Counter protesters at the 2018 National March for Life in Ottawa forced a change of route. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Covington boys incident won’t deter Canadian March for Life

  • January 31, 2019

OTTAWA – Organizers of Canada’s National March for Life will be vigilant but believe no additional safety precautions are required following a controversial incident that marred the March for Life in Washington, D.C.

“Because of the number of students that come, we have to be very aware of their safety and their intention,” said Jeff Gunnarson, president of Campaign Life Coalition

“Their intention is not to come to a free-for-all, and ‘Let’s push our way through the crowd and the barriers and get in the face of counter-protesters.’ We don’t have plans to test the patience of the police or test the strength of the counter-protesters.

“It’s not a battle between us and them. It’s a witness.”

At the Jan. 18 March for Life in Washington, a group of students from Covington Catholic High School, a private boys’ school in Kentucky, was approached by an Indigenous American elder who was leading a religious ceremony. The students, some wearing red pro-Trump hats, were accused of acting aggressively and making racist comments and gestures.

Their actions were initially condemned in the media and by their own bishop. But subsequent video  emerged appearing to exonerate the boys, especially one young man who faced the Indigenous elder. The new footage revealed another group nearby from a Indigenous People’s March who were taunting the students before the elder approached.

Gunnarson said the Canadian March, set for May 9, is more of a “peaceful witness” than a protest. 

“We’re not there to push barriers down, but to march, to remind people we have no abortion law in Canada and the killing is continuing,” he said.

Matt Wojciechowski, project manager for Campaign Life, points out the March has dealt with counter protestors in the past. More than 50 per cent of the thousands of marchers are under 30. Many families come with small children and babies in strollers.

Once the March begins, organizers depend on the RCMP and Ottawa police to control the crowds, to “make sure they’ll keep the crazies away from us so we can do the full route,” said Wojciechowski. 

The police do a good job, he said, in making sure the counter-protesters don’t get “close enough to the marchers to inflict any violence on them.”

Last year, about 100 counter demonstrators forced the March to reverse course. The year before, a group of screaming protesters caused the March to re-route. Three years ago, half-naked female protesters stormed the steps of Parliament Hill where the speakers, including cardinals and bishops, were standing. 

“The cops have taken good steps toward securing the steps, with a double barricade and extra security,” Wojciechowski said. “It’s very hard to pull one of those things again, where they storm the steps.”

One year protesters pelted marchers with condoms, said Wojciechowski.

“They will swear at the marchers, they will try to provoke them and get a response,” he said. 

But the Washington incident has chilled some observers. Heather Candy of Ottawa has three grown sons. She found the Washington incident “quite frightening.”

“I don’t think it would happen in exactly the same way because we don’t do MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats here,” said Candy. “That’s a specifically American phenomenon. But otherwise, yeah, I think there is a certain amount of smearing of social conservatives in this country.”

Just as the Covington students didn’t push back, pro-lifers in Canada “don’t fight back,” Wojciechowski said. 

“We shouldn’t be intimidated by them,” Wojciechowski said. “Clearly, we should pray for them because they are broken people and very angry.”

Suzanne Fortin, the mother of three girls, believes the March is safe.

“I don’t foresee any violence,” she said. “The youth who attend these marches don’t normally engage in radical behaviours.

“The pro-abortion opposition is far more radical and has a far greater potential for violence. We’re there to stand up for life, and sometimes the opposition makes an ugly scene. If it becomes unsafe or very obscene, we can re-think this for our kids, but for now, I don’t think the situation warrants keeping children away.”

Wojciechowski acknowledges some of the principals and teachers from schools that send buses may have second thoughts but most understand the March, the youth banquet and conference are “a life-changing experience for a lot of these kids.”

“I don’t worry about the turnout as much,” he said. “The important thing is we keep doing this and remain faithful to the cause.”

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