The Sunday Magazine

50 years ago, the women of Canada's 'Abortion Caravan' stormed Parliament for reproductive rights

Last week's historic vote to overturn Ireland’s ban on abortion grabbed attention around the world. And it reminded us of a gem in our documentary vault. In 1970, a group of Canadian women set out on a cross-country trek to Ottawa in what became known as the Abortion Caravan. Karin Wells's 2010 documentary is called "The Women are Coming."
A 'yes' supporter breaks down as the result of the Irish referendum concerning the country's abortion laws is announced at Dublin Castle on May 26, 2018. More than 66 per cent of voters in Ireland favoured overturning the abortion ban. (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

In the days before a historic referendum on Ireland's abortion ban, thousands of Irish women living all over the world travelled home to cast their votes.

Irish citizens voted to overturn the ban by 66.4 per cent. 

Almost 50 years ago, Canadian women set out on a historic political odyssey of their own — a defiant cross-country trek that became known as the Abortion Caravan.

In March 1970, 17 members of the Vancouver Women's Caucus set out for Ottawa in a yellow Oldsmobile convertible, a Volkswagen bus and a pick-up truck. 

Their goal was to change Canada's restrictive abortion law.

A sign in Ottawa, announcing the caravan's arrival

They rolled into Ottawa on Mother's Day weekend.

On the Saturday, a thousand women rallied on the Hill.

On Monday, they shut down Parliament.

From the CBC Radio archives: a group of women shut down Parliament to protest Canada's restrictive abortion law

In 1969, Pierre Trudeau's government had made abortion legal in limited circumstances.

It was still inaccessible for most women. They either had to convince a panel of 3 doctors to let them terminate a pregnancy, or find a back-alley solution — which could be deadly.

Karin Wells's 2010 documentary, The Women Are Coming, revisited the history of the Abortion Caravan with some of the key players.

The abortion caravan stops in Calgary. (Glenbow Archives/Calgary Herald)

The caravan began in Vancouver, and headed east. There was a coffin strapped to one of the cars, to symbolize all the women who had died in unsafe abortions. 

Organizers of the Abortion Caravan remember scenes from their cross-country trek

But when they got to Ottawa, politicians refused to see them.

On May 11, 1970, while protesters chanted outside, 35 women entered the public galleries of the House of Commons.

They had chains hidden in their purses. They shackled themselves to their chairs, and began to shout.

Several months later, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau asked to meet with the organizers of the caravan in Vancouver. It was a frank — and heated — conversation. 

"If someone close to you needed an abortion, she'd get one. Rich women in this society get abortions. Poor women suffer," one woman told him. 

"So?" he responded. 

Trudeau asked to meet with the organizers during a trip to Vancouver.

"Isn't it extraordinary, when you think about it? Here we were, this relatively small group of women, and the prime minister of Canada wants to meet with us," said one of the organizers. 

"No wonder we thought we could win." 

Click 'listen' above to hear the full documentary.