A couple weeks ago, a friend who works for the Canada Post call centre texted me excitedly. “Guess who I had on the phone today? Nancy Ruth!!” I had to google her; I’d never even heard of her before. Oh, how young we once were.
Nancy Ruth, in case you are not Canadian or haven’t been paying attention, is a Conservative senator from Ontario. She is notable for being the first openly gay female senator in Canada. What you may not know is that she is also notable for coming from a background of social activism and particularly women’s rights; she helped to found the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, among others.
I want to give you this background on Ruth because I believe there is more to what has unfolded in the last couple days than meets the eye. Ruth, although a Conservative senator, considers herself a champion of women’s rights. This is important.
In brief, Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to introduce a maternal health initiative to this year’s G8. This was greeted with cautious optimism: clearly a political move for Harper (an “arch-conservative” if ever there was one), but one that would have positive results. Then, the government made it very clear that this package would not cover abortion services. Outrage!…but not surprise, from aid organizations and women’s groups. And THEN, Senator Ruth tells these same aid organizations and women’s groups to “shut the fuck up” about abortion, lest we get the PM’s back up and make it worse.
Obviously, this remark made people pretty mad. As an activist, I have been silenced, and I am not interested in putting up with that kind of bullshit (hey, she started it with the curse words) from my own government. The anger over this comment is warranted.
There is more to it than meets the eye, though. Let’s think about Ruth’s background, and about the context of this remark. “STFU” wasn’t the only thing Nancy Ruth said. She also noted that our outspoken rejection of this decision could mean defensiveness on the part of Harper, and maybe a further attack on the maternal health initiative or on women’s groups here at home. She also said, “Don’t make this an election issue”. Harper has said he won’t reopen the abortion debate, but could he be tricking us into forcing his hand?
It could be that the biggest problem here is not that the threat was silencing, but that the warning was true.
Because now we hear of fourteen women’s organizations in Canada that are having their funding cut, just in time for the G8. No wonder Ruth warned us to shut up – she knew what her boss was capable of. The backlash against her inelegant comments is a classic case of shooting the messenger, when we should have been paying attention to what was between the lines.
I think Ruth could have been more subtle and less offensive in her warning. But we can’t discount the fact that she was right: speaking up about abortion has hurt these organizations. Harper is forcing us to choose between standing up for what we believe in, and having the ability to fight for those things. And now the most ridiculous thing about this maternal health initiative is not that it doesn’t include abortion services, but that by failing to do so it is robbing the international aid organizations of a voice. Suddenly only Canada gets to decide what is right for women in the majority world, and guess what? The services we’ve decided those women deserve are less comprehensive and less safe than the ones we believe Canadian women deserve. And if you don’t STFU about it, your rights are next.
Thank you Nancy, for the head’s up.