Was Justin Trudeau aiming for New Brunswick?

A CBC report on New Brunswick’s leader’s debate Wednesday night seems to suggest that NB’s Liberal party leader, Brian Gallant, will not be emulating Justin Trudeau’s controversial stance on abortion.1 Here’s an excerpt from that report:

“Mr. Gallant, are [you] going to follow the federal Liberal mandate and make your candidates be pro-choice?” Austin asked.

Gallant gave a direct no, a position that he’s held throughout the campaign, and then moved back to his debate with Cardy.2

However, this does not mean that Mr. Gallant will not also, like Justin Trudeau, require his Liberal caucus members to vote in favour of the pro-choice position. It could simply mean he won’t require them to be pro-choice. In other words, they can still hold pro-life beliefs, as long as they vote in favour of pro-choice policies. This interpretation would be consistent with Mr. Gallant’s previous comments on August 25 when Justin Trudeau was in New Brunswick campaigning with Mr. Gallant. In this video clip from Sun News, Mr. Gallant says to reporters:

“Our position as a party is that we do not think that the province of New Brunswick is respecting a woman’s rights to choose. We’ve made it very clear that if we form government we will swiftly act to define all barriers to these rights and make sure that we eliminate them. Any candidate that will respect that position, that will support that position can run for us. It’s not about personal preference, it’s about ensuring that we respect a woman’s right to choose. And I’ve made that very clear to all 48 candidates who will be running with me in this election, and will ensure that we continue to push this issue because we do believe it has to be resolved and has to be resolved in a quick manner.”3

Sun News correspondent Bryn Weese says Justin’s Trudeau’s presence in New Brunswick, campaigning side by side with Gallant, “really threw fuel on this fire” because of Mr. Trudeau’s “controversial stance on abortion at the federal level, so by him coming to New Brunswick, really the heartland of the abortion debate in Canada right now, of course it has stirred that issue up.”

Sun News went on to report that “Trudeau as well was asked about the issue of abortion, whether he would expect all provincial Liberals to vote for pro-choice, even if they believe in the pro-life cause, here’s what Trudeau had to say over the weekend.

Mr. Trudeau is seen in the video responding as follows:

The Liberal Party of Canada’s view is that it’s not up to government to take away rights that women fought hard for over the past decades and we will definitely continue to respect women’s right to choose and make sure we are defending that with our votes in the Liberal Party of Canada.

Mr. Trudeau didn’t directly answer the question about provincial Liberals, but instead reiterated the position of the federal Liberals.

Back in the spring when Mr. Trudeau announced this new pro-choice position of the federal Liberal party, some wondered why he was doing this. There have been no criminal restrictions on abortion since the Supreme Court struck down the abortion law in 1988 so the status quo from the federal perspective already favours the pro-choice position. And there was currently no pro-life initiative before Parliament. Trudeau’s edict could possibly help to prevent any pro-life initiative from being successful should an MP from another party bring something forward (a Private Member’s Bill or Motion.) But Prime Minister Stephen Harper has discouraged his MPs from bringing forward pro-life initiatives, so it seemed unlikely anything was coming down the pike.

And so why would Mr. Trudeau adopt such a controversial policy that would seem to have little practical impact?

What is interesting to note is that, while there is not much room left to expand abortion rights at the federal level (criminal law is within federal jurisdiction and as mentioned above, there have been no criminal restrictions since the law was struck down in 1988), there is certainly room for movement at the provincial level. This is because, while the legality of abortion is a federal issue, access to abortion is a provincial issue. It is the provinces which regulate the medical profession, and abortion fell under the jurisdiction of the medical profession more or less by default as a result of the 1988 Morgentaler decision. As well, as explained here, it is the provincial governments which decide which medical services will be publicly funded by their provincial health care insurance plans.

In New Brunswick, a publicly funded “abortion on demand” scheme is not currently in effect. Only some abortions are funded by Medicare in that province.

So Brian Gallant’s edict suggesting that all his candidates would be expected to vote pro-choice, could have far more impact in practical terms than Justin Trudeau’s edict.

Mr. Gallant’s comments implying a whipped vote in favour of abortion rights came after campaigning with Mr. Trudeau. Prior to that meeting, the media had been reporting only that Gallant had been promising to conduct a review of the “barriers to access”.

In retrospect, it’s possible that Mr. Trudeau’s edict back in May was not in fact motivated by any perceived threat of abortion being recriminalized at the federal level. It’s possible he was thinking more in terms of access issues at the provincial level. Maybe he was purposely staking out a position that, although would have little practical effect at the federal level, could play an important symbolic role.

Mr. Trudeau was probably fully aware that the federal government did not actually have the legal authority to force New Brunswick to pay for “non-medically necessary” abortions because, as explained here, New Brunswick was not in violation of the Canada Health Act, despite claims to the contrary by abortion advocates.

So Justin Trudeau’s edict to whip votes in favour of abortion rights could have been a deliberate move to encourage and embolden his provincial counterparts to do likewise. And a similar move at the provincial level would not just be symbolic; it could have real, concrete results in terms of expanding access to abortion — in the case of New Brunswick, the repeal of Regulation 84-20’s exclusion of “non-medically necessary” abortions from the list of entitled services under Medicare, if Brian Gallant is elected as Premier on September 22 and follows through on his promise to “remove barriers” to abortion access.

Whether or not this was a strategy Mr. Trudeau had planned from the beginning, the decision as to whether or not access to tax-payer funded abortion will be expanded in New Brunswick ultimately rests with neither Mr. Trudeau nor even Mr. Gallant, but with the people of New Brunswick who will cast their ballots on September 22.

  1. This past spring, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau, said that all his MPs, regardless of their personal views on abortion, would have to vote in favour of a pro-choice position on the issue. See, “Justin Trudeau clarifies that anti-abortion Liberal incumbents would be forced to vote pro-choice,” Joan Bryden, Canadian Press, June 18, 2014.
  2. Leaders spar over debt, abortion in 2nd election debate,” CBC News, Sept. 11, 2014
  3. Sun News Prime Time, “New Brunswick abortion debate,” August 25, 2014, at approx. 2:27 minutes into video.

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