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Canadian priest explains why he is challenging Ontario’s abortion center ‘bubble zone’ law

Fr. Tony Van Hee, an 83 year old Jesuit, recently spoke to LifeSiteNews about his landmark case and the importance of continuing pro-life witness.
Mon Jan 4, 2021 - 8:35 am EST
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Father Anthony Van Hee on Parliament Hill prior to National March for Life, Ottawa, Ontario, May 9, 2019. Pete Baklinski / LifeSiteNews

OTTAWA, January 4, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) --Fr. Tony Van Hee, S.J., well known for his 29 years fasting and praying on Parliament Hill for an end to abortion, was arrested on October 24, 2018 for breaking Ontario’s “bubble zone” law, Bill 163, or the Safe Access to Abortion Services Act, which Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government passed in October 2017 and which took effect February 1, 2018.

The far-reaching bill bans all pro-life activity — including sidewalk counselling and showing “disapproval” of abortion — within 50 meters of Ontario’s eight abortion centers, a distance that can be increased to 150 meters on request.

Bill 163 also allows hospitals, pharmacies, and healthcare facilities that commit abortions, including chemical abortions — to apply for “bubble zones” banning all pro-life activity of up to 150 meters.

Those convicted of breaching Bill 163 face a fine of up to $5,000 and a jail sentence of up to six months, which increases to a fine of up to $10,000 and a jail sentence of up to one year for a second and subsequent convictions.

When Fr. Van Hee, then 83 years old, was arrested, he was sitting on his trademark hunting and golfing chair on the sidewalk across from the Morgentaler Clinic on 65 Bank Street, with a sandwich board displaying signs not about abortion, but free speech.

One read: “The Primacy Of Free Speech: Cornerstone Of Western Civilization.” The other: "Without Free Speech The State Is A Corpse.”

The Crown initially charged the Jesuit priest with intimidating or attempting to intimidate the women going into the abortion center, a charge it later dropped and substituted charges relating to informing people within the bubble zone of issues pertaining to “abortion services” and to “performing an act of disapproval concerning issues related to abortion services by any means.”  

His lawyers, Toronto-based Philip Horgan and Ottawa-based Albertos Polizogopoulos, are challenging Bill 163 as violating Section 2 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedom, which guarantees of freedom of speech and religion.

“We are challenging the legislation by way of a constitutional application.  Fr. Tony could have merely defended himself in the Ontario Court, by asserting that the charges were over broad, which may have allowed him to be acquitted, but would leave the legislation in place,” Horgan told LifeSiteNews.

 “We are seeking to have the underlying legislation quashed.”

Because of COVID-19, the case is taking longer to go through the courts, but in 2019, Fr. Van Hee’s lawyers provided six affidavits in support of their constitutional challenge, including support from Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, then archbishop of Ottawa, and Dr. Christian Elia, Executive Director of the Catholic Civil Rights League. 

In response, the Crown served 15 affidavits of various witnesses, from abortion industry advocates, to Ministry of the Attorney General and civic officials. As a result of more recent developments, one of the Crown’s affidavits has been withdrawn, rather than face further exposure through the court process. Cross examinations on these materials will occur over the next few weeks, with an expected hearing date in 2021.

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Fr. Van Hee recently spoke to LifeSiteNews about his landmark case and the importance of continuing pro-life witness.

LSN: What made you decide to protest the bubble zone? 

Fr. Van Hee: 1. In a private letter from prison dated August 12, 2018, Mary Wagner was encouraging us to be closer to the women about to have an abortion. She wrote: 

Just look at the entrances to the killing places where, for the most part, there is rarely a single human being present to offer hope. These women are utterly abandoned at what would be the last few minutes of hope for their child's life (and their own protection).

2. The Parliamentary Protective Service, PPS, had taken over enforcement of regulations on Parliament Hill from the RCMP and had already reduced my signs from seven to two. It was only a matter of time when they would insist that those two signs be half the size and handheld, rather than as a sandwich board over the shoulders.

I left Parliament Hill after the Thanksgiving break in October 2018 before they could get around to telling me anything more. 

In summary, Mary Wagner’s plea for us to be closer to the women going in for an abortion, and the increasing lessening of freedom on the Hill were the two factors which led me to see if I could take up a place closer to the women about to undergo an abortion without breaking the bubble zone. I tried everything I could not to break the bubble zone so that I might remain closer to the women.

LSN: Why did you decide to focus on the free speech aspect, and not abortion? 

Fr. Van Hee: Firstly, because I was trying to avoid being arrested. 

Secondly, because a good part of my final letter to the Interdepartmental Committee on the Use of Parliament Hill, May, 2018, was in defense of free speech, having understood the foundational importance of this from a talk Jordan Peterson gave at the Ottawa Public Library, March 11, 2017, emphasizing the primacy of free speech as the cornerstone of Western Civilization.

(The Interdepartmental Committee, established early in 2006, 17 years after I had begun my witness on Parliament Hill, from the very beginning began to micro-manage demonstrators. Rather than give them as much leeway as possible they were giving them as little leeway as possible.  To counteract this policy, I would write letters to the Committee without ever getting an acknowledgement or a response, except once. In September 2016, CWO Paul (Smokie) Leblanc, chairperson for the Committee, rejected my request to be considered an exception to their regulations under the grandfather clause, since I was witnessing for 17 years before they were established.)

