OTTAWA, ONTARIO – Prodded by the rising tide of intolerance for those who profess pro-life convictions – most pointedly and menacingly expressed by no one less than Prime Minister Happy Socks himself (with his exclusion of pro-life MPs from the Liberal Party; his endlessly repeated falsehood that unrestricted abortion is a Charter-enshrined right; his ugly stipulation that any organization looking for taxpayer funds to assist in hiring students for summer jobs must first attest that they are not pro-life) my wife and I decided it was time to walk the walk and made our way up to Ottawa for the 20th annual National March for Life on Thursday, May 10th; the traditional Feast of the Ascension.
This largest of all public protests to take place on Canadian soil each year (the 2015 edition drew 25,000 participants) traditionally receives zippo secular media coverage, though this might finally be starting to change now that protesters of the march are taking a leaf from P.M. Socks’ playbook and becoming increasingly obnoxious in their irritation with those who are so gauche as to assert that the government-subsidized commission of 65,000 abortions in Canada each year is not a situation that anyone should be happy with.
I had attended one of the very earliest of these marches back around the turn of the century and had a pretty good idea what we were in for. Usually averse to taking part in any demonstration or rally for fear of being implicated with morons and goons whose idea of expressing truth to power invariably involves bullhorns and the bellowing of poetically-challenged ditties that begin, “Hey, hey . . . ho, ho . . .”, this pro-life assembly is an altogether quieter and a strikingly civil affair. Not being driven by anger nor resentment nor a grasping after some kind of power or advantage, the benevolent spirit which animates a pro-life march doesn’t pose those same kinds of threats to a participant’s sense of self-respect.
The eight hours in Ottawa is the highlight, the best one third of the day. It’s the other two thirds, 16 hours spent in transit on a chartered bus – eight hours each way – that can be a little trying. Obviously, you have to forget about immediate comforts and getting anything but fitful snatches of sleep. But there is a wonderful sense of clarity and relief which more than makes up for the petty sacrifices of a cramped bus ride when you climb down off that uncomfortable fence you may have been straddling for the sake of personal peace and respectfully declare your support for the dignity of human life in all of its phases.
Our bus pulled out of the parking lot of St. Justin’s Parish Church at the stroke of midnight and the threatened rain started falling just as we pulled into Ottawa around eight a.m. and intermittently continued to do so, not really letting up until about noon. We found a bench underneath an almost-big enough awning in front of a not-yet opened shop in the Byward Market district where we tucked into the sandwiches I’d packed up the night before.
Then we walked along Sussex Drive to Notre Dame Cathedral where a special and exquisitely observed pro-life Mass was presided over by Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast. Almost half an hour before the service was set to begin at 10 a.m., the pews, downstairs and upstairs, were already filling up with hundreds and hundreds of marchers, young and old and middle-aged, many of them decked out in colourful t-shirts proclaiming the pro-life cause with such slogans as, “Defending human life from the womb to the tomb” and “Beloved Child of God”.
The homily was delivered by visiting Auxiliary Bishop of Montreal, Thomas Dowd, who told touching stories about his father who lived to the age of 94 (“He died too young,” Dowd said) his brother who struggles with ALS and still cherishes every minute of his life, and his sister who went into labour with a daughter at 24 weeks gestation and was asked by medical staff, “Do you want us to make attempts to save this baby?” She not only answered in the affirmative but was present with her perfectly healthy daughter at the Mass.
Citing the new intolerance for pro-lifers from the highest political office in the land, Dowd reminded us that we do not live in a dictatorship – yet. “We are the leaders,” he said. And it is incumbent upon us to help this country find ways to truly celebrate life.
Next we gathered on Parliament Hill for some short speeches from Church and political leaders, including crowd favourite, Tanya Granic Allen, who’d been removed from the Ontario PC party the week before by new leader Doug Ford when he caved in to complaints from political opponents about her critical comments about abortion, same-sex marriage and the province’s revamped sex education curriculum. Allen promised the crowd, “I will continue to be a strong voice for the families and for the children of Ontario. And for the unborn.”
Far and away the most popular sign of the day featured a photo of a surprised-looking Prime Minister Trudeau juxtaposed with a snap of a pregnant woman’s ample girth. “Look Justin,” the sign read, with a red arrow pointing toward that belly: “Peoplekind!”
Then by about 1:30, people started to form themselves into a procession – here a group of be-plumed Knights of Columbus, there a group of schoolboys in matching crested blazers holding aloft a statue of Our Lady – for the silent march through downtown Ottawa. Our progress was disrupted soon after it began when a contingent of maybe 100 protesters calling themselves The Coalition to End the March for Life, blockaded our way on Elgin Street not far from the First World War Memorial.
Some dressed up in Anti-Fa face masks, they yelled inane and obscene slogans and insults through bullhorns (“Hey hey, ho ho, this sexist shit has got to go” and “Get your rosaries off our ovaries”), flashed us the finger and waved placards with messages like, “May the fetus you save turn out to be gay,” “Intersectional feminism always,” and, my particular favourite for sheer witlessness, “You say no choice, we say pro-choice”. Right. The people who want to shut down our legal demonstration with their illegal demonstration fancy themselves as broadminded inclusivists.
Though there was some grumbling that the Ottawa Police dropped the ball in letting the protesters take control of that section of Elgin Street, I thought they did a masterful job of holding these malcontents at bay, forming two solid lines. Both lines faced the protesters – their backs were to us – showing that although we outnumbered our adversaries 150 to one, the cops knew that we weren’t going to make trouble or exacerbate a tense situation. After about a 15-minute standoff – our opponents bellowing away while we quietly prayed or just stood in silence – the Police and our own parade marshals decided that we’d just turn around, back to front, and conduct our whole march in a counter-clockwise direction instead. The raucous cheer from the protesters that then went up, suggested that they thought they’d won the day and sent all of 15,000 of us packing; utterly demoralized by the cogent splendour of the arguments they’d so bravely and eloquently put forth.
By the time they twigged to the realization that in fact we were just taking the other way around, the Police were then able to keep the protesters sequestered on a side street so that when we’d marched our way around to that same part of the old town about an hour later, the protesters couldn’t impede us anymore and so impotently screamed at us behind a barricade of Police for about 20 minutes – which was the time it took for all of us to quietly walk through that one intersection. The contrasting demeanours of the marchers and the protesters was stark indeed and remains one of the strongest impressions I retain from that day.
(An earlier, shorter version of this article appeared in The Catholic Register, May 20, 2018)
Photos: Kirtley Jarvis