Virtual Conversation with Karin Wells on the Abortion Caravan

Photo of the abortion caravan in 1970

In May, we hosted a webinar in collaboration with the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) and the National Abortion Federation Canada (NAF), with some of the original Abortion Caravan participant and the author of a new book celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the arrival of the Abortion Caravan in Ottawa.

The panelists were:

Cathy Walker, original Caravaner

Dawn Hemingway, original Caravaner

Karin Wells, author 

Robyn Schwarz, SHORE Centre

Laura Neidhart, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights

Jill Doctoroff, NAF Canada

Joyce Arthur, ARCC

As we didn't get to answer all questions live at the event, we asked the panelists to respond in writing. Looking for more information about abortion? Check out the 2020 Abortion Caravan project

The slogan on the side of the caravan vehicles "smash capitalism" certainly stands out. I'd love to hear more about that aspect of the movement!

Joyce’s Answer:

Karin's book explains that the women had a variety of political issues they were involved in, and they kind of wanted it ALL - not just abortion - and that equality and justice wouldn't be possible without getting rid of capatilism first. But lots of arguments over that, and finally the women who thought the caravan should just focus on abortion in order to have a strong message, won out. They washed off the phrase once they left the prairies.

Cathy's Answer: 

Seriously, the debate over whether to leave 'smash capitalism' painted on the van was a contentious and difficult one until we finally capitulated and washed it off.  The basic question was, of course, how can we ever ensure women have the basic right to control our own bodies in the context of capitalism when the nature of the economic system is that our labour power, and thus our bodies themselves, is bought and sold by capitalists?  Without solving the basic problem, capitalism, how can we solve the consequences of the problem?  Today, when we see access to abortion being denied or made much more difficult for poor women, indigenous women, those in remote areas, etc. our concerns are seen to have foundation.  

The contrary argument, of course, which is what was being debated throughout the caravan's evening sessions, was that if we put "smash capitalism" front and centre in the abortion debate in Canada, we would alienate (or at least mystify) so many people who could otherwise agree with our position of abortion on demand, but couldn't either see the link between the fundamental problem of capitalism or would deny it.  

Personally, I tended to waffle on the issue and by the end of the evening debates would be swayed by whoever had spoken last on the issue.  We had some incredibly eloquent speakers who would argue their points on this issue very persuasively.  


Dawn Carrell (Hemingway) Answer:

The time period leading up to the Caravan (and after) was one when many young people were trying to figure out how best to have an impact on the world – to address the injustices that we faced and that we saw people facing across the globe.  When we looked into the exploitation and oppression of women, many of us came to the conclusion that women couldn’t truly achieve liberation in the context of a socio-economic system that was at the foundation of the injustices we were facing. 

So Including “Smash Capitalism” on the van for me, and many other women involved in the movement at that time, reflected us reaching that conclusion – about control over our health and wellbeing, over our work environments (or even access to work in certain occupations) and so much more!  We saw controlling our bodies as one fundamental aspect of becoming liberated.  And, within that, we took on the specific question of the right to abortion – free abortion on demand – which also addressed the class question – you shouldn’t need to be reach to access an abortion (or any health care or basic need for that matter). 

Stating clearly and powerfully that Abortion is Our Right (as was on the side of the Van) was a specific, potentially achievable, undertaking that I viewed as one step in building a movement of women (and men) whose aim was to create a different kind of social system that would give people more control over the economy and decisions affecting their lives – in Canada and across the globe.  Big picture for sure, but I think the Caravan was part of that picture.


Where did they get that coffin? Did they decorate it before they left, or as they travelled?

​​​​​​Joyce’s Answer: 

Karin's book explains that the women had a variety of political issues they were involved in, and they kind of wanted it ALL - not just abortion - and that equality and justice wouldn't be possible without getting rid of capatilism first. But lots of arguments over that, and finally the women who thought the caravan should just focus on abortion in order to have a strong message, won out. They washed off the phrase once they left the prairies.

Cathy's Answer:

We thought at first we could get a real coffin but then realised it would be expensive and very heavy.

So my dad very nicely made the coffin.  He made it out of plywood which was also very heavy, but was very sturdy.  I can't remember if he painted it black or if Dawn and I did but we did so before we left Vancouver.    The black paint of course symbolised the women who had died from 'illegal' abortions, together with the coffin itself.  The coffin was very helpful in storing our sleeping bags and various bits of guerrilla theatre paraphernalia as we had limited storage capacity in the three vehicles which were, of course, filled with women.  I don't remember the coffin itself being decorated.  If so, I don't remember where it was decorated.


