Life-and-Death Issues Stand Out in Canada’s Federal Election

Canadian Catholic politicians are divided on their ‘personal’ views regarding abortion or physician-assisted suicide, but it appears that the election outcome will have little impact on Canada’s laws about them.

Canadian Prime Minister and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (l), Conservative leader Andrew Scheer (c) and Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet applaud as they take part in the federal leaders French-language debate at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, on Oct. 10.
Canadian Prime Minister and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (l), Conservative leader Andrew Scheer (c) and Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet applaud as they take part in the federal leaders French-language debate at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, on Oct. 10. (photo: Chris Wattie/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

OTTAWA, Canada —  Some Americans’ only reference for Canadian politics may be the recently circulating images of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed not once, but three different times, in blackface — images that went viral globally and put the high-profile champion of political correctness in a public hot seat for hypocrisy, just as the Canadian federal election campaign got underway.

However, weightier issues than Trudeau’s penchant for dress-up are at stake in the Oct. 21 Canadian federal election. Canada is one of only two countries in the world with no laws limiting abortion, and its law allowing euthanasia was recently widened by a court decision requiring its extension beyond those with terminal illnesses.

For many of Canada’s 10.7 million Catholics, who, according to a 2018 Pew Research report, make up nearly one-third of the country’s population, pro-life issues are high on the list of topics they consider in political candidates.

“Abortion is really, I would say, the single biggest issue for most Catholics, and none of you have … given much comfort to Catholics in the room — and I’m wondering why any of them should be voting for you, any of you,” the moderator said at an Oct. 3 “Federal Election Debate From a Catholic Perspective” organized by the Archdiocese of Toronto, eliciting the most exuberant applause of the evening at the packed event.

Candidates from five of the six campaigning parties had showed up to answer questions raised by Catholics; and for the most part, they reflected their party leader’s positions and were distinguishing themselves from each other largely between either unqualified “pro-choice” positions or “personally pro-life” but not politically pro-life positions.

Since Canada’s Supreme Court in 1988 struck down the country’s law regulating abortion, on the grounds that it was too restrictive, successive federal governments have declined to bring forward any replacement law. In consequence, Canada continues to allow abortion without any legislative limits, and taxpayers subsidized more than 94,000 abortions in 2017 alone.


Trudeau Has ‘Evolved’

Prime Minister Trudeau now is among the large number of leading Canadian politicians who are pro-abortion rights, with no reservations. In 2011, by contrast, he took offense to objections to his being invited into Catholic schools as a speaker who defends the right to kill unborn babies.

“I have to say, I’m really surprisingly upset. I didn’t think I would be, but I am,” Trudeau told The Canadian Press. “For someone to start questioning my own faith and accusing me of being a bad Catholic is something that I really take issue with. My own personal faith is an extremely important part of who I am and the values that I try to lead with.”

Last week, however, Trudeau said he was “expressing something I no longer believe” in terms of his then-position of being personally pro-life but politically pro-choice.

“I evolved past that particular perspective,” Trudeau told reporters on a campaign stop in Quebec City. “I no longer feel like I can or need to say that I’m against abortion. That is not for me, as a man, to say.”

Trudeau did not say if he still regards himself as being Catholic.

Under Trudeau’s leadership, the Liberal Party has not only vowed not to reopen the abortion debate, it has made it party policy that no Liberal member of Parliament may bring forward laws or vote freely on the issue. Under Trudeau’s leadership the party has also instituted a ban against recruiting any federal Liberal candidates who are not entirely supportive of abortion rights.

And in 2018 it instituted federal regulations that deny summer job funding to any business or charity that refuses to sign an attestation in favor of abortion rights.

Trudeau and other Liberal candidates aren’t apologetic about their stance, even those who say they are active Catholics. Instead, they wear it as a badge of honor and have highlighted any challenge to abortion on demand as a political weakness on the campaign trail.

Francesco Sorbara, the federal Liberal candidate for Vaughan-Woodbridge, Ontario, told the debate organized by the Archdiocese of Toronto that he was a “proud” parishioner of St. Claire of Assisi Catholic parish in Vaughan, a Knights of Columbus member and co-chairman of the Canada-Holy See Parliamentary Friendship Group. He seemed equally proud about declaring his pro-abortion views.

“When it comes to reproductive rights, I personally support a woman’s right to choose,” he said. “Every party has taken the same position on that. From my understanding, no party will be reopening the debate on a woman’s right to choose in Canada.”

When Garnett Genuis, a Catholic who is the Conservative member of Parliament for Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan in Alberta, outlined the abortion position of his party, Sorbara demanded: “Are you saying you would reopen the debate, Yes or No?”

“Our party is committed to freedom of conscience for its members and protecting it for everyone. There will be a free vote for every member of our caucus if that issue is ever [raised], as has always been the case and has been our party policy since the party was founded,” Genuis replied.


The Pro-Abortion Status Quo

But in practice, this doesn’t mean the Conservative Party — which, according to polls, is currently running neck and neck with the governing Liberal Party, well ahead of the other four parties — intends to challenge the abortion-on-demand status quo.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, a Catholic whose statements that he is “personally pro-life” have been aggressively targeted by his political opponents, made his view clear in the campaign’s Oct. 10 televised election debate.

“The laws in access on this issue have not changed for 30 years under Liberal prime ministers and under conservative prime ministers. They will not change when I am prime minister,” he pledged.

