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Ontario Attorney-General considering options to prevent harassment outside abortion clinics

Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi says his office is looking at how it can stop harassment outside the province’s abortion clinics.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney-General is looking at how it can stop harassment outside the province's abortion clinics after a call from Ottawa's mayor to consider a law that would ban protesters from demonstrating on the doorsteps of facilities that provide abortion services.

Mayor Jim Watson called on the government to review the possibility of legislation that would protect women from harassment by protesters outside abortion clinics, including one steps from Parliament Hill. Patients and staff at Ottawa's Morgentaler abortion clinic have reported repeated pestering from anti-abortion protesters carrying graphic placards on the sidewalk outside 65 Bank St.

Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi responded by saying: "Over the past several weeks, my ministry has been working to determine what options are available to the province in order to ensure that harassment at the Morgentaler clinic, and clinics across the province does not continue. I will have more to say once I have determined the best course of action," said Mr. Naqvi, who is also the MPP for the riding where the clinic is located.

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"Our government does not tolerate any form of harassment against women exercising their fundamental right to choose."

A spokesperson from the mayor's office said Mr. Watson understands the province needs time to consider legislative changes and hopes that it will do so over the summer. The Ontario legislature is set to rise for the summer on June 1.

In a letter to Mr. Naqvi on Tuesday, Mr. Watson said Ottawa's Morgentaler clinic deserves the same protection as 23 Ontario hospitals and clinics, which are protected under a 1994 court injunction that created 500-foot bubble zones around the locations. Toronto's Morgentaler clinic was included in the 1994 court injunction, but Ottawa's clinic, which wasn't open at the time, was not.

"I am hoping that you will agree that the concerns that moved the Ontario government to action for the people of Toronto in 1994, are no less pressing than they are today, for the people of Ottawa," Mr. Watson wrote.

While Ontario could seek to extend the 1994 injunction to the Ottawa clinic, city solicitor Rick O'Connor wrote in an assessment that the most effective approach would be to create a provincewide Access to Abortion Services Act, as B.C., and Newfoundland and Labrador have. The provincial legislation ensures that people providing or seeking health services at any clinic or medical provider are able to do so free from harassment, with penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for breaking the law.

In a statement last month, Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau said his officers continually respond to calls at the Ottawa clinic, mostly related to protesters and graphic signs. However, he said that if the clinic wishes to obtain a bubble zone around the premise, it would need to pursue the matter with the courts because of the impact on individual rights.

Ottawa's bylaws state that demonstrations of 150 people or fewer must be conducted on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the property. However, Councillor Catherine McKenney, who represents the ward where the clinic is located, said it's hard to enforce the bylaw on anti-abortion protesters outside the clinic, as it is meant for large-scale protests, not small groups or individuals.

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"It's very difficult to apply it to individuals because if you're a peaceful protester, you have a right to protest anywhere on public space. So as a municipality, we are left in a very grey zone if somebody chooses to cross the street – one or two people – and they're being peaceful. The most we could ever do is fine them."

Ms. McKenney said she is in favour of the legislation recommended by Mr. O'Connor. She said she has received a number of complaints from clinic staff and patients, who often share similar experiences.

"Almost every one of them told me that their experience on entering the clinic, they had protesters … who would yell at them, who would target them individually. They were often spat on."

Cyril Winter, a retiree who has been protesting with graphic signs outside the Ottawa clinic for years, disputed that claim, saying he is the one who is spat on and sworn at by passersby. Mr. Winter said he will consult a lawyer about his Charter right to freedom of expression if a bubble zone is enforced around the clinic.

The Ottawa Morgentaler clinic did not respond to The Globe and Mail's interview request Wednesday.

The city's action on the matter comes less than two weeks after an anti-abortion March for Life flag flew at Ottawa City Hall. In the wake of outrage from the public and city councillors, the flag was removed within hours of being raised on May 11.

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Video: Liberals not opening abortion debate, Justice Minister says (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Michelle Zilio is a reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau. Previously, she was the associate producer of CTV’s Question Period and a political writer for CTVNews.ca. Michelle has also worked as a parliamentary reporter for iPolitics, covering foreign affairs, defence and immigration, and as a city desk reporter at the Ottawa Citizen. More

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