Dawn Carrell (Hemingway) Answer: 

The coffin was an important symbol, a powerful representation of the thousands of women dying in “back street” abortions.  It opened up the conversation about this horrible and totally unacceptable situation, including how it profoundly affected all women, but in particular working class women and women living in poverty who had absolutely no possibility of going out of country to seek an abortion.  It also opened the door for the broader discussion about the right of women to control their own bodies and all the implications of that in terms of access to the full range of health care; social determinants of health, etc. We talked about the drug companies controlling both development, testing and access to medicines, etc.  So having Cathy’s dad make coffin was a significant contribution appreciated by us all…and, like Cathy, I remember painting it but not the decorating part.

Why is it so difficult to find physicians in Canada to provide abortions after 16-20 weeks? Why are they not being provided training for this in med school?

Jill's answer:  Abortion care after 16 weeks/later abortion care:

There are many reasons why abortion care from 16 weeks is more difficult to access and it does not lie entirely on physicians. Abortion care is regulated in each province/territory differently, often by the College of Physicians and Surgeons. They can place gestational age limits or other requirements making later abortion care more challenging to offer in community clinics. In hospital settings, abortion care can involve multi-disciplinary teams (anesthesia, nursing, maternal fetal medicine, administration, etc.), all of whom need to be on board to successfully  offer later abortion care.

          Training in med school:

This is a great question and I wish I had an answer to it. However, if students, instructors and the general public advocated for it we may see some training being  offered.

Another On to Ottawa trek?

Because of the economic repercussions of the COVID 19 crisis, women have lost 14% of our permanent jobs and massive loss of part time hours. Do you think we need another on to Ottawa campaign to get the Federal government to make sure there is a Feminist Economic reconstruction as Hawaiin are developing or a Feminist New Green Deal rather than funding the fossil fuel industries and defence budget created destructive mainly jobs for men ?

Cathy's Answer:

Well, we won't be undertaking any treks to Ottawa in the near future of course.

But Ellen's basic points are important ones. 

We do need a Feminist Green New Deal to ensure a new economic reality which addresses both the environment, including getting rid of fossil fuels and the defence industry, and the need for better jobs for women.


Dawn Carrell (Hemingway) Answer: 

I think the COVID 19 crisis has definitely put significant issues for women (and all workers) front and centre – especially with respect to health and safety, appropriate wages and working conditions and, most importantly, having more say and more control over the decisions that affect our lives – including looking after our planet and creating the kind of economy that allows us to do just that. Collectively, if we look at the range of jobs and involvements we have as workers across this country, we have the knowledge, expertise and experience to drive a shift in the economy so that it truly meets the needs of everyone. It brings me back to what for me was one of the most important lessons of the Caravan – not waiting for politicians to agree with us or speak for us; it was about organizing and speaking for ourselves.  It’s empowering and can move mountains.

MPs who supported us?

Cathy's Answer: 

Fortunately, Karin and Dawn answered this question properly.  Yes, Grace MacInnis (NDP and only woman MP in the House of Commons in 1970), David Lewis (NDP Party Leader) Lorne Nystrom, (NDP from Saskatchewan and youngest MP)) and Gerald Baldwin, a Red Tory from Alberta, met with us in the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.  I do not recall any other politicians meeting with us along the way.  

Dawn Carrell (Hemingway) Answer:

I would just add with respect to Grace MacInnis being the only woman MP at the time of the Abortion Caravan: I think it’s important to highlight that although there may not have been more women MPs or visible women leaders in other areas, etc., despite their “invisibility”, women were and had historically already been playing critical roles and in multiple ways providing leadership to significant movements toward social change across the world – it’s just often not highlighted! 

(Also answered live)

About the Author

Karin Wells is best known as a CBC radio documentary maker and is a three time recipient of the Canadian Association of Journalists documentary award. Her work has been heard on radio networks around the world and has been recognized by the United Nations. She is also a lawyer and in 2011 was inducted into the University of Ottawa’s Common Law Honour Society.

P.S. Second Story has also set up a Feminist Book of the Month 

Interested in more books on the history of abortion in Canada? Check out Ten Thousand Roses: The Making Of A Feminist Revolution and Just Watch Us.  

Posted on 2020-05-05
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