By David Curtin
"I think it's pretty exciting," says Carroll Rees, a member of the steering committee mandated to propose a new umbrella group for pro-life education groups across the country. "We're fortunate to be given a new opportunity to review what we're doing, to review our structures and start again."
Rees, who is executive director of Action Life Ottawa, seems to reflect the prevailing mood of optimism and determination among Canadian pro-life educators in the wake of the dissolution of Alliance for Life Canada.
While AFL Canada's member groups - more than 200 local and provincial right-to-life organizations - are still going about the business of educating the public on basic pro-life issues such as abortion and euthanasia, the national coordinating body based in Winnipeg died, in effect, earlier this year. At AFL Canada's Annual General Meeting in Ottawa June 18-19, delegates decided the organization should be "rendered inactive." The decision came after more than a year of bitter infighting, during which most of AFL Canada's work came to a halt.
But delegates also voted to strike a steering committee to propose a new organization to take AFL Canada's place. The old group's problems may have become intractable, but there was a strong consensus that something would be needed to fill the void.
Alliance for Life Ontario executive director Jakki Jeffs, another member of the steering committee, says the committee was charged with preparing a mission statement, letters of patent, and bylaws (to establish membership and directors), and recommending a name and location for the new group, and how it should be staffed and funded.
The committee has sent a survey to AFL Canada's member groups asking for input on these matters, and will issue an interim report for discussion among the groups by Dec. 31, 1999. At the Annual General Meeting in June, it was agreed that any new organization would be up and running by June 2000.
Steering committee members could not comment in detail on the results of the survey at the time this article was written, but Jeffs says member groups are focused on "basic, basic educational issues - abortion, euthanasia, new reproductive technologies, chastity, fetal development - and they see a need for a national source of literature and communication on all these things."
The steering committee also includes Peter Ryan, formerly director of the pro-life office of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver and currently executive director of the New Brunswick Right to Life Association, and Geoff Cauchi, a St. Catharines, Ont. lawyer.
Alliance for Life Canada and its member groups constituted the educational arm of the pro-life movement in this country. Campaign Life Coalition, based in Toronto with provincial and local offices across the country, serves as the political arm. While educational groups generally focus on providing informational literature, speaking in schools, and informing the public on the facts about life issues, Campaign Life Coalition focuses on lobbying politicians at all levels of government, in order eventually to win full legal protection for the right to life.
The two basic mandates cannot be entirely separate, of course, and AFL and CLC found it necessary to work continually toward greater cooperation and efficiency. Those efforts, however, were not without tension. A few people in both groups tended to feel protective of their turf, and unsure of the priorities of outsiders. As a result, unity between the two arms of the Canadian pro-life movement has had its ups and downs over the years.
Jeffs, for one, is confident that any new group replacing AFL Canada will be clearly focused on education work.
"Certainly the mandate [of the steering committee] isn't anything other than educational, and I don't believe the will is there" to move beyond that, she says.
It's also clear that any new national pro-life education group will be committed to cooperating with other pro-life groups - "good, structured, everyday networking," Jeffs says.
And Carroll Rees points out that cooperating with other pro-life groups will not be simply a matter of working with Campaign Life Coalition.
"We're committed to working with all sorts of pro-life groups, not just CLC," she says, referring to churches and religious pro-life groups, among others. "But we're not yet sure what form it will take."
When discussion does turn to concrete proposals on how Canada's pro-life organizations might cooperate more effectively in the future, a great deal of thought and patience will be required on all sides. It's one thing to say that unity is absolutely necessary; it's quite another to spell out how and by whom actual decisions would be made on a day-to-day basis.
Moreover, some pro-life education leaders remain unconvinced of the need for a new national education group, especially if it is not essentially different from AFL Canada.
Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Ontario, says, "Essentially what the pro-life movement needs is not more groups, but unity. Our membership is much smaller than it once was, and our workers are much fewer than they once were. By dividing into new groups, we are weakening our ranks."
