BY CAROLE CARON
MONTREAL - "Not the church, not the state, women must control their fate," shouted 2,500 participants in a protest against Human Life International (HLI). The U.S.-based antiabortion outfit held its 14th annual conference here April 19-21. Demonstrators came from Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa, Toronto, and Kingston, Ontario.
Founded in 1981 by Paul Marx, HLI boasts 53 branches in more than 39 countries. It actively campaigns against women's rights, lesbians and gays, feminism, sex education, and contraception. Its literature is full of anti-Jewish and anti- Muslim propaganda. One of its conference workshops in Montreal was originally titled: "The Muslim Threat to the World." Randall Terry, leader of the right-wing antiabortion group Operation Rescue, was one of the keynote speakers at the HLI conference.
The anti-HLI demonstration held on the first day of their conference was organized by a coalition of some 80 organizations, including women's groups, student associations, and community and political organizations.
"Defend Immigrants Rights;" "Stop antiabortion lies! We will not be terrorized!" "Racists, sexists, homophobics, Women say no to xenophobia" and "Human Life, your name's a lie. You don't care if women die," were some of the signs and slogans at the demonstration.
Many young people joined the protest. "I am here because these people want to take us back more than 50 years," said Richard, a young unemployed Quebecois.
"The Young Amazons are here because we are against everything that HLI stands for," said Anna, one of the two founding members of the group.
Representatives from the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics were present with a huge banner. Brenda Lee from Toronto explained that "we want to tell them it won't work here."
The crowd started to gather around 6:30 p.m. in the square across from Notre-Dame Basilica in old-Montreal as HLI conference delegates arrived to attend a mass. Demonstrators were chanting, dancing, and clapping in a spirited manner as HLI delegates started to leave the church at 8:40 p.m. They were supposed to stage a candlelight march under heavy police guard through the streets of Montreal back to their hotel rooms. But HLI members looked astonished by the number of protesters and walked quickly towards their hotel without trying to relight candles blown out by the wind.
The protesters booed and chanted "Go home!" and "Shame!" They blew whistles and horns, and beat drums under the guidance of the marshals who helped the crowd stay together.
Chants of, "No to violence" swept the crowd as some eggs, condoms filled with water, and bottles were thrown in the direction of the cops. The demonstrators remained focused on what they had come to protest. Even the daily La Presse, which had run an editorial against the rally earlier, pointed out that the demonstrators were disciplined and serious.
One week before the event, La Presse ran a front-page article stating, "the police are expecting the worst." A cop was quoted saying, "We are afraid, but we are ready."
The cops set an intimidating atmosphere at the protest, lining their cars all the way from the closest subway station to the church. Hundreds of heavily armed riot police circled the square. They banned the use of loud speakers by the demonstrators, making it even harder to organize the rally.
The cops whipped up a campaign of hysteria beforehand, pretending to be between "two extremisms," that is HLI and those opposing its views. Police provocations of those opposed to HLI's ideas was exposed in an April 21 article in La Presse that reported an undercover cop, pretending to be a university student, had infiltrated the coalition. After chanting anti-HLI slogans at the demonstration, she proceeded to arrest one young protester.
At the end of the demonstration, when only a few hundred were still in the streets, the cops charged into the crowd and began beating up some of the participants. They arrested nine demonstrators and charged them with public mischief and police assault. Four of those arrested were kept in jail for several days without the right to make bail.
Seventy people protested these arrests by marching to the Parthenais jail April 23, where the activists were being held.
In the weeks leading up to the demonstration, a public debate broke out over how to protest HLI's presence in Montreal.
The Quebec Teachers Union Federation (CEQ), League of Human Rights, and the Quebec Coalition for Free Abortion decided not to participate in the protest, arguing that a march in the streets against HLI could "endanger" Montreal's abortion clinics. Gisele Bourret, a CEQ representative, said, "These people [HLI] are rather frightening. We don't want to have a confrontation with them."
Participants in the demonstration were not afraid, however. "Whether HLI comes to question our rights to free and legal abortion or not, it's important not to hide our heads in the sand," said Nadine Allard, a leader of the Coalition against Human Life International.
"I respect everyone's opinion. I think it is important to express one's view in the streets," said André, a member of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) who works at Bombardier-Canadair in Montreal. "But why are there so many cops?"
On April 21, the last day of the HLI conference, several hundred supporters of lesbian and gay rights protested outside the hotel Radisson where the 1,300 delegates were meeting.
Several participants in the anti-HLI fight attended a Militant Labor Forum where Shree Muley, from the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and Bertrand Loiselle of the Coalition against Human Life International spoke on a panel on the success of the protests against HLI and the importance of defending the nine people arrested at the April 19 demonstration.
As the HLI members packed their bags to leave town, they grumbled about the reception they had received. "No other city in the world has ever mounted the kind of opposition HLI met in Montreal," said Paul Marx.
Paul Marx's parting comments were "if Quebec permits sex education that is too permissive, francophones in Quebec are threatened with extinction if they continue to allow abortion."
In the 1970s women in Quebec won the right to abortion through big battles in the streets. Today, the province has 19 abortion clinics, by far the biggest number in any province of Canada.
Due to the public outrage against HLI, Archbishop Turcotte of the Notre-Dame Basilica, which hosted the HLI mass, was forced to publicly question HLI saying the more he found out about their ideas, the more "unhappy" he became. He said the Basilica will be discussing whether to let groups such as HLI use their facilities in the future.
Carole Caron is a member of the IAM Lodge 712, at Canadair-
Bombardier in Montreal.
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