Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Conservative tension with anti-abortion groups an echo of Liberal battle in the 1990s

Conservative convention this year is virtual

OTTAWA — Patrick Johnston has been having flashbacks about his own unhappy experience in federal politics as he watches attempts by anti-abortion groups to influence the outcome of next week’s Conservative convention.

Way back in 1988, Johnston was a star candidate for the Liberals, hand-picked by then-leader John Turner to run in the Toronto riding of Scarborough West.

But Johnston lost the nomination to an anti-abortion candidate, Tom Wappel, who benefited from the organizational muscle provided by anti-abortion advocacy group Campaign Life Coalition.

“We know that they signed up people who weren’t Liberals and that’s essentially how they and Wappel won that riding,” Johnston said in an interview.

Wappel went on to win the riding for the Liberals in the 1988 election. Just seven months later, the rookie MP became the first to announce his candidacy for the party’s leadership after Turner said he would resign, again backed by Campaign Life and a small fringe group within the party who labelled themselves Liberals for Life.

He wound up coming in a distant fourth in the 1990 leadership race, won decisively on the first ballot by Jean Chrétien.

But Liberals for Life recruited new anti-abortion party members in sufficient numbers to wrest control of a number of moribund Liberal riding associations in Toronto and elsewhere. They were intent on nominating more anti-abortion candidates and electing delegates to influence policy at the Liberal convention in 1992, at a time when the party had not yet taken an official stance on abortion.

All of that history has been on Johnston’s mind as he watches the current machinations by rookie MP Derek Sloan and anti-abortion groups to influence a Conservative policy convention next week.

“It did bring back some memories,” said Johnston, who now lives in Sloan’s eastern Ontario riding of Hastings-Lennox and Addington.

Sloan was little known in the Conservative party when he became an MP in 2019 and a few months later decided to run for the leadership. He and candidate Leslyn Lewis were both committed to advancing positions favourable to Campaign Life Coalition and similar groups, and those organizations mobilized support for their campaigns.

In the first round of voting, Sloan and Lewis combined had more support than either of the two front-runners, Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay.

During the race, O’Toole had also courted social conservatives, promising he was a “true blue” Tory, unlike the more progressive MacKay. Even if he wasn’t their first or second choice, he told them, ranking him third would mean he’d beat MacKay and their views would have an ear.

O’Toole won on the third ballot, after Sloan and Lewis dropped off.

Sloan finished fourth and his extreme views put him on the outs with many in his caucus during the contest and after. He was eventually expelled by O’Toole and a majority of his fellow MPs, infuriating the social conservative grassroots O’Toole had courted.

Sloan pledged to fight back by mustering enough of them to dominate the convention, and together with organized anti-abortion groups claims to have registered more than 1,000 delegates for next week’s event, their efforts so robust that they managed to snatch spots away from senior party officials.

Their biggest goal: deleting the existing Conservative policy that states a Tory-led government would never regulate abortion. But they’re also aiming to elect a slate to the party’s national council.

At the Liberals’ 1992 convention, Chrétien announced that Liberals against abortion were welcome but the party had to draw a firm line against what he described as single-issue anti-abortionists who were trying to hijack the party.

Largely on the strength of that argument, delegates to the convention voted overwhelmingly to give the leader the power to appoint candidates in some ridings, bypassing the democratic nomination process.

Even most anti-abortion members of the Liberal caucus ended up supporting the appointment power because it was framed as “a question on the autonomy of the Liberal party and people coming in to take over the party who are one-issue, right-wing interlopers, basically,” recalls former Liberal MP Mary Clancy, who, along with Brian Tobin, was tasked by Chrétien with keeping the Liberals for Life in check.

Clancy and Tobin also ensured that anti-abortion resolutions never made it out of policy workshops to the convention floor.

The Conservative convention this year is virtual, with policy workshops replaced by an advance online voting process on ideas submitted by riding associations. Only the top 30 will make it to the virtual floor, an approach that Campaign Life Coalition alleged in an email late last week was deliberate.

“Why only 30?” they wrote to supporters.

“Because they guessed, quite accurately it seems, that most of the so-con policies would fall into the 31st to 100th place rank, while the top 30 would likely be the uncontroversial, ‘plain Jane’ type of conservative policies that the leader wants.”

O’Toole brushed aside questions this week on whether he’d seek to directly address that faction of his party at the convention, saying the Conservative party is a grassroots, “big tent” organization.

“I do think you will see coming out of the largest political convention in Canadian history, a Conservative party united, a Conservative party ready to lead, and a Conservative party relentlessly focused at creating jobs in all sectors and all regions of the country.”

Chrétien used the new power he gained in 1992 to appoint 14 candidates for the 1993 election, some, though not all, in ridings that had been taken over by Liberals for Life — among them Etobicoke-Lakeshore, where Jean Augustine was appointed and went on to become Canada’s first Black female MP and cabinet minister.

Eddie Goldenberg, one of Chrétien’s top advisers throughout his decades in politics, said Chrétien’s appointments put an end to the Liberals for Life “pretty quickly.”

“It precluded those groups from organizing because there was no point,” he said.

The Conservatives hold fast to their policy of open nominations, with a party committee in charge of vetting. Gaining greater influence on those committees is one of the current goals of the anti-abortion movement.

