Category Archives: Canada

Henry Morgentaler and the Fight for Reproductive Freedom in the Canadian State

The crusading pro-choice doctor, Henry Morgentaler, died in Toronto, May 29, 2013 at the age of 90. His death came three months after the 25th anniversary of the 1988 Supreme Court decision striking down Canada`s federal abortion law. That victory for women`s reproductive rights was the product of more than 20 years of struggle in which Dr. Morgentaler played a key role.

Born in 1923, Morgentaler grew up in Lodz, Poland, the son of trade union organizer affiliated to the Socialist Jewish Bund. In 1939, at the age of 16, his family was thrown into the maelstrom of the Nazi occupation and the impending Judeocide. Morgantaler`s father perished early on and so subsequently, did his mother and sister. But Henry and his brother managed to survive their internment at Aushwitz and Dachau.

Morgentaler emigrated to Canada in 1950, settling in Montreal.  In doing so, he chose to throw in his lot with a country and a province still rife with anti-semitic prejudice. Israel did not attract the young Morgentaler, and in this sense he took his stand with the tradition of Jewish universalism rather than with the exclusivity and colonial ambitions that underlay the Zionist project.

Having completed his medical studies in French at Université de Montréal, Henry established a practice in the working class east-end of the city. There, he encountered the burden of unwanted pregnancy and the desperation of women who sought to end it. He re-oriented his practice first to contraception, and then began to perform abortions in his clinic in defiance of the law. He had earlier joined the Humanist Society and became a prominent public pro-choice advocate.

In 1970, his clinic was raided and he was arrested. Consecutive trials resulted in jury acquittals, until the jury verdicts were overturned by the Supreme Court and he was sent to prison. During his 10 month incarceration, he suffered a heart attack. Upon his release, he returned to providing abortions, finally securing an amnesty in 1976 from the first Parti Quebecois government. Thereafter, doctors performing abortions in free-standing clinics were granted immunity, rendering the federal law null and void in Quebec.

On the basis of that hard-won victory in his home province, Morgentaler launched an offensive in English-speaking Canada in the mid-1980`s, opening clinics in Toronto and Winnipeg. He continued to defy the state and powerful anti-choice forces until his Supreme Court victory in 1988.

Canada is one of a handful of countries in which access to abortion is not constrained by law. Access is still restricted because of geographic or funding disparities. Nevertheless, the 1988 judgment represented a great advance for women`s physical and mental health and has produced a generation who regard abortion as an established right for all women.

One could criticize Morgentaler`s limited political perspectives or his personality quirks, but he was a true hero willing to sacrifice for a cause in which he and millions of others believed. His life is testimony to the important role exceptional individuals can play in history. At the same time, most of the commentary that greeted his death has given short shrift to the social and political factors that came together to make this breakthrough for reproductive rights possible.

At the very time that Morgentaler was establishing himself professionally in Montréal,  Quebec was on the cusp of a national and class awakening that shook the foundations of Anglo-Canadian domination that  had prevailed for almost  two hundred years. Not the least of the many facets of this rebellion, was the determination of Quebecois women to throw off the yoke of the patriarchal system supervised by the Roman Catholic Church that was an integral part of their national oppression. To this day, conservative religious forces have been unable to restore their former ideological authority, including in matters of sexuality and gender oppression.

The arrival of so-called second wave feminism was an absolutely critical factor in the abortion rights struggle in Canada and Quebec. A key initiative was the 1970 Abortion Caravan, culminating in 35 women chaining themselves to the gallery benches of the House of Commons. In Canada, as elsewhere, the women comrades of the organizations affiliated to the Fourth International were important builders of the abortion rights campaigns. During the contestation of the 1980`s, a socialist feminist leadership schooled in that tradition, successfully fought for two important positions: the insistence on mass action in the streets to counter the anti-choice mobilisations, and the importance of defending the clinics from anti-choice harassment . These tactics were advanced not against, but parallel to the lobbying efforts of the mainstream pro-choice organizations and Morgentaler`s own legal challenge. Thus the unity of the movement was preserved at the same time as a mass response to the right-wing offensive was put into operation.

Socialist feminists took the struggle as well into the main institutions of the labour movement, notably the Ontario Federation of Labour and the New Democratic Party (NDP).  Bringing the labour movement on side helped shift the balance of forces in English-speaking Canada where there is a partial but nonetheless significant political polarisation along class lines.

In the end these factors were critical: the removal of Quebec as a reactionary backwater and the rapid embrace by the vast majority of Quebecois of unrestricted access to abortion, coupled with a more polarised atmosphere in the Rest of Canada with powerful anti-choice forces but also a strong pro-choice response driving a wedge through society.  These were sufficient to shift the consensus in Canada`s highest court and to break the resolve and ability of the bourgeois parties to keep some sort of statutory limitation on women’s right to choose.