Thirdly, because the very purpose of the bubble zone law was to make free speech about abortion a criminal offence.

LSN: Can you describe the sequence of events that led to your arrest on October 24, 2018?

On Saturday, October 20, I went opposite the Bank Street Morgentaler Clinic to challenge them on freedom of speech. I was across from the clinic but closer to the government building, called the C.D. Howe Building, with an entrance at 240 Sparks St and another on 235 Queen St. I was told that this building was on Crown Land. 

On Monday, October 22, one of the C.D. Howe security guards asked me to move a couple of feet in order to be off their property and so I did. For whatever reason, I decided not to challenge him about Crown Land.

Sunday, I stayed home. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, October 22 to 24, I continued the challenge on Bank Street opposite the Morgentaler Clinic. On Wednesday, I was arrested and charged. The police issued to me a summons to appear in court and confiscated my signs right there on the sidewalk across from the Morgentaler Clinic.

LSN: Were you surprised that you weren’t arrested sooner or surprised you were arrested at all, given that your sign was not about abortion?

Fr. Van Hee: I did expect to be arrested Monday, rather than Wednesday, but I was not surprised that I was arrested and had prepared a written statement for the Police which said in part: “In order that there may be no doubt about my reason for this witness, defending the primacy of free speech, I make this written statement of my intent.”

LSN: Your lawyers said in an interview on Counterpoint with Tanya Granic Allen that you had a copy in your hand of the bill you were protesting, which you were willing to give to people who asked what you were doing there, and that this was providing information on abortion services, which is breaking the bubble zone law. Can you elaborate on this?

Fr. Van Hee: I had three copies of the bill and three copies of my letter of intent but only to give to the police. I intended to give them to the two arresting officers and one for their Superior Officer but they only took one copy of the written material I had prepared for them. I had no other literature with me at that time. I had a copy of the bill because I wanted them to show me what part of the bill I was violating. They said “intimidation”. That was the original charge, later dropped in favor of:

3 (1) While in an access zone [it is prohibited to] … (b) inform or attempt to inform a person concerning issues related to abortion services, by any means, including oral, written or graphic means; (c) perform or attempt to perform an act of disapproval concerning issues related to abortion services, by any means, including oral, written or graphic means.

LSN: Were you intending from the outset to bring a constitutional challenge to the bubble zone law? 

Fr. Van Hee:The word “constitutional” had not entered my mind, nor had going all the way to the Supreme Court, but I did intend to challenge the law on the grounds of our right to free speech. 

LSN: Regarding your cross-examination, was it the first time you have ever been cross-examined? If not, what was the other occasion?

Fr. Van Hee:My affidavit was submitted November 14, 2019. I was cross-examined on it Friday, May 29, 2020. It was the first time I was cross-examined on an affidavit but I was cross-examined as a witness by prominent lawyer, John Nelligan, representing Mike Duffy, M.P., accused of stealing Glen Kealey’s sign on Parliament Hill and dumping it in the garbage inside the House of Commons 1990 or 1991.

LSN: How long did it last? What was your impression of the experience, or how would you describe it, and does anything about it stand out for you? Were you taken by surprise at anything? 

Fr. Van Hee:It was about two hours. My impression, after the fact, was that it was pleasant, rather than stressful. It was by video. Nothing stands out and I was not taken by surprise on anything.

LSN: Were you expecting this court challenge to take as long as it is?

Fr. Van Hee:No, but I understand that Covid-19 played a part in the length of the process.

LSN: How can people help out in this effort? 

Fr. Van Hee:Praying for the success of the constitutional challenge is the most important. Secondly, by donating financially whatever they are able. (Campaign Life Coalition has set up a legal defense fund on WonderWe for Fr. Van Hee, here.)

LSN: You’ve also been arrested twice on the Hill, first in 1990, which landed you in jail. Can you describe what happened in the first arrest?

Fr. Van Hee:On Monday, March 19, the Feast of St Joseph, 1990, around 3:00 pm, Glen Kealey and I were arrested by the RMCP for violating a new cabinet order requiring protesters to stay at least 50 meters (164 feet) from entrances to the Parliament buildings. 

Glen was the target of this regulation because, since the November 21, 1988, Federal Election in which Brian Mulroney was re-elected, Glen had been shouting rhyming insults and accusations of crime and corruption at Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his cabinet ministers as they left their limousines on their way into the House of Commons.

I just happened to be there and they couldn’t very well arrest him and not me.

Glen Kealey and I spent four nights and five days: from Monday 19, about 3:00 pm to Friday around noon, if my memory serves me right. 

Our trial was Friday morning, March 24 at the Elgin Street Courthouse. Since the regulation violation was equivalent to a parking infraction, for which the maximum penalty was $400, and our incarceration of five days and four nights, amply overpaid the penalty, the judge said we were free to go.

LSN: You also were arrested and successfully beat another charge concerning free speech in 1991.  Can you describe what happened then?

