London councillors wade into anti-abortion flyer issue and ask staff to report back

In an effort to protect residents from graphic images being distributed by the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, city council has directed staff to investigate its options and what other municipalities have done.

The staff report will also include legal advice

Volunteers with the Viewer Discretion Legislation Coalition stand at London street corners and block graphic images of aborted fetuses displayed by the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform. (Supplied by Katie Dean)

London city council is looking into how it can protect residents from unsolicited and graphic abortion flyers that have been hand-delivered to their mailboxes by the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR). 

The flyers feature images of aborted fetuses and have sparked complaints to city politicians and petitions to municipal and provincial levels of government starting in the late summer. The Calgary-based anti-abortion group has also been holding demonstrations on street corners, prompting counter-protests by pro-choice groups.

"Council doesn't have the ability to make any decisions on abortion nor does it have the ability to take any action contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," said Ward 11 Coun. Stephen Turner, at the outset of a debate around a virtual council meeting Tuesday evening. "I know that's not what's being proposed, but there's certainly perceptions in the community and we saw that in the correspondence we received that we might be taking actions on these." 

On the table was a motion to have city staff investigate and report back to the Community and Protective Services Committee about what could be done about the flyers and what other municipalities have done in similar situations. 

The motion carried, with just Turner and Mayor Ed Holder voting against. 

'We're being played'

Turner called the tactics of the CCBR "tasteless and disgusting" and said he understood why city hall would be asked to clamp down on the behaviour, but raised concerns about adding "oxygen" to the fire. 

"I think we're being played. This motion plays directly into the hands of the agency distributing the flyers, they know full well the limited distribution of flyers will evoke a strong response from the community and they're going to demand we take action to intervene." 

Mark Konrad followed and filmed people as they distributed these anti-abortion flyers on his street in London. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Turner said the flyers generated media coverage which amplified the CCBR's message. 

"It allowed them to extend their reach far beyond London by messaging to supporters across the province implying that we would be considering taking away their charter rights," he said.

"If this motion is passed it'll come back to committee, it'll come back to council, and it'll give two more media cycles and if that's passed it may well be challenged in court, giving them yet another cycle, and then they're just going to move onto the next town and do it all over again. This is just a tactic for them and we're enabling that," said Turner. 

Right path unclear

Ward 4 Coun. Jesse Helmer acknowledged how traumatizing it could be to receive an unsolicited CCBR pamphlet, but also said the matter presents a bit of a quandry. 

"It's not obvious to me what it is we can do that would actually be effective to deter the behaviour … I'm not sure there's anything we can do in terms of passing a bylaw," he said. 

But, Helmer said, doing nothing didn't seem like the right answer either. 

"I don't think that's the right path. It's not really clear to me what the right path is." 

Steve Lehman, Coun. for Ward 8, said he could see both sides to the issue. 

"For me, this is about free speech. Free speech is easy to defend if you agree with what people are talking about and displaying, it's tougher to defend when you don't agree with what you're seeing or hearing," he said. 

"Knowing full well that the base concept of free speech will be upheld by all of us and ultimately the charter … I think we need to see if there are regulations we can provide that protect those who do not want to be exposed to disturbing material," said Lehman.

Responsibility to constituents

City staff confirmed that part of the report back to committee would include legal advice, which was a point of interest for Maureen Cassidy, the councillor for Ward 5. 

"In [the] really cursory research that I have done, I've seen a lot of cases where courts have upheld not this material, but this manner of delivering material," she said. 

Ward 2 Coun. Shawn Lewis, meanwhile, pointed out that the response from city staff — which will take months — might be that there is no good solution. However, he said, "I don't think we can ignore our responsibility to our constituents to respond to their concerns." 

London has seen an increase in the pamphlets this year because five of the group's interns are stationed here for the fall, according to its eastern Canada outreach director.