have the resources or the infrastructure of the religious right who hold rallies on a regular basis. But we do have everything we need to break the silence and move beyond the fear that has been imposed upon this province. When we spoke up, the whole country paid attention. We have justice on our side; we have the law on our side. This time, I hope we can win.
Josie Baker is a feminist community organizer in Charlottetown, PEI. She works on issues of food sovereignty, labour justice, anti-racism, reproductive rights, and queer visibility in the smallest province in Canada. Her educational background is in community development, and religious studies/women’s studies. In her spare time she is an avid vegetable gardener.