Colleen MacQuarrie shares successes of PEI grassroots organizing for reproductive choice

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on November 28, 2016


PEI abortion activist Colleen MacQuarrie speaking in Fredericton on Nov. 24, 2016. Photo by Sophie M. Lavoie.

PEI abortion activist Colleen MacQuarrie was in Fredericton on Nov. 24th to celebrate two years of inactivity by the government of New Brunswick and share tips from successful community organizing from her home province.

Jula Hughes, from organizing group Reproductive Justice New Brunswick, introduced the speaker and welcomed the public. MacQuarrie was a “central person” to bringing abortion services to PEI this year and she was recognized as a Fellow of the Canadian Psychological Association this year for her tremendous work.

In 2010, the PEI provincial government created an arms-length group called Health PEI to replace the Health Boards that had discretionary power over the healthcare on the island. The Health Boards had been refusing to make firm decisions about abortion access.

However, despite this, in 2010, there was a “ring of silence, a deep silence that was a tip of the iceberg” in PEI; conversations in the private and public sphere were “mostly not about abortion,” according to MacQuarrie. The figurative iceberg was anti-abortion organizing which had been ongoing since the 1980s, when the hospital boards were effectively taken over by religious groups. In 1986, the last Therapeutic Abortion Committee was taken down but the last abortion had actually been performed in PEI in 1982.

In 1988, after the Morgentaler Supreme Court decision, rights were buoyed, but on March 30 of the same year, the PEI legislature voted “Resolution 17” and made PEI an anti-abortion province. “This was the only provincial response to abortion,” said MacQuarrie, and confirms the intense collusion of church and state on the island, where stigmatization was the norm, and fear and shame were central. Abortion activists and women requesting abortions received what MacQuarrie termed “demoralizing and degrading treatment.” The anti-abortion movement was, according to MacQuarrie, “spectacular” in its depth.

The power of the anti-choice movement was an “incredible lesson,” said MacQuarrie, and people finally rallied under what she described as “hopeful anger.” Because of the power of the anti-choice movement, PEI needed something just as spectacular, “to empower community that had been so thoroughly silenced and in which so much fear had been felt.”

In her work, MacQuarrie believes that “evidence-based decision-making” is a powerful message. This was the goal of her research project that looked at abortion access in PEI. She saw this as a “call to use [a researcher’s] skills for research for creating change in our communities” because leaving PEI for an abortion was “taking a toll on women’s lives.” PEI women had to go to Halifax in order to get a reimbursed abortion.

MacQuarrie’s research into abortion services with the PEI Health Department showed that they were stalling; the Health Department was referring people to the PEI Women’s Network organization that was chronically underfunded and understaffed.

MacQuarrie’s research project questioned how the policy affected women’s health. MacQuarrie formed a Research Advisory Group, called up friends and collaborators to participate. Many people, at the beginning, felt “demoralized anger” which is the step before the “hopeful anger,” according to MacQuarrie. About 60% of the initial group came back and shared stories of access and, out of those exchanges, they explored a process for going out into the community.

MacQuarrie’s formal project was not approved, at first, by the Ethics Board at UPEI (because of conservative members of the Board), but eventually received approval and funding from the university.

The project received a lot of attention with 600 hits in the first week, from around the world. The interviews were meant to be “conversations with a friend” and as the participants shared their stories, the researchers told them “what could have been”. People were incensed and empowered by this process.

One of the project participants formed the PEI Reproductive Rights Organization in 2011, with a few younger feminists, and held the first abortion rights rally. This was the first step in coming together to provoke change. The PEI government responded with information on abortion access on the website.

A second organization, the Abortion Rights Network was formed. They created a zine called “Speak Out!” (and held a subsequent Speak Out night) and started consciousness raising, with various events, born of members’ creativity. The very diverse community was inspired, and people became involved: starting a choir, demonstrations, circulating memes and tweets on social media, songs and videos. Solidarity was central to the movement, in creating community, “the only kind of change that actually matters.”

The main findings of MacQuarrie’s project were communicated in Jan. 28th, 2013, and the Final Report came out a year later, in 2014. The key findings were that everyone encountered barriers and found the process an “intensely punishing regime.” They also showed that there was unsafe practices and risks to women’s health. Indeed, after filing a Rights to Information Request, they documented a high rate of illegal abortions and subsequent danger to women’s lives, including 2 death certificates that seemed directly connected to unwanted pregnancies.

MacQuarrie states that there was a “callous disregard” for women, especially poor and marginalized women in PEI, a province with some of the most precarious conditions for women. People were very disempowered by the system. The activist community realized that the Premier of PEI himself had shut down a Health Department-led “business case for rematriating abortion services” from Halifax to PEI.

A conference called “Abortion: The Unfinished Revolution” was held in 2014 in PEI and brought together researchers and activists, including Jocelyn Downing. From the 2014 conference, activists started building a legal case, backed by the Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) and lawyers Mijhawan and McMillan. On January 5th, MacQuarrie met Wade McLaughlin, the newly-elected Premier of PEI, in an elevator, on the day she was filing the court papers.

As there were more wins, more people joined the movement and starting talking about “abortion”. Eventually, all the barriers were removed and there was even a “full-service clinic” that was set up. The activists are holding the provincial government’s feet to the fire. According to MacQuarrie, “the lived realities can cut through the hate”. She is optimistic that abortion services will soon be provided on the island.

Sophie M. Lavoie is a member of Reproductive Justice NB. 

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