Book Review

When women shut down government in the battle for the right to choose

Dodi Newman

The Abortion Caravan, rude, crude and loud.

This is an extraordinarily well written and researched book that makes fascinating reading from beginning to end. If the book were a movie, viewers would give it and the women it tells about, a standing ovation.

This is the story of 17 Vancouver women who drove cross-country in an Oldsmobile convertible, a pickup truck and a VW van, intent on protesting and changing the 1969 law which legalized abortion but only with almost insurmountable hurdles. Politically, the mostly young women leaned far left. Over months of preparation for the caravan’s trek, they came to understand that making abortion available on demand was an issue around which women, from a wide geographic and social spectrum, could come together. Abortion became the central issue.

On their way from Vancouver to Ottawa, they gathered more supporters from every province and city they passed through, until they were roughly 500 strong. Ottawa supporters were many and essential. Together, they organized meetings and managed publicity. On the day of the protest, the Saturday before Mother’s Day in 1970, approximately 1000 protesters from virtually every province marched to Parliament. Inconceivably now, they made it all happen without social media, but with snail mail, telephone call trees, chutzpa and sheer determination.

Throughout, they were under surveillance by the RCMP, who were more interested in their Communist Party affiliations than in their protest. In part the RCMP were blindsided by the near revolution in Québec, and by the possibility of sympathy protests spreading in Canada for Kent State students and against the Vietnam War. But basically, to the RCMP these were “only women” not to be taken seriously. They should have.

The protesters were furious when no one from the government deigned to speak to them. They spent most of Mother’s Day plotting their successful invasion of Parliament the next day, Monday May 11. Before that day was over, they had shut Parliament down — the first and only time it ever happened.

That no one from the government would talk to them or even listen to them, was bitter for the members of the Abortion Caravan and its many supporters. Trudeau Père was insultingly flippant when he did finally meet them, two months later. Nothing changed — the long, slow march to making abortion legal lasted 18 more years: even now, 2020, abortion is not universally available to Canadian women. The last chapter and the afterword tell about that aftermath and the later lives of the participants.

Throughout, Ms. Wells paints a vivid picture of Canadian society at the time. Now, 50 years later, some of the concerns and shibboleths of the ‘70s are hard to understand. But I recognize them; they are a healthy reminder of where complacency can take you. Karin Wells closes the book, for good reason, with “Long may we all be outraged!”

The Abortion Caravan
by Karin Wells
Published by Second Story Press