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Interview: Barbara Freeman on the Abortion Caravan Campaign of 1970

Graham F. Scott

Barbara Freeman

Barbara Freeman

Today we’ve got a new entry in the Verbatim series, the transcripts we provide of our Listen to This podcast. (Just a reminder that you can catch new, original interviews every other Monday—you can subscribe with any podcast listening program by grabbing the podcast rss feed, or easily subscribing through iTunes.)

In this interview, Nick Taylor-Vaisey talks to Carleton University professor Barbara Freeman about her research into the Abortion Caravan Campaign of 1970, one of the most important pro-choice movements in Canadian history. The campaign was literally a caravan that travelled from Vancouver to Ottawa in the spring of 1970, culminating in a historic protest of parliament on May 11 of that year, the first time that a parliamentary protest had forced the end of a parliamentary session. Here, Freeman discusses the remarkably successful media strategy that the Abortion Caravan pioneered, the presence of women in Canadian newsrooms, and the research that she is presenting to theCongress of the Humanities & Social Sciences in Montreal.

Q&A

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Barbara Freeman, an associate at Carleton University, thanks so much for joining us today on the podcast.

Barbara Freeman: My pleasure.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Now you’re going to the Congress on the Humanities and the Social Sciences. And you’re presenting there a paper about the abortion caravan campaign of 1970. This is something that This Magazine has written about before, so a lot of the listeners might be familiar with the story. Can you tell me a little bit about why you want to look at this campaign and which part of it you wanted to study?

Barbara Freeman: I wanted to touch on the feminist media strategy behind the campaign. In fact I wanted to emphasize it, not just touch on it. It has been, certainly among women historians and activists, a well known story by now, but although historians and some of the women in the campaign have told the story of how they traveled from Vancouver to Ottawa in a motorcade and they wanted the decriminalization of abortion, and they protested in the house of commons over that whole issue and they brought the proceedings to a halt, everybody knows that story. The fact is that nobody has really looked at why they got a high media profile at the time, and as a professor of journalism, I’m interested in that.

And I’m also interested, and have always been interested, in the tension between feminism and journalistic objectivity or the expectation of journalistic objectivity. The reason I chose to choose two women who were involved in this media campaign to promote the abortion caravan, was because they were journalists in training at the time, so they had some media savvy, but they were also socialist feminists who were actively working with, in one case the Vancouver women’s caucus and in the other case, Toronto women’s liberation. And in those days, women were just allowed, just beginning to be allowed into the newsrooms. There was a lot of prejudice against women in newsrooms up until the late 60s. They weren’t considered real journalists. And so women who wanted to be so-called real journalists had to learn the rules, spoken and unspoken, and one of them was you don’t get politically engage, because that would compromise your journalistic objectivity. But these two women decided that in fact they should be actively engaged and they could, when called upon, be objective journalists as well.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Let’s talk about the two women. Take us through the first, and then we’ll move on to the second.

Barbara Freeman: Anne Roberts was a member of the Vancouver women’s caucus and Anne became involved in the abortion caravan campaign right at the planning stages which was in the late 1969, and she wrote in a Vancouver publication called The Pedestal and other publications and she was also a spokeswomen for the caucus when they did actions, protests against the abortion law. Anne got a job with Canadian Press news agency in Edmonton, and while she was there, she learned the ropes of how to put together a press kit and so on. That was in the summer of ‘69. When she came back to it in the spring of 1970 the abortion caravan was just beginning to start across the country and she made up press kits and sent them out over the CP wire to all the newspapers along the way. And when the caravan got to Edmonton, and had its demonstration and put on its street theatre and they played out theatre skits about women being denied abortions by mean doctors and law makers and so on, and so on, she was there to cover it for Canadian Press. That interested me because any mainstream journalist would’ve said, but you are in a conflict of interest, my dear. But she felt, she said to me, this story had to be told by women’s perspective, and she was very, very committed at the time. She said now, by the way, she might think twice about it, but then, that was her commitment.

The abortion caravan was armed with press kits that Anne helped put together with other members of the caucus too—she wasn’t the only one involved but she was the leader in getting the word out to the media. And she was the only one who was a journalist in training who was involved, and who stayed in the profession, and that was another thing that interested me. The second person was Catherine Keate, today she’s known as Kathryn-Jane Hazel. Catherine was in Toronto and she was a grad student, as was Anne back in Vancouver, by the way, but she was a grad student at U of T, and she was also the daughter of Stuart Keete, who was a Vancouver Sun publisher at the time. And what he did was send his daughter to different newspapers to teach her the ropes and he would accept the sons or daughters of other newspapers. They had an exchange going. From my experience, at the time, that was quite conventional behaviour, for dads to set up jobs for their kids with men they knew. Catherine was a journalist in training, but technically was not working as a journalist when she became involved in the abortion caravan. She heard when the caravan got to Toronto that the women, the feminists in Ottawa weren’t that well organized for the demonstration and rally they were planning (at that point, they were only planning one) because they were civil servants and couldn’t get involved. And so Catherine volunteered to go and do the media from Ottawa, and be the media liaison.

