CANADA

Single-issue Liberals

Abortion foes stalk the leadership race

PAUL KAIHLA April 23 1990
CANADA

Single-issue Liberals

Abortion foes stalk the leadership race

PAUL KAIHLA April 23 1990

Single-issue Liberals

Abortion foes stalk the leadership race

When Helena Dewey addressed a Toronto meeting held to select delegates for the federal Liberal party’s June leadership convention, she was making a freshman appearance. The 26-year-old former wholesale clothing agent voted Conservative in the 1988 election and only joined the Liberal party on April 9, the day of the meeting. She said that she wanted to be a delegate for one main purpose: to oppose abortion. Cradling her one-month-old daughter, Frances, Dewey declared, “Abortion is a horrible exploitation of women.” Her remark prompted heckling from some of the Liberals. But, in the end, Dewey

won election as a delegate, along with 10 other dedicated anti-abortionists. The acknowledged leader in the race, Jean Chrétien, claimed only a single delegate. Said Dewey: “This is one way of making the politicians take a stand on abortion.”

The process has been repeated at numerous delegate meetings across the country. In each case, a network of anti-abortion activists, who describe themselves as “Liberals for Life,” has dedicated itself to sending delegates devoted to their common cause to the June convention in Calgary. The campaign operates with very little financial support. Douglas Dewey—Helena’s husband—is one of only three paid organizers, and a storage

room in the Toronto offices of Campaign Life, a national anti-abortion organization, serves as its headquarters. Despite those modest resources, the campaign has swept delegate slates in several Ontario ridings, won a smattering of support in the Prairies and claims to have elected 137 delegates. That number is still small in comparison with the roughly 5,200 delegates expected in Calgary. And it is far short of the support amassed by Chrétien—who now claims about 1,500 delegates—or his closest rival, Montreal MP Paul Martin, who has attracted an estimated 550 delegates. But, by last week, anti-abortion

delegates equalled those committed to candidate Sheila Copps, a Hamilton MP.

In fact, it is the two fringe candidates in the race—MPs Thomas Wappel and John Nunziata—who are most likely to benefit from the Liberals for Life vote in Calgary. Both oppose abortion, but neither has so far won more than a handful of delegates. For its part, Liberals for Life endorsed Wappel last month. But Douglas Dewey said last week that not all anti-abortion delegates would follow that lead. Indeed, Dewey acknowledged that his group was unlikely to wield great power at the convention. Still, he insisted that the anti-abortion campaign has been a success. Said Dewey: “We are building a large pro-life enclave, which will improve the

moral complexion of the Liberal party.”

Plainly, the scope of the anti-abortionists’ campaign has caught some party members by surprise. Liberals for Life won all 12 delegate spots decided on April 4 in the central Ontario riding of Bruce-Grey, defeating a Martin slate that included Ontario cabinet minister Murray Elston. And after more than doubling party membership in nearby Wellington-Grey-Dufferin-Simcoe, the group is poised to seize another 12 convention votes at a delegate-selection meeting on April 25. “They can really enjoy the convention,” riding president Christopher Hawkins said, “bringing their pictures of fetuses in garbage cans.” Although the group has had its greatest success in Ontario, it has also been active in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. On March 29, its delegates swept a slate chosen in the central Saskatchewan riding of Saskatoon-Humboldt.

But other Liberals say that the activists have distorted the selection process by putting the abortion issue ahead of either the party or their loyalty to any particular leadership candidate. In Dewey’s Toronto riding of Beaches-Woodbine, for one, former Liberal candidate Terry Kelly was an early recruit to the Chrétien camp. But, according to some observers, Kelly put more energy into recruiting support for Liberals for Life than into his efforts on behalf of Chrétien. Indeed, Dewey told Maclean’s that Kelly submitted dozens of new party memberships on behalf of the group. Other Liberals noted that Kelly had encouraged members opposed to abortion to attend last week’s meeting. Party member Helen Laird said that she decided to attend the meeting, where she voted for the Liberals for Life slate, after Kelly sold her a party membership in February. Said Laird: “Terry Kelly came to the door and said that the pro-lifers would be there, so I went out to make my presence felt.”

But some Chrétien supporters said that they felt cheated. “This would have been a Chrétien riding,” declared MP Sergio Marchi, Ontario campaign co-chairman for the former federal cabinet minister. “These people betrayed the Chrétien campaign from the inside.” Kelly, however, claimed that he helped—and voted for—individuals on both the Chrétien and the anti-abortion slates.

Still, for some of the anti-abortion activists, political loyalties are clearly secondary to their cause. Richard Hudon, 42, a clerk-analyst for Canada Post and a Liberals for Life organizer in Ottawa, says that he has been a party loyalist for most of his life. But Hudon said that he plans to join the Conservative party during its next leadership campaign—in order to repeat the tactics so far employed only among Liberals. Said Hudon: “I was bom in the Liberal party, but I am pro-life first.” As activists in the antiabortion movement seek ways to put their convictions into practice, the current Liberal leadership race may only be a trial run in the political arena.

PAUL KAIHLA with HAL QUINN in Vancouver, MARK BOURRIE in Simcoe County, Ont., and GLEN ALLEN in Halifax

PAUL KAIHLA

HAL QUINN

MARK BOURRIE

GLEN ALLEN