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Politics Liberals protest appointment of anti-abortion MP as status of women committee chair

Conservative MP Rachael Harder pictured riding the parliamentary bus in Ottawa, in an April 13, 2016, file photo.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is defending his decision to appoint an MP who has not supported legalized abortions to sit as chair of the Commons committee of status on the women.

Liberals MPs, who have a majority on the committee, walked out of a meeting on Tuesday after Rachael Harder, the member of Parliament for Lethbridge, was named to the position. The status of women committee is one of the few Commons committees for which the Official Opposition appoints the chair.

"Rachael Harder is a very, very strong, hard working, dynamic young MP and a woman who was democratically elected by her constituents and who shares my positive vision for a government that works for all Canadians," Mr. Scheer told reporters after the daily Question Period.

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"It's certainly unprecedented that the Prime Minister would interfere and block the nomination of a democratically elected member of Parliament to serve as chair of a committee," Mr. Scheer said. "I think it shows a lack of respect for the parliamentary process."

Justin Trudeau, who said before he became Prime Minister that he would accept no new Liberal MP who is anti-abortion, said he supported the decision of his caucus members who walked out of the committee.

"The fact is that the Liberal Party and, indeed, this government, is unequivocal in defence of women's rights," Mr. Trudeau said. "And, quite frankly, one would hope that the committee for the status of women would have a spokesperson who would be able to stand up and be able to unequivocally defend women's rights. That's sort of the point of the status of women's committee."

The Liberals and the New Democrats have used the occasional rumblings of openly anti-abortion members of the Conservative caucus to foment suspicions that the Tories would find a way to make abortion illegal should they form government – although that did not happen in four years of a Conservative majority.

Mr. Scheer, who personally opposes abortion, has said a party led by him would not reopen the divisive issue.

Ms. Harder would not talk about her views on Tuesday when pressed by reporters to say whether she opposes legalized abortion. But it has been reported that, under the 2016 Canada Summer Jobs program, she gave nearly $12,000 to pregnancy centres in her riding that refuse to provide abortions.

The meeting of the status of women committee ended with the walkout because there were no longer enough MPs to have quorum.

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"We as Liberal members were not prepared to support a member who is not pro-choice, who does not support a woman's right to choose" to have an abortion, Pam Damoff, the Liberal co-chair of the committee, said in an interview.

Maryam Monsef, the Minister of the Status of Women, said after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday that, although Commons committees are independent, she supports the Liberal MPs in their decision to walk out.

"The heart of much of our efforts is recognition that when women and girls have choice, when they have basic safety and opportunity, we all thrive," Ms. Monsef told reporters.

"Ultimately, this is about Andrew Scheer choosing to appoint an anti-choice candidate to the status of women's committee," she said, "and all of us within our government stand with a woman's right to choose [abortion] and to have those services available to her if that's her choice."

Sheila Malcolmson, the NDP critic for the status of women who sits on the committee, did not join the Liberals in the walkout, but said the protest came as a welcome surprise.

Ms. Malcolmson, who urged the Conservatives to appoint a different MP as committee chair, said she was about to ask the committee clerk to initiate a vote on Ms. Harder's appointment when the Liberals left the room. "If the Liberals had joined me in voting down Harder's nomination, then the Conservatives would have been forced to bring forth a new nominee," she said.

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The anti-abortion group We Need a Law, meanwhile, said the walkout demonstrates that the Liberal government is prepared to silence dissenting voices.

"If the Liberals and NDP were so certain of the rightness of their position, they would not fear a different opinion," Anna Nienhuis, a spokeswoman for the group, said in a statement. "It also seems that they've forgotten that Ms. Harder is a woman herself, a woman who does not believe her equality rests in her access to abortion, a belief many of us Canadian women hold very strongly."

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