British Columbia

Anti-abortion protest sparks debate at B.C. college

Faculty at Okanagan College in Kelowna question whether the tactics of anti-abortion demonstrators could be considered criminal harassment.

WARNING: Story contains graphic images

Demonstrators gathered outside the Okanagan College Kelowna campus with large, graphic photos of aborted fetuses. (Sasha Johnston)

Faculty at Okanagan College in Kelowna are speaking out on behalf of students after a recent anti-abortion protest on campus left some students feeling harassed, threatened and unsafe.

On October 11 and 12, an anti-abortion group called Expose the Reality demonstrated in a high-traffic area of the Okanagan College Kelowna campus carrying large, graphic signs showing aborted fetuses.

"Many of our students experienced [the signs] as very traumatizing. They experienced those signs as harassing," said Sasha Johnston, an English professor at Okanagan College and the status of women representative for the faculty association.

She said there was no way to get around the signs. She also said demonstrators were aggressively engaging students.

Students call protest 'heinous' and 'upsetting'

Johnston said she witnessed one protestor approach a student and forcefully ask her personal questions about her views on abortion.

"The student continued to ask her to stop until she was shouting, 'I don't want to talk to you. Stop asking me questions.'"

Johnston also said she had her own encounter with a demonstrator who spoke very close to her face, stood next to her and stared at her until she held a sign between them.

"The techniques are really, really intimidating."

The Okanagan College Students' Union forwarded CBC News several different written comments from students who called the demonstration "upsetting," "violating," "heinous" and "a huge safety concern."

"We had students coming to our office and going to their classes in tears over the hostile images and attitude of this group and that is nothing short of tragic and awful," said Megan Potter of the OCSU.

Students at the Kelowna campus created their own signs to counter the anti-abortion demonstration. (Joanna Pujol/ Twitter)

The faculty is now questioning whether the protestors' tactics could be considered criminal harassment.

"Our faculty association is currently waiting for legal advice on that exact issue. What does it mean to be unsafe?" said Johnston.

"To feel emotionally and psychologically unsafe or harassed by people, I don't think that's something that students should have to come to campus and experience."

Anti-abortion protestor defends groups' actions

One of the demonstrators disputes the characterization of the protest.

"We are trained and we are required to engage with students in a respectful manner, in a compassionate and loving manner," said Marlon Bartram, executive director of the Kelowna Right to Life Society.

"We definitely don't want to cross that line into harassment, that's for sure."

He said he believes protestors were "behaving perfectly lawfully" though he admits he didn't witness every exchange.

For its part, the college said the group is allowed to demonstrate on campus and will likely be back again.

"This group has a well established legal right to express their views," said Charlotte Kushner, vice-president of students.

She said security was on site during the demonstration. She also encourages any students who felt harassed to submit an official complaint.

Some Okanagan College students called the images "upsetting," "heinous" and "violating." (Sasha Johnston)

To hear more, click on the audio link below:

With files from CBC's Daybreak South.