Inadvertently or not, it appears Sam Oosterhoff has raised an army.
And that army, many dressed in the red cloak uniform inspired by the recent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, made a show of strength Saturday at what might otherwise have been a quiet community coffee event held by the Progressive Conservative MPP at the Grimsby branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.
Dozens of women, men and children parked themselves in front of the legion on Elizabeth St. to protest Oosterhoff’s comments at an anti-abortion rally on May 9 at Queen’s Park, where he pledged to “make abortion unthinkable in our lifetime.”
Those comments, coming on the heels of new legislation passed south of the border in Alabama and Missouri, severely restricting and outright banning abortion, sparked outrage. Many took up the hashtag #myunthinkableabortion after St. Catharines Regional Councillor Laura Ip shared her personal experience, using the hashtag on Twitter.
Saturday’s protesters weren’t just from Niagara, with many coming from across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, and they mobilized quickly. It was just Wednesday that Burlington’s Jennifer Botari invited three friends to join a private Facebook group called “Handmaids Local 905.” By the end of the week, the group had 3,000 members, and nearly a dozen other chapters sprang up across the country.
“In less than three days, we have a movement of thousands that have come out,” she said. “As fast as I can find people to run the locals, we’re bringing them online.”
Botari, who formed the group with high school friend Julie (Fazooli) Marquis, said the Niagara West MPP’s comments are just the latest salvo in an ongoing, co-ordinated and accelerating attack on women’s reproductive rights.
She scoffed at any claim the fight against abortion is about protecting human life, saying it’s about denying women control over their bodies. And it’s not middle-class white women such as herself who suffer the most in this, she said; it’s always marginalized and racialized people who take on the brunt of the impact.
Forced births, she said, disrupt their ability — and, by extension, that of their families — to better themselves.
“It disengages entire populations’ from economic participation, social participation and self-improvement,” she said. “It’s about keeping a subjugated population in place.”
Oosterhoff’s event, otherwise sparsely attended, was advertised to run from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. But just before 9:30, he got into the passenger side of a pickup truck as the driver attempted to leave.
The crowd didn’t let him go quietly, quickly surrounding the truck and refusing to budge. Protesters shouted at the two inside the truck, while a topless protester demonstrated outside the passenger window.
After about 20 minutes, Niagara Regional Police Service officers arrived and formed a blockade in front the truck. They then slowly proceeded, pushing against the crowd in an attempt to clear a path.
Eventually, the truck made it through, but not before passing by protesters angrily voicing their outrage.
Botari said she was happy with how the demonstration went, and wasn’t especially upset Oosterhoff didn’t take a moment to address the crowd.
“I don’t have much interest in what he has to say,” she said.
She said it’s important to keep the pressure up, not just with Oosterhoff but with any politicians or candidates in the upcoming federal election who would deny women’s reproductive rights.
Botari said she’s confident they can do it.
“If we can grow an army of thousands in three days, we can grow an army of tens of thousands.”
In an emailed statement, Oosterhoff called the demonstration “unfortunate.”
“It is unfortunate that a group of one issue activists decided to hijack my community coffee event,” he said. “I always look forward to chatting with my constituents at these events, connecting with them about local issues. Unfortunately, these activists shut down conversations about important local matters like the West Lincoln Memorial Hospital and the regional governance review. The Legion felt it was necessary to call the (Niagara police), and I respect their decision.”
Mike Zettel is the online editor for Niagara This Week and also reports in Niagara’s southern tier.