The Liberal party has since evolved into an officially pro-choice party. Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s leadership, no newcomer is allowed to run for a Liberal nomination if they don’t first promise to support the pro-choice position in any vote.

Johnston wonders whether that would have happened had Chrétien not nipped the Liberals for Life in the bud.

“If they had not done that, it’s possible that the Liberal party could have been in the same position (as Conservatives now),” he said.

Unlike O’Toole, Chrétien won the Liberal leadership without having to rely on support from a socially conservative wing of the party. That gave him more freedom to root out the Liberals for Life a few years later.

But even if O’Toole were so inclined, Johnston thinks it’s too late for the Conservatives to try that now.

“It’s the sort of thing that probably the Conservatives should have done a number of years ago … My sense is (social conservatives’) tentacles are so deep in the Conservative party that it would be very, very difficult to root them out now.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2021.

abortionConservative Party of Canada

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

3-hour paid leave for Albertans to get vaccinated in the works

The UCP government intends to introduce legislation that will ensure working Albertans… Continue reading

Alberta completed 18,412 COVID-19 tests, as reported on Wednesday, for a test positivity rate of 9.5 per cent. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Highest daily count of 2021 so far: Alberta reports 1,699 COVID-19 cases

Variants now make up 59 per cent of Alberta’s active cases

Several cases of COVID-19 were reported among employees of stores at Bower Place Mall. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
COVID-19 cases reported at Bower Place mall stores

AHS said five complaints were investigated since March, and required changes made

Edmonton Eskimos' Tanner Green, right, knocks the ball from Calgary Stampeders' Romar Morris during first half CFL football action in Calgary in 2019. Green has been waiting for nearly 17 months to get back on the field with the Edmonton Football Team. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Lacombe’s Tanner Green happy to finally see a CFL return to play date

CFL announced Wednesday league will return on Aug. 5

Westerner Park’s Exhibition Hall was used as a vaccination clinic on Wednesday. A steady stream of people came to get their COVID-19 shots either by appointment or as walk-ins. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
No long lineups at walk-in vaccination site in Red Deer

A steady stream of people walked into Westerner Park on Wednesday to… Continue reading

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Iran's president on Wednesday called Tehran's decision to enrich uranium up to 60% after saboteurs attacked a nuclear site "an answer to your evilness," linking the incident to ongoing talks in Vienna over its tattered nuclear deal with world powers. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
US outlines possible sanctions relief for Iran in nuke talks

US outlines possible sanctions relief for Iran in nuke talks

Activists hope Chauvin convictions are start to real change

Activists hope Chauvin convictions are start to real change

CORRECTS THAT PHOTOGRAPHS ARE OF TRANSGENDERED WOMEN KILLED OVER THE YEARS, NOT PEOPLE WHO DIED BY POLICE VIOLENCE - A backstop at Cal Anderson Park is covered, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, in Seattle, with photographs of transgendered women who have been killed in the past years. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times via AP)
Grim list of deaths at police hands grows even after verdict

Grim list of deaths at police hands grows even after verdict

FILE - This file image made from a video aired Friday, Jan. 7, 2005, by Israeli television station Channel 10, shows what the television station claims is Israel's top secret nuclear facility in the southern Israeli town of Dimona, the first detailed video of the site ever shown to the public. The Israeli military said that a missile was fired into Israel from neighboring Syria early Thursday, April 22, 2021, and that it has struck targets in Syria in response. Earlier, air raid sirens sounded in Dimona, the Negev town that is home to Israel's secretive nuclear reactor, indicating a possible incoming attack. (Channel 10 via AP, File)
Israel says it strikes targets in Syria after missile attack

Israel says it strikes targets in Syria after missile attack

FILE - In this July 8, 2014, file photo, is a sign alerting visitors to water conservation efforts at the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared an emergency executive order in two Northern California counties in response to drought conditions affecting much of the state. The announcement Wednesday, April 21, 2021, affects Mendocino and Sonoma counties, where Newsom says drought conditions are especially bad. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
California governor declares drought emergency in 2 counties

California governor declares drought emergency in 2 counties

Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, walks down the street with an acquaintance after leaving B.C. Supreme Court during a lunch break at her extradition hearing, in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, April 1, 2021. A judge is scheduled to release her decision today on a request to delay the final leg of hearings in Meng Wanzhou's extradition case. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rich Lam
B.C. judge grants Meng Wanzhou’s request to delay extradition hearings

B.C. judge grants Meng Wanzhou’s request to delay extradition hearings

Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, makes an announcement regarding the protection of children from online sexual exploitation during a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, Aug 6, 2019. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed former Liberal minister Goodale as high commissioner for Canada in the United Kingdom.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Coming G7, climate meetings will be ‘pivotal,’ says Goodale, Canada’s new rep in U.K.

Coming G7, climate meetings will be ‘pivotal,’ says Goodale, Canada’s new rep in U.K.

A Cargill sign is shown at one of its meat-processing plants in Chambly, Que., on Sunday, May 10, 2020. A vaccination clinic for thousands of workers at a southern Alberta beef-packing plant has been postponed due to a delay in a shipment of the Moderna vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Site of COVID outbreak last year: Vaccination clinic at Alberta beef plant postponed

Site of COVID outbreak last year: Vaccination clinic at Alberta beef plant postponed

Most Read