Schadenberg argues that if the movement is to increase its influence on Canadian society, its leaders will have to realize that "We don't have the luxury of having multiple groups in this country." While he doesn't dispute the need for specialized groups, such as his own organization, Schadenberg opposes establishing another "mainline" organization with a broad mandate like AFL or CLC.
He also argues that a new national education group isn't financially viable.
"The only way you can have an effective educational group that serves local right-to-life organizations is to make it an arm of CLC. It's the only organization with the donor base to do it. We don't need another underfunded, ineffective group."
The idea of merging with Campaign Life Coalition was presented at AFL Canada's Annual General Meeting last June, but it was not discussed at length. Delegates were confident that some new organization like the old Alliance would be necessary.
Jakki Jeffs explains that the work AFL Canada was doing must continue.
"The work they were doing isn't currently being done. We can import pro-life literature, but it's insufficient if it's not specific to Canada," she said.
And steering committee member Peter Ryan disputes the argument that any new national education group would not be financially viable.
"They [AFL Canada] were in a fairly sound and stable position financially, which is quite remarkable, especially in the last year when they weren't able to be very active publicly," Ryan says.
Still, some discussion of the distinction between "educational" and "political" pro-life organizations seems to be in order. It's partly by historical accident that the Canadian pro-life movement has been so clearly delineated in that way, and circumstances have changed.
Schadenberg argues that the strict divisions between the two arms of the movement arose because of previous tax policies of the federal government. Revenue Canada's old distinction between "charitable" and "political" work, he says, used to allow pro-life groups like AFL Canada to issue tax receipts to donors, so long as they didn't stray from "educational" work as the government defined it.
In recent years, however, the government made the distinction meaningless, holding both AFL Canada and Human Life International (Canada) to impossible standards. Last year, both organizations lost their status as "charitable" organizations, in spite of several expensive court challenges.
The breakdown of the government's educational-political distinction is fine with Schadenberg, since he sees it as arbitrary and divisive.
"The audience is the only difference," he says. "If I'm speaking to a politician or a church group, the message is the same."
Weyburn, Sask. lawyer Tom Shuck, a board member of AFL Canada in the 1980s, would agree.
"It's a blessing from God to see Alliance die," he says. "Now we can have one national pro-life group."
"The biggest enemy we have," Schuck argues, "is not the abortionists. It's apathy among Christians." He believes the pro-life movement won't overcome this apathy unless it is united under one banner.
He argues that with AFL Canada gone, there's a chance to end the confusion about which organization to support, which caused a lot of interested people to give up and remain inactive. He also argues that politically-minded pro-lifers are more open to effective strategies than they were in the past, and that this bodes well for involving everyone in a united group.
"In the past we weren't able [to motivate people], because some people said compromise is morally reprehensible. But now even the Pope has come out saying you can compromise in certain circumstances. I think there's a feeling now that that's possible."
Deciding on political strategies would be one of the biggest can of worms any unified Canadian pro-life organization would have to open. In spite of changed political circumstances since the last major battles over abortion legislation, there are still disagreements about what "compromises" are philosophically valid and politically prudent. But Schuck points to examples of pro-lifers making it work.
"In Saskatchewan we essentially did everything under one roof, with the Saskatchewan Pro-Life Association. We zeroed in on getting Christians involved, and within 10 years, we went from zero revenue to a half-million dollars per year. Receipts are dropping now because we haven't put efforts into recruiting new people."
Whatever proposal emerges from the steering committee, pro-lifers in all organizations across the country will have to face the question of unity and the future of the movement.
Colette Fleming, executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Right to Life Association, sums up the spirit that will be needed in the months and years ahead.
"There's always been a spirit of cooperation between educational and political," she says. "I'd like to see us work jointly more in the future, so that we can make the pro-choicers stew a little more because of our combined efforts."