Campaign Life: 35 years of pro-life activism
On May 25, 1978, a group of pro-lifers, upset with the compromise mentality of the Coalition for the Protection of Human Life, met in Winnipeg to form a new national political pro-life organization. The Coalition had presented a paper to the Ontario legislature calling for an end to publicly funded abortion except in cases of genetic defects. Some pro-lifers were upset with the compromise.
With representatives from local pro-life groups in Quebec and Ontario and Western Coalition groups from Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C., Campaign Life was formed, dedicating itself to the mission of questioning political candidates and raising public awareness on life issues throughout Canada.
Another catalyst for the new group was the realization that pro-life educational groups were being stymied in their attempts to become involved politically, risking their charitable tax status. Stephen McDonnell, president of Campaign Life Toronto, noted at the formation of the new organization: “The abortion law will only be changed when a large number of Canadians publicly demand, with unified voice, a change. The creation of Campaign Life Canada brings that day a little closer.”
Jim Hughes, who would become president of the national organization in the early 1980s after Alberta-based Kathleen Toth resigned the post once the Charter of Rights was passed, said that Campaign Life, and the national umbrella organization for educational groups, Alliance for Life Canada, worked together on and off for years, until the latter’s demise in the late 1990s, most notably while the late Heather Stilwell was Alliance’s president in the mid-1980s. He said the two groups would coordinate their efforts, with Alliance working with Right to Life groups to educate the public at the grassroots level on specific issues and Campaign Life – and later Campaign Life Coalition – working with MPs on those same issues.
Gwen Landolt, one of Campaign Life’s founders with Paul Formby and Paul Dodds, credited the Toronto priests of the Basilian order with an integral role in the startup of the new pro-life organization. “The Basilian fathers were wonderfully generous,” she said. “We used rooms and equipment at their seminary. They also freed up Paul Formby, who at that time was a seminarian, to carry on with his pro-life responsibilities. Without them, there would be no Campaign Life Coalition today.”
Hughes told The Interim in an interview last month that while Campaign Life and CLC has had “tremendous support from many individual priests and pastors, we haven’t had the support we initially expected from the leadership.” He also noted that the organization has had run-ins with priests over political strategy, with some upset that Campaign Life was too partisan, when they refuse to support the party the priest or pastor was backing.
The Basilian Formby left the Coalition to work with Campaign Life and became its national co-ordinator. He left the seminary to study law. Hughes credits fine legal minds in the likes of Dodds, Formby, and Landolt, as well as scholars such as Professor David Dooley, Fr. Ian Boyd, Fr. Alphonse de Valk, and medical experts like Dr. John Shea as being important in adding a professionalism to the grassroots organization as they developed questionnaires, strategized about politics, wrote press releases, talked with the media, made presentations to legislatures and conferences, among other projects.
Fr. Boyd and Formby helped create Campaign Life’s first questionnaire which asked two questions: one about whether abortion should be legal and another about funding abortion through foreign aid. In a trial run of two dozen by-elections in 1978, CL found the questionnaires effective in garnering information about candidates. Formby told The Interim in 2003 that they were instrumental in defeating two pro-abortion NDP candidates in a pair of Toronto ridings. CL printed tens of thousands of pamphlets and distributed them in all the Toronto riding that held a by-election. An analysis of the results by poll station found that where Campaign Life distributed the pamphlets, pro-life candidates received more votes than they would otherwise be expected to win.
Hughes noted that while the questionnaire has been tweaked over time it is still an important educational tool. He said it is important to “use objective standards to qualify candidates.” Hughes said the writ period was longer then and that the central control parties and leaders exercise combined with four-week campaigns make questioning candidates and distributing that information more difficult today. However, with the internet, pro-life voters come to CLC nowadays looking for that information. The downside, said Hughes, is that it is “more difficult to educate the part of the public that doesn’t care about the issue.”
While Campaign Life has been involved in every political battle affecting life issues, the three biggest are probably their fight to amend the Charter of Rights in 1982 to include protection of human life (or defeat it), the Mulroney abortion bills that had loopholes that would not have reduced abortion, and the stem cell research bill in the early 2000s.
CL’s Landolt prophetically warned that the Charter would be used to strike down the minor limits that existed on abortion. Formby said of the Charter battle, “we were effective in waking people up to the issues,” he said. “We put up a good fight, made a good account of ourselves and did what we could to prevent the Charter from going through.” Toth remembered the battle over the Charter as “the hardest part” of her pro-life work, especially when the standing committee taking input from the public refused to grant Campaign Life an appointment. That didn’t deter Toth, Landolt and company, who went to Ottawa anyway and walked right into the hearings. “We made our presentation and were very well received, but we weren’t able to the get the unborn into the Charter.”
Toth left shortly thereafter and was replaced by Hughes. Jim Hughes joined Campaign Life Toronto in 1978, thinking it would be a two-year commitment before he returned to sales. But 35 years later, he is still working full-time applying his business skills to the pro-life movement. He calls himself a “connector” because he links people with solutions to problems that need to be solved. He has found people to take on projects that Campaign Life and CLC have initiated or brought to Canada: graphic photo demonstration through Show the Truth, 40 Days for Life campaigns, Life Chain, Operation Rescue, The Interim newspaper, LifeSiteNews.com daily online reporting, Real Women, the Family Coalition Party of Ontario, the Pro-Life Party of Canada, Tories for Life, Liberals for Life, and many other projects. “There are more projects and organizations than we can remember, but when there was a need, we found a way to address it,” said Hughes. Or as Toth told The Interim in 2003, “Campaign Life has grown into such a big tree, with so many branches.”
Participants of the meeting in 1986 that led to the merger of Campaign Life and the Coalition for the Protection of Human Life featuring (back row Jim Highes, Rollie LaPrairie, Frank Foley, Harry Schadenberg, Paul Dodds and (front row) Anna Desilets, Ed Newell and Sue Hierlihy.
By 1986, the few people who remained with the Coalition for Life agreed with Campaign Life on political strategy, and those who favoured compromise had left the movement. A meeting was setup after entreaties from Ed Newell, then president of Alliance for Life Canada, to merge the two groups in 1987. A meeting of Hughes, Anna Desilets, Sue Heirlihy, Rollie LaPrairie, Harry Schadenberg, and Frank Foley in Calgary resulted in the Coalition and Campaign joining forces under one, new banner: Campaign Life Coalition. Hughes wanted someone from the Coalition side to take the presidency, but they convinced him to stay on as leader.
Hughes said that Campaign Life had a mailing list of 200 names in 1978 but that after the Charter battles, during which ads appeared in the Catholic Register, Toronto Star, and other publications, it had grown to more than 8000. Today, the mailing list has more than 100,000 names on it, although due to cost constraints, less than 20,000 receive their monthly newsletter regularly. Campaign Life grew into a national force.
Asked what Campaign Life, and Campaign Life Coalition’s greatest success is, Hughes said that ultimately success will be defined by God, but that “in human terms, the fact we are here today,” can be counted as a victory. “We continue to grow, and we are finding more young people willing to take up the pro-life mantle.” He said CLC is laying down the tracks on which future pro-lifers will work to return legal protection for unborn life. “We are putting everything in God’s hands and trust that it will work out in the end.”
– Some material has appeared in previous Interim stories.