Conservative uses expletive to tell activists how they’ll make more headway with Harper government
Ottawa — Globe and Mail Monday, May. 03, 2010
Nancy Ruth is a Conservative senator and pro-choice feminist. She worries that aid activists, pressuring the Harper government to include access to abortion in a G8 initiative, will only touch off a backlash. She has some friendly advice for them.
“We have five weeks or whatever until the G8 starts. Shut the fuck up – on this issue,” Ms. Ruth said.
Ms. Ruth issued her salty warning on Monday, at a Parliament Hill gathering to discuss the declining place of women’s rights in Canada’s foreign policy. When the aid groups criticized the Harper government’s decision not to fund abortion as part of its initiative to reduce the deaths of mothers and young children, Ms. Ruth counselled self-censorship.
“ Let it roll out. I hope I’m not proven wrong, but I have every confidence that it will include family planning and so on … and I hope I’m right. ”— Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth, on the government’s G8 maternal-health plan
Her comments – reported by the Toronto Star – were a suggestion of strategy, not a threat. She was arguing that if the activists let the abortion issue alone, there is a better chance the maternal-health plan will include programs for family planning and contraception.
“Let it roll out. I hope I’m not proven wrong, but I have every confidence that it will include family planning and so on … and I hope I’m right,” she said. “It’s just if you push it, there’ll be more backlash. This is now a political football. This is not about women’s health in this country.”
The irony is that some of Monday’s conference was given over to discussing a chill on non-governmental agencies involved in aid. Many aid organizations say there is an increasing fear that criticizing the Conservative government will lead to cuts in federal funding.
Many of the activists who absorbed Ms. Ruth’s warning see her as an ally – but some said they view her statements as emblematic of the chill.
“I think it’s a very revealing suggestion. That this government doesn’t brook any criticism at all,” said Katherine MacDonald, the executive director of Action Canada for Population and Development, and the person to whom Ms. Ruth addressed some of her remarks.
Joanna Kerr, the Canadian who is about to take over as chief executive of the international group Action Aid International, said the conference was about the reduced role of women’s rights in Canadian foreign policy – but also the chill on speaking out at home. “We feel that our democratic space is getting smaller,” she said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in January that Canada would champion a new push to combat maternal and infant deaths in poor countries when he hosts the summit of leaders of G8 countries in June.
But his government has flip-flopped and stumbled over whether it will include funding for contraception and safe abortion, which many experts argue is critical to reducing pregnancy-related deaths.
In March, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said the initiative would not include family planning programs at all; two days later, with the government under fire, he backtracked. But last week, the government announced Canadian maternal health programs would exclude abortion, though they might include contraception.
Ms. Ruth’s comments appeared to reflect divisions within the Conservative caucus over whether the programs should include funding for contraception and family-planning programs. But Ms. McDonald argued that if groups like hers hadn’t raised an uproar, when Mr. Cannon said in March that contraception would be excluded, that issue would already be decided.
Opposition from inside the Conservative caucus has already sparked efforts to remove funding for abortion from Canadian aid programs. A Conservative MP, Brad Trost, has since last year sponsored a campaign to press the government to cut funding for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which provides family planning counselling and contraception, but also abortion services in some countries.
Ms. Ruth, who twice ran unsuccessfully for provincial office in Ontario under her former name, Nancy Ruth Jackman, was appointed to the Senate in 2005 by former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin. She initially sat as a Progressive Conservative, though that party was defunct, and joined Mr. Harper’s Conservative caucus in 2006.
Aid groups advised to ‘shut the fuck up’ on abortion
May 03, 2010
Pawel Dwulit/Toronto Star File Photo
OTTAWA – Aid experts alarmed by Canada’s new anti-abortion stand in foreign policy have received some raw political advice from a Conservative senator: “shut the f— up” or it could get worse.
“We’ve got five weeks or whatever left until G-8 starts. Shut the f— up on this issue,” Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth told a group of international-development advocates who gathered on Parliament Hill on Monday to sound the alarm about Canada’s hard-right stand against abortion in foreign aid.
“If you push it, there will be more backlash,” said Ruth, who fears that outrage will push her boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to take further measures against abortion and family planning – abroad, or maybe even in Canada. “This is now a political football. This is not about women’s health in this country.”
Last week, Harper’s government announced that it would no longer be supporting abortion as any part of its foreign-aid focus on maternal health, even though abortion is legal in Canada.
It was a surprise measure from a Conservative prime minister who has so far veered his government away from any overt social conservatism and may haunt Harper into a future election campaign.
Ruth’s remarks, intended more as friendly advice than a warning, were met with gasps of disbelief and even anger among the approximately 80 aid representatives who converged on Parliament Hill to condemn what they see as a gathering storm against women’s rights in Canadian aid policy.
Ruth explained that she attends Conservative caucus, understands the current political dynamics and is sympathetic to the cause of women upset by the anti-abortion announcement – “I just want them to be quiet for five weeks,” she told reporters. But few of the advocates appeared inclined to take her counsel.
“We have shut the f— up. That’ s the issue here,” said Joanna Kerr, the newly named chief executive of Action Aid International, based in South Africa.
“There’s a real chill in Ottawa on speaking out,” said Betty Plewes, a development consultant and chairperson of Monday’s meeting, organized around the question of “where is Canada’s leadership in the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights?”
One international aid advocate, Lydia Alpizar Duran, from the Association of Women’s Rights in Development, vowed that Canadian women would have help from other countries if they want to start making noise here.
“I don’t remember any women’s rights ever gained by staying silent,” she said.
At Monday’s meeting, Kerr laid out a variety of measures which she says point to a worrying pattern in Canada’s attention to women’s rights abroad.
Just days ago, for instance, a 34-year-old Canadian aid organization devoted to gender equality, Match International, was notified that its funding was being cut. Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae slammed the Conservatives in the Commons on Monday for the Match cuts, asking: “Just what kind of a grudge does the government have for the women’s organizations around this country that are working so hard for women?”
Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who was also on Parliament Hill on Monday to add her voice to the rising chorus against the anti-abortion stand in foreign policy and the cuts to Match, said: “These are very dark days for women or for any Canadian citizen who looks at our place in the world and wonders: ‘what are we saying to the rest of the world about what we care about’?”
Ruth is convinced that the final communiqué of the G8 meeting in Canada in June will include a mention of this country’s support for family planning, but fears that ongoing furor over abortion could harden the Conservative government’s stand even more. And just as her Conservative colleagues have warned repeatedly, she said that Canada does not need a reopened abortion debate.
“I hope I’m not proven wrong but I have every confidence that it (the communiqué) will include family planning,” Ruth said. “Canada is still a country with free and accessible abortion. Leave it there. Don’t make it into an election issue.”
Harper’s announced ban on abortion in foreign-aid programs is an echo of a similar ban that former president George W. Bush also enacted during his eight years in office.
But Harper and his Conservatives say they are simply following the lead of the House of Commons, where a Liberal vote to support “the full range” of family-planning options in foreign aid was defeated in March.
The Liberals’ status-of-women critic, Anita Neville, was in the room as well when Ruth made her comments on Monday and spoke out against any further “chill” among people inclined to be critical of Harper’s decision. Neville says there’s enough of that in Ottawa already.
“I think women have been told too often to be quiet, be good and then you’ll get what you want. I think that she was saying don’t push the issue or you’ll get the Prime Minister’s back up even further and you won’t get what you want,” Neville told reporters later.
“There was a bit of a shock in the room. I don’t know that there was anybody in the room that agreed with her. I think people appreciated her sentiments were well intended but not well received.”