In this respect, women in Canada and Quebec are in advance of their sisters in the United States and Mexico. On this issue at least, the relationship of forces is more favourable north of the 49th parallel, reflecting weaknesses in the Canadian bourgeois state.

However, no social advance is safe in this crisis-ridden epoch of capitalist decay. The failure of the NDP and the labour movement to challenge the offensive by the employer class have produced an aggressively right wing government with a majority in parliament.  The religious right figure prominently in the Conservative Party.  Anti-choice forces are re-grouping, ever alert to tactics which would erode the right to choose.

Harper’s political instincts tell him a frontal assault on abortion rights is to be avoided.  He keeps the anti-choice zealots in his caucus on a tight leash. But he has permitted a number of private member’s bills to see the light of day. The latest of these takes aim against the phantasm of sex-selective pregnancy termination, trading on racist stereotypes about Asian parents. Of course, over 95% of abortions in Canada are performed before the sex of the fetus can even be ascertained. Of the remaining, almost all are terminations for genetic anomalies.

The anti-choice forces purport to defend women, laying a trap for the unwary. They are searching for potential wedges with which to pry open the lid that was closed to them in 1988, while hiding their true agenda which remains the obliteration of women’s reproductive rights.

Harper pretends to be above the fray. In reality, he offers a platform to the anti-choice zealots. In the international arena he has withdrawn funding from any organizations that include safe abortion in the measures they advocate for improving women’s reproductive health. And the anti-woman agenda of the Tories is further underlined by its cancellation of the universal child care program, abandonment of pay equity legislation, cuts to funding of dozens of womens’ groups and refusal to hold a public inquiry into missing aboriginal women.

It is always more difficult to defend a social advance that is taken for granted even though it enjoys widespread support. That is the case with abortion rights in Canada today, including in Quebec.

How can we counter the renewed right-wing anti-choice offensive?

If the struggle of the women’s movement and Henry Morgentaler teaches us anything, it is the importance of mass action, of not ceding the streets or public platforms to a powerful and ideologically motivated enemy.

Socialists want to see all abortions funded under medicare and oppose any move toward de-funding. That includes opposing the exclusion of refugee claimants from abortion coverage, part of Ottawa’s shameful attack on refugee health rights.

We support making abortion services more accessible for rural and geographically isolated women and in the meantime covering travel costs to centres where abortion is available.

For free access to safe abortion in all countries. Solidarity with women internationally, struggling for maternal health rights which includes abortion.

Take the defense of abortion rights once again into the unions and the NDP,  the mobilisation of whose ranks was so integral to past advances.

Robbie Mahood is a leading member of Socialist Action / Ligue pour l’Action socialiste in Montreal. He is a former physician abortion provider in Winnipeg and Montreal.

Dr. Henry Morgentaler

Right Wing Meltdown is No Cure for Austerity

Right wing governments in Canada seem to be on the ropes.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s regime is mired in scandals, the latest centred on a $90,000 payoff by his former chief of staff to cover-up misappropriation of funds by Conservative Senator Mike Duffy. Three Tory Senators accused of padding their expense claims now sit outside the Tory caucus as ‘independents’ while the RCMP investigates.

Toronto’s ‘stop the gravy train’ Mayor Rob Ford claims he doesn’t use crack cocaine. But two Toronto Star reporters, and the owner of U.S. web site Gawker, swear they saw hizzonner in a video sucking the smokey contents of a crack pipe. Five staffers quit the Mayor’s office in the two weeks after the news broke. Ford insists there is no such video, but according to inside sources, he confided to his staff that he knew the location of the hidden video. And one of the people pictured partying with Ford was found by police dead of gun shot wounds.

Montreal’s mayor, Gérald Tremblay, resigned in early November in the midst of an eyebrow-raising inquiry that revealed widespread corruption among city officials, contractors and members of organized crime. Just a few days later, Gilles Vaillancourt, the head of Quebec’s third-largest city, Laval, quit in the same context.

The Ontario minority Liberal government was rocked by revelations that it spent nearly $1 Billion to cancel the construction of unpopular gas plants west of Toronto, just to save Liberal seats in the Fall 2011 provincial election.  After months of denial, and failure by former Premier Dalton McGuinty to release thousands of pages of incriminating evidence, new Premier Kathryn Wynne apologized for the wasteful fiasco.