It turned out that when the caravan got to Ottawa, the prime minister, the health minister and the justice minister would not see them, as they demanded. Now Trudeau said he was going on a trip, the health minister, John Munro was already on a trip overseas, and John Turner did not like the demanding tone of their missives and letters, and, one story went in the media, decided to play tennis that Saturday when they were going to hold a rally on parliament hill. So they did hold a march through the city, a rally on parliament hill, the only people who showed up was the only NDP member of parliament at the time, Grace MacInnis, and a handful of conservatives but there was no liberal MP in sight. So, very angered by this, the marchers, now with a couple hundred or more of their supporters, marched to 24 Sussex Drive, the prime minister’s residence, sat on the lawn, had a sit in. They were carrying throughout the whole motorcade, a coffin with hangers and other implements of illegal abortion on top of one of the cars, and they brought this to the PM’s residence. They read out a manifesto—well I don’t know if it was a manifesto—a description of how women were dying from botched abortions, which was pretty gory stuff, and they left the coffin and they marched out again.

They only had a handful of RCMP officers, who could not stop them from coming through the gates, but they sat on the lawn. They were afraid, very afraid at this point, because in Kent State, in Ohio, the previous week, four students had been killed at a demonstration and these young people were actually afraid that the cops were going to start pulling guns or something, but they did this anyway. Then they went back to a local school where they were hanging out on the weekend to have their strategy meetings and Catherine Keate wrote about this in Saturday Night magazine after the fact. It came out a couple of months after the abortion caravan event had happened. They sat around and they thought and thought about what they were gonna do to get the government to listen to them. They agonized over this, they were afraid, frightened of being arrested, of being thrown in jail, of being hurt, but they did decide that on the following Monday—and they had timed this for the Mother’s Day weekend, because they were trying to make the point that women should have a choice about whether or not they have a child—so the Monday after Mother’s Day, they went up to Parliament hill, and one group marched around the eternal flame with their coffin.

Catherine Keate was part of that contingent. Another group got out of their hippie clothes, shaved their legs, put on borrowed dresses, hose, and also borrowed a couple of “beards”, as men were known, as escorts, and walked into the visitors gallery, went past security, who in those days didn’t even check handbags! They didn’t have the kind of security they have on Parliament Hill now. And so they didn’t know that the women had chains, bicycle chains, inside those big handbags and they were able to walk in as ordinary visitors into the MP’s galleries because they had managed to wangle MP’s passes. Nobody’s totally straightforward about how that happened—Catherine says they called up the mps and said, I’m so-and-so from your constituency, can I have a pass? And they gave them passes, not knowing what was gonna happen.

So these women went into the gallery and at a certain time, around 3 o’clock, just when question period was happening, one woman stood up and she had managed to attach herself to the translation system, so everybody in the house heard her, and she started yelling: free abortion on demand, take abortion out of the criminal code, all this, and one by one, thirty women followed her, getting up at different points in the three galleries, and yelling and screaming. Security went in to get them out of there and realized that the women had chained themselves to their chairs.

Now, Catherine, earlier, had called up the media, knowing that this was going to happen, that the women were going to sneak inside the House, had called up and said, there’s going to be a big demo on Parliament Hill, we’re declaring war on the Canadian government! She said, we used the most inflammatory language we could because we wanted to get them there. Now, the guys in the press gallery would’ve been there but they wanted to make sure that there was lots of coverage both inside and out. And nobody else wanted to call the media, because among radicals at the time the media were very suspect. And Catherine said she was the only one who was willing to call the media, so she called them up and said all this stuff, “You gotta be there.” And so they were, and it got blanket coverage right across the country.

Now when I look at this coverage what I noticed was, all the way along the caravan got pretty good coverage by and large from the local papers. People came out, reporters came out, mostly women, sometimes it got the inside pages, mostly it was the women’s pages, and usually there was a picture of them with their raised fists and their coffin and all this. Or a picture of their theatre skit, so they did quite well. And it was because Anne Roberts, back in CP, in Edmonton had let them know it was going to happen, so they were all prepped, everybody was prepped, it went very smoothly. Anne had done her job. They got to Ottawa, Catherine and her friends there took over and got the local media out to the big demonstration on Parliament Hill and other actions during that weekend too—certainly the rally on Saturday. They hadn’t planned to march to the PM’s residence, they’d just done it. And then it was Catherine who got them up on Parliament Hill the following Monday for the big demos.

