My bookshelf contains a number of books written by friends and/or colleagues, and one of the best is this one, by Karin Wells, a former CBC radio producer and three-time recipient of the Canadian Association of Journalists documentary award.
The subtitle is When Women Shut Down Government in the Battle for the Right to Choose. It chronicles the time when 17 women set out in a convoy to travel from Vancouver to Ottawa. They were not protesting mask mandates. They were not against vaccines. They were not funded by wealthy Trump supporters or Christian fundamentalists. They did not shut down borders. And they definitely did not blast horns and harrass the populace of our capital city day and night for three whole weeks.
The women who organized the Caravan were fighting for free abortion on demand. This was three years before Roe v Wade and 18 years before it became legal here in Canada. (Yes, abortion was still considered a crime in this country until the Supreme Court struck down the law against it in 1988.)
The Abortion Caravan took place in the spring of 1970 and I remember it well, because I was there. But I want to say, right off the bat, that I was NOT one if the leading lights of this campaign. I wish I had been; I’d love to say I’d been an organizer, one of the fearless young women who made the trek to Ottawa that year and invaded the House of Commons and shut down the proceedings – the first and only time this has ever happened. Even the truckers didn’t get that far.
I will say that I was – and remain – a feminist, and that I supported the struggle for legalized abortion. I was part of the Thunder Bay group that greeted the Caravaners, and I did play a small, ignominious part in that event. Because of that, Karin Wells interviewed me for this book and included a photo taken at the time. (Oh, to be 20 again and enjoy photos of yourself.) But I’m not going to go into futher details about that. If you’re interested, buy the book. (Actually, even if you’re not, buy the book: it’s a part of our history and should be required reading in schools.)
What’s really surprising is that, aside from an academic thesis written 26 years after the fact, it took half a century for this book to appear in print. Back in 2010, Wells, a producer with CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition, was looking for a story. The mother of a colleague suggested she do something on the Abortion Caravan which Wells, like the majority of Canadians, had never heard of. Intrigued, she did her research and the result was a half hour documentary, “The Women Are Coming”. It was a huge success – as Wells writes, “It fell together easily, a story waiting to be told.”
Having told the story on radio, Wells felt she knew it, but when she set out to write it, almost a decade later, she found it “raised more questions, had more nuance, and felt more interesting.” The result is a narrative told with a journalist’s love of plain speaking and colourful immediacy. What could have been yet another academic treatise is shaped in such a way that, once begun, the book is extremely hard to put down.
The story begins on Monday, April 27, 1970 – the day Betsy Meadley got into her pale yellow Pontiac Parisienne convertible, pulled out of her driveway in West Vancouver, and headed down the mountain and across the bridge to Vancouver. She had spelled out “On to Ottawa” in black tape on the hood of her car; it was one of three vehicles that would carry the women across the country to Ottawa, stopping in major cities along the way. Besides Betsy’s convertible, the convoy consisted of a pick-up truck, borrowed from a friend, and Cathy Walker’s yellow and white Volkswagon van. The roof rack of the van sported a huge black coffin, meant to symbolize the thousands of women who were dying as a result of illegal abortions. The coffin was an inspired attention-getter; its photo made the pages of newspapers all across the country.
The blurb on the back of the book refers to the Caravanners as a motley crew and it’s not wrong. They were united in their demand for free, unfettered access to abortion, but, as Wells tells us, they were not a homogenous group. Meadley, who’d come up with the idea for the trek, was divorced, with a daughter about the same age as some of the women in the Caravan. Charlotte Bedard was a shy stay-at-home mom who knew she was only part of the group because she could provide the truck. Which was fine with her. Cathy Walker was one of the youngest but she was also the most politically savvy: she’d been working for the Canadian Union of Students in the Maritimes while the Caravan was being planned and had come back to Vancouver to be part of it.
I admit that my first move, when I got my hands on the book, was to skip ahead to Chaper 7, which is when the Caravan pulls into Thunder Bay, and the women meet up for the first time with some hard core anti-abortion sentiment. The meeting is planned to take place at Knox Church in Fort William but it’s obvious early on there’s not going to be enough seating for what’s shaping up to be a capacity crowd. Laura Atkinson, Joan Baril, and the other members of the Thunder Bay Women’s Liberation Group have been publicizing the event for weeks. They have “postered the town, sent out press releases, appeared on the local radio phone-show and . . . sent a letter to the Thunder Bay Council of Clergy asking them to include the Caravan in their Mother’s Day services and church bulletins”. The Caravanners have never faced such a diverse crowd, many of whom are there to heckle. Things quickly go south.
I won’t dwell on what happens next, but I will say that the women do get to Ottawa, and, as was said earlier, they succeed in invading the House of Commons and bringing the business of the day to a temporary halt. They don’t get their meeting with the Prime Minister and abortion isn’t legalized for another 18 years. But they made a difference. Wells says the Caravan was the first national grassroots women’s action:
“It was loud and proud and audacious. . . it signalled the stirrings of a nascent feminist movement at a time when feminists and women’s libbers were perceived as hairy-legged, no makeup, Birkenstock-wearing women who were simply in need of a good . . . etc. You had to be brave to wear that label back then.”
Here’s to all the brave women, and to Wells, also brave, for writing their story.
Wells, Karin. The Abortion Caravan: When Women Shut Down Government in the Battle for the Right to Choose (Second Story Press, 2020)