Not many Canadians remember – or ever knew – the story of the Abortion Caravan, a group of women who drove from Vancouver to Ottawa in the spring of 1970 to challenge Canada’s abortion laws. After delivering a coffin to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s doorstep, the caravan returned to Parliament where 36 women chained themselves to their seats in the public gallery, shouting “Abortion on demand” until the house was adjourned – the first time such a disruption had ever occurred. But it was not a moment that registered in the national consciousness. “It wasn’t considered a significant event, a part of ‘history,’” writes Karin Wells, who created a CBC Radio documentary about the Abortion Caravan in 2010 and who brings to her book a documentary maker’s vivid characterization and exquisite attention to detail.
With engaging prose rich with humour, Wells sets the scene: a caravan of three vehicles, including a Volkswagen van with the coffin on top, first for the symbolism (between 1,000 and 2,000 women in Canada died each year from unsafe abortions) but also as a convenient place to store their sleeping bags. The women were all white and it never occurred to anyone at the time to wonder why Black and Indigenous women were missing. But otherwise this was a motley crew, each woman with a different background and motivation for taking part. They were united by the idea that Canada’s abortion laws – abortions were subject to the approval of a committee – were as unjust as they were dangerous.
Wells shows that the caravan was a product of the political scene at Simon Fraser University but was also connected to a wave of student uprisings across Europe and the U.S., including the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. One perfect moment in the book has a caravan member going into a corner store for chocolate and cigarettes and reading news of the Kent State killings on the front page of the Sudbury Star.
The caravan grew in size as it crossed the prairies under RCMP surveillance, entering Ontario via the Trans-Canada Highway, which was still being paved. Along the way, it stopped in towns and cities, the women sleeping on church basement floors. (The United Church of Canada had been rallying around the abortion issue for a decade.) Typesetters were on strike that spring, so getting the word out through the newspapers was difficult, but news spread through grassroots organizing and phone trees.
When officials refused to meet the caravan upon its arrival in Ottawa, the women decided to take over Parliament. Women working in MPs’ offices forged passes so caravan members (poet Bronwen Wallace now among them) could enter the House of Commons, all of them costumed in “middle-class” clothing raided from local second-hand stores. It was a spectacle.
From the vantage of 2020, it is easy to underestimate the significance of the Abortion Caravan. It took another 18 years for substantive change to Canada’s abortion laws to take effect, and even today access to abortion remains a challenge in many parts of the country. But Wells’s powerful book affirms that such ongoing obstacles to women’s autonomy and reproductive rights are why the Abortion Caravan matters more than ever. “We needed brave, badly behaved women back then,” she writes, “and we always will.”