And as I said, she wrote about it in Saturday Night, and I said to her, did anyone give you a hard time about that? And she said well no, because Saturday Night is a magazine, it’s first person, it was presented as an insiders view— what we used to call then the “new journalism,” first person perspective. And so Catherine was able to do this without any real conflict except that some of the hoary old journalists in newsrooms would’ve told her that she was totally in a conflict of interest just because of her attitude and her actions. She wasn’t a real journalist because she couldn’t keep her feelings, her politics out of her life as a journalist. So she would’ve gotten some flack, but she told me she didn’t really from anyone she knew in the journalism world, but she got it from some of her sister radicals who called her on the carpet for writing in Saturday Night, and for being so open about how frightened the women were and how some of them were in tears and all this kind of stuff. She said to them, but that’s the story and that’s what makes it strong, because you gotta understand that you don’t win struggles like this without people agonizing. That’s part of the struggle! Why leave out? So that was her argument. And she stayed with the same group for a while, so I guess she persuaded them or decided to ignore them, I don’t know.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: It was a tough fight on both sides, a rock and a hard place.

Barbara Freeman: Yeah, yeah it was.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Anne having written for CP and also using it as a bit of a PR tool, I can’t even imagine that happening today.

Barbara Freeman: I asked her if her boss knew about it at the time, and she said, no he didn’t. She didn’t tell him. She was being aided by one of her male colleagues, but she didn’t tell him. He was a lefty, a sympathetic guy but she didn’t tell her boss, she just did it. And it wasn’t until she appeared on CBC television involved in another action a little later on in Edmonton, that her boss called her on the carpet and fired her.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Hmm.

Barbara Freeman: So you know, the rule stuck, as far as CP was concerned. It wasn’t CP’s fault, but Anne… When we talk about it today, the interesting thing is that both Catherine and Anne wound up teaching journalism, (laughs) and it’s very interesting that they have these backgrounds and they’re both still very committed activists.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: What do you think about their approach, and how they went about it? You’ve been a journalist for a long time.

Barbara Freeman: Yeah, I mean I was coming in and you see, I was one of the ones who obeyed the rules. I was certainly a budding feminist as well, certainly by the mid-70s I was, but I decided that I would compromise, that I would not join a women’s group, I would not become involved in a women’s group myself but I would make sure that their stories were covered, even if I had to do it myself—and I often did—and that was my contribution.

There were a lot of feminist journalists like me, they knew they really couldn’t cross that line, certainly by the mid-70s they couldn’t. I think one of the reasons that Anne got away with it up to the point she did, even for a short while—actually, she didn’t really get away with it, did she? First of all, if it’s straight news, newspapers, CBC, etc, you’re not supposed to cross that line. But if it’s magazines, you’re freelance, you can pretty much do what you want and if they want first person, then you give them first person, it’s subjective. It depends on the format of the journalism. It’s like writing for This Magazine, right? And CBC newsrooms, they knew. Catherine and Anne at some point work in their later careers also worked for the CBC. Everybody knew their politics, but when they were on the air, they tried to make sure they covered all aspects of the story, so they obeyed the rules, there was no question about that. But that didn’t stop them from being politically engaged in other ways. But me, I played it safe, I was a wuss, if you want.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Well the question is, were you a wuss? A lot of women’s groups might not have liked what you were doing.

Barbara Freeman: Well actually, by the time I got there, they were a little less suspicious. They were certainly more suspicious back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but by the mid ’70s most of them had figured out by that time that media coverage was a mixed bag but could be a good thing. I was very aware of being somewhat oppressed in the newsrooms that I worked for, not always by but sometimes by my colleagues, although I had my supporters as well. Usually by whoever was in charge, just by attitude: “Oh you want to do this women’s lib stuff again,” that kind of thing. I had to sometimes fight to do some of these stories, but I did do them whenever I could. Just to let people know the stories were out there. It doesn’t mean I didn’t go to the other side of the story—I did. But it was better than an absence of news at all, at a time when people were complaining that women’s issues were not in the news at all, or enough. My contribution was at least trying to see that it did get into the news. And there were a lot of women like me who wanted to cover women’s issues, and did it as best as they could. I had some fabulous people on the Toronto Star, even in the Toronto Telegram, who were very different politically but who were very interested in the issues.

Nick Taylor-Vaisey: Well, quite a discussion. Thanks Barbara for taking the time to speak with This.

Barbara Freeman: You’re welcome, my pleasure.

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