The Abortion Caravan and RCMP Surveillance

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 York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

By Christabelle Sethna

Very few Canadians know that the RCMP conducted surveillance of the Vancouver Women’s Caucus (VWC) and its Abortion Caravan.[1] This discovery is just one outcome of research undertaken with Dr. Steve Hewitt. We worked with hundreds of pages of declassified RCMP files, using surveillance reports (many of which are redacted) as well as appended open source material. The 1969 Criminal Code reforms coincided with the emergence of women’s liberation groups like the VWC. These groups, made up mainly of young, white women, were part of the 1960s New Left ferment that included opposition to the Vietnam War and support for women’s rights, the student movement, Black Power and Red Power and anti-imperialism.[2]

Before launching the Caravan, some VWC members set up an abortion referral service that ferried pregnant women to doctors willing to perform underground abortions. Because this action was technically illegal under the new abortion law, we speculated that the RCMP, responsible for investigating criminal activity as well as threats to national security, was spying on the women to gather evidence of domestic law breaking. However, it was not the VWC’s possible criminal activity that attracted the RCMP’s attention. Rather, the Mounties’ Security Service branch spied on the VWC because the organization’s left-leaning politics were deemed threatening to national security.

Hewitt’s own research has illustrated that the Security Service had a long history of spying on Old Left political activism due to the fear of Communist infiltration.[3] It now extended that same surveillance net over New Left organizations, including women’s liberation. Spying on women’s liberation groups posed a challenge to an all-male (until 1974) and all-white police force accustomed to dealing with male-led protest. Even though the Security Service acknowledged that these groups were invested in gender equality, it was suspicious of the possible relationship between Trotskyist-inspired organizations and women’s liberation. Using a combination of direct observation, media coverage, print literature and male and female informants, the Mounties learned of the VWC’s plans for the Abortion Caravan, acquired its itinerary and actively tracked its journey to Ottawa. The Caravan had echoes of the On to Ottawa trek of 1935. Trekkers were said to be Communists and their leaders were arrested. To add fodder to the RCMP’s suspicions, the lead Caravan vehicle originally bore the slogan “Smash Capitalism” alongside another, “Abortion is our Right!” The Caravaners soon removed the first slogan because they did not want to distract the Canadian public from their main focus on abortion.

The Security Service was aware that the VWC had demanded a meeting with high-ranking federal politicians, including Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, to discuss their opposition to the new abortion law, and had threatened the government with a declaration of war. Still, the local police and RCMP officers on the ground were caught off guard by the Caravaners’ subsequent actions. When a large group of angry Caravaners and supporters marched to the Prime Minister’s residence on 9 May, the crush of women overwhelmed the half dozen policemen guarding the gate. Importantly, the vacationing Trudeau and the RCMP brass agreed that the women had to leave on their own as the prospect of burly male officers dragging protesting women off the premises would play badly in the media, especially so soon after the debacle at Kent State. Two days later, the RCMP was caught unawares yet again when a small group of Caravaners entered the visitors’ galleries in the House of Commons using forged passes, chained themselves to the seats, and began chanting slogans demanding access to abortion services.

The RCMP’s unpreparedness on both occasions may have had to do with a lack of communication among various local security forces. More likely, the Security Branch may not have taken the women’s demands seriously despite the wealth of surveillance files it generated on the VWC and the Caravan. Therefore, it is worth considering which variables might have figured into the Security Service’s threat assessment of women’s liberation activists. Gender was a key variable but so too were the women’s whiteness and relative youth. These variables may have made it easier for the RCMP to underestimate the Caravaners’ steadfast determination to take direct action against the abortion law. Conversely, they may also have worked in the women’s favour, catching the RCMP on the back foot and resulting in two historic security breaches at the highest levels of the Canadian government.

Christabelle Sethna is an associate professor in the Institute for Feminist and Gender Studies at the University of Ottawa.

[1] Christabelle Sethna and Steve Hewitt, “Clandestine Operations: The VWC, the Abortion Caravan and the RCMP,” Canadian Historical Review 90, 3 (2009): 463-496.

[2] Steve Hewitt and Christabelle Sethna, “Sex Spying: The RCMP and Women’s Liberation Groups,” in Laura Campbell, Dominique Clément, and Greg S. Kealey (eds.), Debating Dissent: Canada and the Sixties (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

[3] Steve Hewitt, Spying 101: The RCMP’s Secret Activities at Canadian Universities, 1917-1997 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

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