First off, full disclosure: right up until Tuesday morning, if you’d challenged me to predict the site of the next outbreak of cross-aisle hostilities over abortion rights in Canada — or what our American cousins refer to, more generally, as “the culture war” — I probably wouldn’t have gone with the House status of women committee.
Even if I had, I certainly wouldn’t have picked the election of the chair as the flashpoint — but that was before newly installed Conservative leader Andrew Scheer put forward pro-life rookie Lethbridge MP Rachael Harder as his party’s choice for chair, which is one of just four such committee gigs reserved for a member of the official Opposition.
That led the Liberals on the committee to walk out in protest just before the pro forma vote on Harder’s candidacy could be called — and, indeed, before the lone New Democrat on the committee could propose that one of the other Conservative members be nominated, elected, and, if necessary, forcibly installed in the chair.
The status of women committee is now effectively lost in procedural limbo until at least next week, when it’s expected to reconvene for a second attempt at deciding who will wield the gavel, although barring an 11th-hour surge of conciliation on both sides of the table, such a resolution seems unlikely.
Stay up to date!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.
Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef have spoken out in support of their caucus colleagues’ efforts to block Harder’s candidacy, with Trudeau even going so far as to tell reporters that the status of women committee should have a spokesperson “who would be able to stand up and unequivocally defend women’s rights.”
The Liberals went so far as to send out a fundraising email under the name of Oakville MP Pam Damoff, who is vice-chair of the committee, in which she noted that Harder “has sponsored the Campaign Life Coalition — an anti-choice organization that also opposes equal marriage for LGBTQ2 Canadians” and has “not supported equal rights for trans people in Canada.”
“Now, she's not only Andrew Scheer's Status of Women critic, she's also his choice to chair the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women,” the missive continued, noting that while Liberal MPs “were rightly outraged by this … during Question Period, Conservatives actually applauded her anti-choice stance and Andrew Scheer's decision” before going on to plead for a quick hit of cash in order to stop his “out of touch agenda.”
Meanwhile, Scheer and his team are accusing the Liberals of trying to bully a young, female MP out of the chair simply because of her personal views on an issue the Conservative party has repeatedly made clear it has no interest in reopening for debate.
“Freedom of speech is the underpinning of Canadian democracy,” Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, whose voting record has led Campaign Life to designate her as “pro-abortion,” noted on Twitter. “Presupposing the thoughts and ability of a democratically elected MP to be impartial simply based on political dogma, and then seeking to suppress her, is hilarious coming from supposed 'free thinking' 'feminists.'”
Complicating the narrative for Scheer, however, is the fact that he’s also known to be personally opposed to abortion, although he went out of his way to avoid the subject even before he launched his leadership bid last spring.
More crucially, his narrow victory over Quebec libertarian challenger Maxime Bernier has been widely attributed to down-ballot votes from Conservatives who signed up to back the two adamantly pro-life candidates Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost, which prompted an early post-win flurry of speculation as to how Scheer would repay the party’s social conservative wing for the end-game support.
It doesn’t take a tin-foil-hatted conspiracy theorist to wonder whether Harder’s nomination represents Scheer’s quiet way of showing gratitude — and given the very specific mandate of this committee, the possibility that the chair might eventually need to get directly involved in managing hearings that deal with reproductive freedom isn’t outside the realm of possibility.
The committee could, for instance, decide to investigate whether women across Canada have equal access to abortion services, which would be entirely within its mandate. It would then be up to the chair to work with committee staff behind the scenes to schedule hearings and invite witnesses, and eventually to preside over the discussion.
At the same time, there’s no immediate indication — beyond her response to a pre-election questionnaire from a staunchly pro-life activist group — that Harder would let her personal views influence her actions. Should she, then, be pre-emptively declared incapable of serving as chair?
It’s not a rhetorical question. There are undoubtedly excellent arguments in favour of giving Harder the gavel (at least on a probationary basis), and just as many against.
In the interim — again, notwithstanding one of those sudden bursts of collegiality and common sense that are so rare on Parliament Hill — it looks as if the interests and concerns of Canadian women on a wide range of issues, including reproductive choice, will have to get by without a dedicated parliamentary committee for the foreseeable future.
Kady O’Malley writes for iPolitics.ca, and also appears regularly on television and radio.