Anti-abortion demonstrator rejects NDP charge she's harassing women

A woman who has demonstrated against abortions outside a Winnipeg hospital says the suggestion she is harassing women is absurd.

Manitoba MLA Nahanni Fontaine says government should put aside politics, pass bill

Maria Slykerman, right, demonstrates outside the HSC Women's Hospital in Winnipeg this September. She disputes claims that she and others harass women who going into the facility for abortions. (Submitted/Maria Slykerman)

A woman who has demonstrated against abortions outside a Winnipeg hospital says the suggestion she is harassing women is absurd.

Maria Slykerman was responding Friday to an Opposition Manitoba New Democrat MLA's call for a law to prevent protesters from shouting at women entering facilities for abortions.

"I just laughed because I only have two people there per hour and we're praying," said Slykerman, president of the Winnipeg branch of 40 Days for Life, which holds what they describe as "vigils" outside the Health Sciences Centre Women's Hospital every fall.

"We don't even see the women who are going into the hospitals, because they go in through the back door," she said. "I really don't know what she's talking about."

I don't call it a protest, it's a vigil. A protest is yelling and screaming. A vigil is praying- Maria Slykerman, president of 40 Days for Life in Winnipeg

New Democrat House leader Nahanni Fontaine introduced a private member's bill Thursday that calls for a ban on protesters within 150 metres from Manitoba facilities where abortions take place.

She said the law would protect the safety of women who seek abortions and shield the people who provide the procedures by banning protesting, demonstrating or picketing in certain areas.

The protestors would be forbidden from "attempting to inform" anyone about issues related to abortion services within the zones.

Harassed on way to hospital: Fontaine

Fontaine said Thursday she's driven women seeking abortions to the Women's Hospital on Notre Dame Avenue, and they've been harassed and shouted at by protesters outside the facility.

Slykerman told CBC News Friday she's confident Fontaine could only be referring to her group, which holds 40 days of demonstrations beginning in September. 

She refuses to call herself a protester, though.

"I don't call it a protest, it's a vigil," Slykerman said. "A protest is yelling and screaming. A vigil is praying."

Pro-choice demonstrators gather at the Manitoba Legislative Building in 2013. Anti-abortion demonstrators stood across the grounds from them. (Patricia Sauzede-Bilodeau/CBC)

Any commotion that people are hearing from demonstrators is from the pro-choice side, she said, which counters her group and asks drivers to honk to show support.

"I keep telling my people, 'Don't say anything,'" Slykerman said. "A baby is being torn apart and they're laughing and they're making jokes about it."

The Winnipeg Police Service said in a statement the demonstrations have historically been peaceful and citizens have not been obstructed from entering the hospital. 

After question period in the legislature Friday, Fontaine defended her proposed legislation against the Progressive Conservatives, who argue the NDP wants to set a dangerous precedent by restricting the right of people to protest. 

Honouring the right to protest

"I understand the need and the role of protest in society," said Fontaine, who welcomed protesters to make themselves heard outside the buffer zone.

"This is fundamentally about protecting Manitoba women's and girls' right to access our health-care system, which includes accessing abortion," she said.

"It's about the targeted attempt at intimidating, bullying and shaming Manitoba women and girls going into any facility, accessing abortion services, often with very violent imagery."

The Ontario government introduced similar legislation last year following cases of harassment, and Alberta has passed a similar law.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister suggests the province would be setting a dangerous precedent if it restricts people from protesting in certain locations. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said invoking buffer zones could begin to erode people's rights.

Fontaine is "willing to invoke the hammer of government to stop people from exercising freedoms that we should never take for granted," he said.

"This isn't a question of whether I agree or disagree with protesters," Pallister said. "This is a question of whether I agree or disagree with the freedoms of people to protest."

He added that existing laws can be enforced if anyone is being blocked or harassed by protesters.

Most private member's bills fail to become law because they need the support of the government, but Fontaine says the Progressive Conservatives should put aside politics and pass her bill.

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter at CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote about rural Manitoba for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press