Media pundits call it a right wing meltdown. It’s entertaining. It sells papers. In the case of Toronto, there was even a side benefit — it helped to kill a harmful downtown mega-casino project. But, looking at the big picture, scandal is no cure for austerity. Severe cutbacks and attacks on employment insurance, pensions, public services, environmental protection, scientific information-gathering and civil liberties continue apace. The fact is, such measures are integral to the corporate agenda in force, regardless the political stripe of the ruling party.

The situation in Toronto further illustrates the deeper problem. Liberals and social democrats, the main city council opposition to Ford’s wilting ultra-right wing, are chomping at the bit. They yearn to introduce new gas and sales taxes. They promote service fees, parking levies and road tolls to fund rapid transit projects urgently needed to relieve traffic gridlock.

Instead of proposing to tax big business, giant banks, wealthy developers, rich property owners and untaxed religious institutions, Ford’s opposition and the business media agitate for regressive taxes (the kind not based on ability to pay), which hit workers, seniors, students and the poor the hardest.

All of which goes to show what the real problem is. It’s the system. It matters little which eccentric leader, or authoritarian big wig, or capitalist party happens to be at the top.

Scandals are just a sign of divisions in the ruling class. They can be interesting, even mildly satisfying when they (however temporarily) humble the arrogant.

But scandal mongering is no substitute for mass action. Working class political action is what’s needed now to stop labour concessions, to reverse social cuts, to restore and extend democratic rights – in short, to win a Workers’ Agenda.

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Vote NO to OPS deal! Concessions Cripple Labour’s Struggle Against Capitalist Austerity

by Julius Arscott, former OPS Mobilizer (resigned), Region 5, currently Vice President of OPSEU Local 532


On January 9, 2013, after several months of negotiation, the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU) reached tentative agreements for Central, Unified and the Corrections division with the Ontario Government. Negotiations began in October, and mobilization efforts were underway across the province.

From the start, OPSEU President Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas publicly offered concessions: a two year wage freeze in exchange for ‘freezing’ the other benefits and rights in the collective agreement. How could the President of our union make such an offer without obtaining membership approval first, and what kind of example is it when our leadership is willing to give up hard won benefits prior to bargaining? Also lacking was any attempt to work in a common front with the house of labour against Dalton McGuinty’s austerity agenda. Indeed, in true sectarian fashion, OPSEU organized a separate protest to occur at the Ontario Liberal leadership convention early in the morning, denying members from outside Toronto Region 5 the opportunity to participate in the Ontario Federation of Labour afternoon protest demonstration and rally (because they would need later bus transportation back to their regions across the province). The OFL rally was planned months in advance. It will speak for the majority of the labour movement.

OPSEU previously launched the ‘Invest in Ontario’, or anti-wage freeze campaign. OPSEU’s message was an adamant ‘NO’ to freezing wages. So what changed? Why would our leadership give up something as important as wage improvement when the cost of living continues to rise? The cost of gas, rent, groceries, and taxes goes up. Retirees have to work longer to save money. Youths leave school with massive debt. And don’t forget that the membership actually prioritized wages at demand setting.

The two year wage freeze represents a loss of over 4% of wages when inflation is taken into consideration. While members will continue to progress up the wage grid, the 3% lower first new step in the grid will have a major impact on new hires. The deal also removes termination pay for new employees who are surplussed. This is a dangerous move towards inequality among our members in the OPS. The steps towards a two-tier wage structure is a betrayal of young members. It sows the seeds of a union divided. Who can our union count on to staff picket lines during future attacks on our rights? OPSEU seems on the way to joining the ranks of those major Canadian unions that surrendered serious concessions. Union leaders of auto workers, steel workers, postal workers, and Catholic teachers gave way. Then elementary and secondary public school teacher leaders caved to the OLRB ruling banning a one-day political strike, and now all teachers are resigned to living under the thumb of undemocratic Bill 115. Labour brass rhetoric aside, concessions bargaining is now the norm, not the exception, impacting most harmfully on youths, women and immigrant workers.

While there are some improvements to the OPS contract language concerning redeployment of surplussed members, the agreement is largely devoid of any significant gains. It is important that members with seniority have opportunities to be redeployed into new positions as many of these members have limited exposure to varied skills and knowledge, and have worked loyally in their position for years, focusing on a specific fields. Some members don’t have many options to train for a new career path. The loss of surplus factor 80 (age, plus years of experience) is the loss of an important retirement option for many facing layoff.