Despite Scheer’s pledge, Trudeau sought during the Oct. 10 debate to win votes from pro-abortion Canadians by suggesting that Scheer’s openness to “personally pro-life” perspectives might induce Conservative parliamentarians to introduce legislation restricting abortions and allow free votes on the issue.

Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the left-wing New Democrat Party, interrupted Scheer and Trudeau arguing their abortion positions by proclaiming, “A man has no position in a discussion on a women’s right to choose.” Like the Liberals, his party has a formal requirement that all of its candidates must support abortion without restriction.

The Green Party of Canada initially appeared somewhat more flexible on the issue, with its leader, Elizabeth May, stating publicly in early September that its individual members of Parliament would not be prohibited from reopening the debate should they so choose.

But the party backtracked within hours of its leader’s comments, issuing a public statement affirming all Green MPs “must endorse ... a woman’s right to choose” and declaring there was “zero chance” they would ever reopen the abortion debate. The party subsequently doubled down on that pro-life prohibition, by withdrawing the Green Party nomination from one its candidates, Marthe Lépine, after it was discovered that she had made comments on Catholic blogs that were not supportive of abortion.

“I think it’s basically flagrant discrimination because I’m Catholic, so they’re afraid I’d say something that upsets them,” Lépine told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. after she was stripped of her Green Party nomination.


Doctor-Assisted Suicide

The other major life issue in play in the election is physician-assisted suicide. Trudeau introduced legislation that legalized physician-assisted suicide nationally in 2016, for Canadians with a “serious and incurable illness.”

Since then, more than 7,000 Canadians have used publicly funded medical assistance to end their lives. And on Sept. 11, a Quebec judge struck down a restriction that previously limited assisted dying to terminally ill patients as unconstitutional, thereby opening the door to taxpayer-subsidized, doctor-assisted suicides for patients with chronic disabilities, depression, Alzheimer’s and other ailments, who are not actually dying from those diseases.

Trudeau has declined to exercise his power as leader of the Canadian government to appeal the decision. And during the Oct. 10 debate, he said that if re-elected he would move within six months to “relax” the federal law, in response to the Quebec court decision.

“It’s particularly galling that a single judge would make that ruling, basically rewriting the law on a complicated moral, ethical and legal issue,” said André Schutten, the director of law and policy and general legal counsel for the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) Canada. Trudeau “is not doing his job in not appealing.”

Scheer has said that he would have appealed last month’s court decision, and during the Oct. 10 debate, he said that with respect to assisted suicide, efforts must be made to “protect vulnerable people.” But with the deadline passed for filing a federal appeal, it is not certain what options he has, if elected as prime minister, to reverse the Quebec court decision.

Nonetheless, Lachine, Quebec, physician and disability-rights activist Paul Saba of the Coalition of Physicians for Social Justice told the Register he has publicly endorsed Scheer for prime minister because of his “moral courage” on the issue.


Pro-Life Opportunity?

Overall, there’s little dispute that Canada’s current political landscape remains notably bleak for pro-lifers. Still, there could be some cause for hoping that might eventually change.

At the Oct. 3 Archdiocese of Toronto debate, Sister John Mary of Toronto’s Sisters for Life community stressed that it’s not true the majority of Canadians favor abortion without any restrictions.

“Polls consistently tell us that while Canadians have differing views on abortion, most feel that there should be some restrictions in place, such as banning late-term or sex-selective abortions,” she said. Yet “none of the major political parties want to pass an abortion law. Neither do they seem to want to provide appropriate end-of-life care.”

Sister John Mary also noted only 15% percent of Canadians receive palliative care in the home, and only one-third of dying Canadians have access to any palliative care at all.

Scott Hayward is co-founder of a group called Right Now, which is lobbying to get more pro-life names on ballots and in Parliament in Canada. While it’s clear this election will not have the power to tip the scales in favor of pro-lifers, who would need to comprise a majority of 170 of the 338 members of Canada’s elected House of Commons to pass any pro-life legislation that does come before Parliament, the group’s efforts have so far seen the number of pro-life candidates grow from 50 to 108.

“There is no reason to be covert on their pro-life position,” said Hayward. “Most Canadians think there is a law on abortion, but there isn’t. Most are against sex-selective abortions. Most Canadians are against late-term abortions.”

In fact, there is one national party that is open to advancing pro-life positions in Parliament — the fledgling People’s Party of Canada, which was formed in September 2018 by former Conservative cabinet member Maxime Bernier. While the party is neither formally pro-life nor pro-abortion rights, it does have an official policy affirming that party candidates who hold socially conservative moral convictions are free to express those convictions, and to act on them if elected to Parliament by introducing and supporting pro-life legislation.

However, current polls indicate the People’s Party commands the support of only 3% of voters nationally, and Bernier himself appears to be the only party candidate with a solid chance of getting elected to the next Parliament.

Still, at the Archdiocese of Toronto’s election debate, the Catholic audience was notably receptive to the way that David Haskell, a university professor who is the People’s Party candidate for the Ontario riding of Cambridge-North Dumfries, responded to Sister John Mary’s remarks. 

“Of all the federal parties, only the People’s Party allows its candidates and future MPs to openly discuss and bring forth legislation on any issue of concern to Canadians, including abortion and euthanasia,” he noted. “In our support of freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, we stand alone.”

“In fact, already colleagues of mine from Red Deer, Alberta, have draft legislation to end third trimester abortion and they will bring it forward as a private members’ bill,” Haskell added, to enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Register correspondent Celeste McGovern writes from Nova Scotia, Canada.

Editor’s note: This article was amended after its initial publication.