Fr. Van Hee: I was arrested on Parliament Hill on March 7, 1991. Here is a summary from a June 23, 1991 Ottawa Citizenreport on my acquittal: “Anti-abortion protester Fr. Anthony Van Hee was acquitted Friday [June, 21, 1991] of obstructing police after an Ottawa judge deemed the charges ‘arbitrary, unnecessary and unjust … Van Hee was arrested [March 7, 1991] by RCMP after he refused to stand behind a barricade erected as a security measure during the Persian Gulf war [August 2, 1990-February 28, 1991].”

The most important outcome of this arrest was the June 21, 1991 decision of Senior Judge P.R. Belanger of the Ontario Court of Justice in Her Majesty the Queen against Father Anthony Van Hee, which gave demonstrators the inherent dignity of Canadian citizenship, which was being eroded by the Interdepartmental Committee, seemingly, in every way possible. 

I quoted the pertinent parts of Judge Belanger’s ruling in a May 2, 2016 letter to the Committee:

Parliament Hill is arguably the most public place in this country and nowhere should the lawful exercise of Canadian citizen’s rights and freedoms be more scrupulously respected. Is there a tribune better suited for ordinary Canadians upon which to fearlessly voice their opinions and to circulate freely?  

Bearing in mind that the accused was exercising one of our most fundamental freedoms in this particular place, it follows, it seems to me, that the court should be particularly careful in its insistence that the Crown prove [its case]” …

Taking these facts into account, I find that the restrictions imposed upon the accused to have been arbitrary, unnecessary and unjustified in the circumstances which prevailed on March 7, 1991. I emphasize those words, and I consequently conclude that he ought to be acquitted ... 

If freedom of speech is not patently and conspicuously seen to be cherished and protected there [on Parliament Hill], how can it meaningfully be seen to be protected and cherished anywhere else in Canada?’

LSN: Are you still on the Hill praying and fasting when Parliament is in session?

Fr. Van Hee:No, I left Parliament Hill for the reasons given above, after the Thanksgiving break 2018. After my arrest I spent three days, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, from 9:15 am to 3:15 pm at the corner of Bank and Queen Streets, as close to the place where the abortions are committed, but outside the bubble zone, until March 12, 2020, when more stringent Covid-19 restrictions were introduced. I did, however, take part for those same three days and times in the 40 Days for Life, September 23 to November 1, 2020.

LSN: Could you briefly describe, if you would, why you decided to take up this singular witness on Parliament Hill? What insights has it given you?

Fr. Van Hee:From pro-life literature, audio and video tapes I was convinced that worldwide abortion was the greatest single evil in all of human history, apart from the death of Christ, and the testimonies of many Pastors in Randall Terry's half hour video on Operation Rescue convinced me that we had to treat abortion as the crime it truly is.

Because I have a strong contemplative tendency and a need for solitude, my 29 years of praying, fasting and witnessing on Parliament Hill and two years at the Morgentaler Clinic have been the best years of my life. It seems odd that in such a public place as Parliament Hill I should have those needs met more than anywhere else in my life, but it is true.

LSN: What would you say to pro-life advocates just starting out and are facing these bubble zones, as well as a very hostile social and cultural environment?

Fr. Van Hee:Read LifeSiteNews’ coverage by then Rome correspondent, Hilary White, of a private meeting of pro-life leaders in Rome, which took place September 10, 2013, entitled, “GAP founder [Gregg Cunningham] says fear of 'prophetic' confrontation of abortion culture is crippling pro-life efforts.” What Gregg is reported to have said over seven years ago is still as relevant now as it was then, maybe even more so.

LSN: What would you say to pro-life advocates who may be getting discouraged?

Fr. Van Hee:Don’t sweat! God’s world is perfect for His purposes. The checks and balances are all in place. Even the hairs of our head are numbered. God doesn’t do anything imperfectly. He only allows evil in order to bring about a greater good. You can’t possibly imagine the great good which God is bringing about by the great evil of worldwide abortion, like the great good He brought about by His Son’s death. And the same goes for all the other evils all over the world. And He is with every one of His children in their suffering, torture, and death, holding them in His hands. It is true what the song says: “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” “He guides the nations on earth” (Ps 67:4).

LSN: Why is pro-life witness so important at this time?

Fr. Van Hee:The late Cardinal Carlo Caffarra said it best: “Testimony means to say, to speak, to announce openly and publicly. Someone who does not testify in this way is like a soldier who flees at the decisive moment in a battle. We are no longer witnesses, but deserters, if we do not speak openly and publicly.”

LSN: Is there anything else you would like to comment on?

Fr. Van Hee: In Isaiah we read, “In that day: ‘A pleasant vineyard, sing of it! I, the Lord, am its keeper; every moment I water it. Lest anyone harm it, I guard it night and day’.”

We are that vineyard! Not only does He water it every moment, but He repairs, restores and purifies it every moment, pouring over it the Blood of Christ.

To donate to Fr. Van Hee’s legal defence fund, “Help Fr. Tony Van Hee,” on WonderWe, go here


  abortion, bubble zone, fr. tony van hee, free speech, tony van hee

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