Today the labour leadership has virtually abandoned the fight against the capitalist austerity agenda. The labour-based New Democratic Party has likewise played a pathetic role, shying away from taking a strong stand for workers and against austerity. Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has failed to defend workers publicly. She focuses her criticisms on the financial costs to be incurred by government in defending the legality of the actions of the big business parties against labour. Needed now, more than ever, is a working class fightback in the NDP, to push the party to the left to challenge austerity, and to embrace more democratic and socialist principles.

There are good examples of effective protests against austerity. The Occupy movement, under the slogan ‘We are the 99%’, showed for the first time in a generation that there is a class struggle, that working people did not create the economic crisis, and should not pay for it. The massive and persistent Quebec students’ strike in 2012 is another excellent example of a fightback against austerity. Striking Quebec students rallied public support for universal access to quality post-secondary education, and hastened the defeat of the governing Quebec Liberal party and the reversal of the tuition hike. This shows what is possible when there is progressive leadership.

OPSEU would be in a better position now to fight and win if it had launched a mobilization effort months before the beginning of bargaining, through bulletins, guest speakers at local events, and regional educational conferences on what capitalist austerity is, and how to fight it. The union should have focused on a clear message, such as ‘no concessions’, or ‘we didn’t create this crisis, and we won’t pay for it’. Members require the tools to fight back. That is what the union should have provided. Instead of holding a ratification vote on this concessionary agreement, OPSEU should have launched a strike vote prior to the Liberal Convention. Based on reports from mobilizers across the province, we know that we would likely have received a strike mandate. This would have had an impact by putting pressure on the Liberal party, which heads a minority government, suspended the Legislature, and is choosing a new leader. By accepting concessions, OPSEU signals to the ruling class that it will tolerate what the Liberals are doing – in effect making working people pay for the economic crisis we are enduring. Statements such as ‘the government would not budge’ are a very poor excuse to accept concessions. If the bosses don’t budge, why should we collapse?

Some argue that OPSEU got a better deal than AMAPCEO, which lost some benefits that OPSEU members never enjoyed. Our union should not look to AMAPCEO, which is a small, semi-managerial bargaining entity whose members lack experience in defending their collective agreement. OPSEU should have provided better leadership to its own members, and a better example to other unionized workers. How? By launching a real fight back against austerity. Typically, union bureaucrats lack confidence in the membership, which is why they did not want to chance a strike vote. The idea that labour will turn things around ‘when the economy recovers’, or that a struggle against management will occur without the union rank and file challenging and overcoming the union bureaucracy, are grand delusions. Class struggle opposition in each union is no abstract ideal; it is an urgent necessity to avoid an accelerating descent into labour hell.

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Pro-Choice rally Toronto October 20, 2012

On a cool, damp Saturday afternoon, on the front steps of Toronto’s Old City Hall, nearly one hundred people gathered to demand “Reproductive Justice: Equal Access Now!”
October 20 was a Pan-Canadian Day of Action to defend women’s right to choose abortion, and to oppose efforts by Conservative and Liberal politicians at all levels to erode or eliminate this right. Earlier this month MPs defeated by a two to one margin an anti-abortion Conservative private member’s bill, which was nonetheless supported by over 100 MPs.  Meanwhile, the Conservative Harper government refuses to implement the Canada Health Act which guarantee’s equal access.  Women in Prince Edward Island province have no access to abortion, and women in New Brunswick have to pay for clinic abortions.
The Toronto rally, organized by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada and the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, demanded reproductive health care for all, including refugees who the government has just deprived of this benefit.
Two New Democratic Party MPs addressed the rally, including Olivia Chow (Trinity-Spadina), along with a representative of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, a spokesperson for an aboriginal women’s organization, youth activists and veteran abortion rights campaigners.
Youth for Socialist Action and Socialist Action members actively promoted the event, and participated in the rally with prominent banners, leaflet distribution and successful press sales.

McGuinty resigns. Let’s give the boot to his Ontario Liberal regime and the federal Tories.

Desperate to change the channel on his scandal-wracked administration, Dalton McGuinty announced this evening, October 15, that he is stepping down as Ontario Premier and Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party.

McGuinty won’t be missed. But his decision to prorogue the Legislature is totally unacceptable. For months to come, his corrupt regime won’t be required to answer Opposition questions in the Legislature while he and his henchmen work behind the scenes to muscle more unions into the wage freeze zone. More cuts to jobs, to services, and more privatizations are in store — with minimal accountability.
Now is the time for labour, hopefully with active support from the NDP, to take mass job action to demand that Law 115, the anti-teacher/education worker legislation be rescinded, and that the cuts to public sector jobs and services be reversed.

Tax corporations and the rich. Index wages and pensions to every rise in the cost of living. For a general strike to bring down the wretched Ontario Liberal regime and the Stephen Harper-led federal Tory government.