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Politics Tory MP Rachael Harder loses bid for status of women chair

Conservative MP Rachael Harder rises during question period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 27, 2017.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Liberal and NDP members of the status of women committee feared Rachael Harder would be unable to keep her anti-abortion views from impacting their work, says a New Democrat who helped thwart the Conservative MP's bid to lead the panel.

"We know that there is a diversity of views in Parliament," NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson said Tuesday.

Still, Malcolmson said, she and the Liberal MPs on the committee felt that having a chair so publicly opposed to abortion risked making witnesses uncomfortable and compromising the committee's work on gender equality.

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"She has not yet demonstrated her ability to remove that from her day-to-day work," said Malcolmson, a vice-chair of the committee and the NDP critic for status of women.

The stand-off over the choice of chair ended Tuesday much as it began last week: with a meeting that lasted mere minutes.

Six Liberals and Malcolmson voted against making Harder, an MP from Lethbridge, Alta., the chair of the committee, opting instead for her Conservative colleague Karen Vecchio, who opposed her own nomination but was chosen anyway.

Last week, the Liberals walked out of the committee meeting to protest the nomination of Harder, whom Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer named as critic for the status of women portfolio this summer.

Malcolmson joined the exodus after trying to bring the matter to a vote.

"The committee wanted a chair that we had confidence would speak for all Canadian women, including transgender Canadians, and would be able to advocate for women's reproductive health, including the right to choose," Liberal MP Pam Damoff, a vice-chair on the committee, said Tuesday.

"I think it's a victory for Canadian women."

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The Conservatives are now accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who spoke out in favour of rejecting Harder as committee chair, of using the standoff to distract from his controversial plan for small business tax reform.

"It's disappointing that Justin Trudeau would act this way and his actions demonstrate the intolerance of the Liberal Party of Canada, which claims to value diversity," Vecchio and Harder said in a joint news release.

Still, the statement said Vecchio would serve as chair.

"Conservatives accept the democratic will of the committee, and unlike Justin Trudeau, we commit to working on behalf of all women in Canada, regardless of their beliefs," they said.

The Campaign Life Coalition endorsed Harder, the MP for Lethbridge, Alta., when she first ran for the Conservatives in 2015 because she filled out a questionnaire saying she believes life begins at conception and would work to introduce and pass laws to ban abortion once elected.

The organization also applauded her record of opposing the government's measures legalizing doctor-assisted dying and the recreational use of marijuana.

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The group also approved of how she had co-sponsored a private member's bill, since defeated, that would have made it a criminal offence to cause injury or death to a "preborn child" while committing a crime against a pregnant woman.

Vecchio, meanwhile, did not fill out the Campaign Life Coalition questionnaire and has previously mentioned at committee that she is pro-choice.

Still, the group noted she also voted in favour of the private member's bill on pregnant victims of crime.

Malcolmson said she expects to disagree with Vecchio on certain issues relating to gender equality, but Harder had represented too large a divide.

"It's the right to choose which is a debate that we really hoped was behind us in this country. This has been adjudicated in the courts. This is something we just thought was a given moving forward," Malcolmson said.

"There will be things, of course, that New Democrats and Conservatives and Liberals disagree on, but we should not have an anti-choice spokesperson representing the status of women committee."

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