The debate between anti-abortion and pro-choice groups is heating up in Kelowna after the mayor declared Sept. 23-30 Protect Human Life Week.
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada on Tuesday launched a campaign to get the mayor to reverse his decision, claiming it is discriminatory to women.
If Kelowna revokes the proclamation, the local Right to Life Society said it will make a complaint of discriminatory and selective proclamation practices to the B.C. Human Rights tribunal.
In July, Kelowna’s mayor, Walter Gray, made the official proclamation after a request from the society. According to city guidelines, the mayor has the discretion to issue a proclamation “of a message of importance, interest and/or benefit to the people of Kelowna.”
City council does not intend to strip the week of its proclamation, said Tom Wilson, the city’s communications supervisor, adding that council could revisit the issue depending on how the debate unfolds.
ARCC on Tuesday released an open letter signed by numerous groups and activists urging Mr. Gray to cancel the declaration because it implies the city does not respect women’s rights. The coalition has set up an online petition supporting its stand. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 200 people had signed.
The coalition is leveraging momentum for its campaign from Kelowna’s recent decision to scrap its courtesy flag program in response to public pressure, ARCC executive director Joyce Arthur said. The decision prevented the Right to Life Society from flying its flag over city hall during that week.
“If they’re going to back down on that, the same principle – the exact same principle – applies in case of the [Protect Human Life] Week,” she said. “So they have no real excuse to continue with that either.”
Mr. Wilson said the mayor’s office must issue proclamations for every group that adheres to the application process “as long as [the group] is not espousing racism, discrimination, violence, hatred, political organizations, [and] that kind of a thing.” ARCC’s assertion that the week discriminates against women would have to be determined by a human-rights tribunal, he said.
Ms. Arthur has not ruled out a legal battle, but said financial constraints often keep the coalition from taking that route. However, the Right to Life Society is prepared for a fight, executive director Marlon Bartram said.
He said his group has the right to express its opinion – even if some people find it offensive. The city supports other causes through its proclamation program, he said, so it would be discriminatory to remove their official approval from his group’s event.
“I think it would be almost a clear-cut case of discrimination,” Mr. Bartram said.
Janine Benedet, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of law, said that to make such an argument, the society would have to determine on what grounds it was discriminated against based on the province’s Human Rights Code. A tribunal would then have to decide whether that right trumps the right of women to access abortion, she said.
For now, activists say they hope the letter-writing campaign is enough. But if not, Dianne Varga, the Kelowna activist who approached the coalition to start this initiative, plans to organize protests at Kelowna city hall.
“If I have to... I will be out there on my own with a picket sign protesting for the duration of the week,” she said.