After a chorus of criticisms rang from Ottawa’s residents and elected officials, the city’s mayor said he is taking steps to ensure no “pro-life” flag – or one promoting any sort of “divisive cause” like it – ever again flies over city hall.
“Obviously I was not happy at all when the flag was raised,” he said in an interview Friday.
“We have to make sure it’s crystal clear for next year that that kind of divisive cause should not be promoted and publicized at city hall.”
It took the mayor several hours to wade into the issue Thursday when his Twitter feed was being flooded with messages of concern and alarm.
That morning, the city had proclaimed the day “March for Life Day,” a declaration that’s rather easy to get from the city and has been made in years past on the day thousands of people protesting against abortion rights organize a march on Parliament Hill.
Unlike other years, however, a March for Life flag was raised at city hall, flying alongside the more familiar flags of Canada, Ontario and Ottawa.
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Within hours, seven city councillors called for the flag to immediately come down. In a joint letter, they said the flag represents a “personal conviction to restrict a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion” and raised the point that abortion is constitutionally protected in Canada.
A little while after the letter was publicized, Mayor Jim Watson said he’d asked for a full review of the policies on proclamations and flag-raising ceremonies. He also wished to put on the record that he did not personally approve the flag.
City staff, as opposed to elected officials, have accepted blame for the flag raising as decisions on which flags to fly falls to them.
The city’s top lawyer, Rick O’Connor explained Thursday that those in charge of the decision had determined the March for Life flag met the required criteria for flying a flag – and so refusing to do so could have been considered a violation of the Human Rights Code.
However, according to O’Connor’s explanation, staff later came to realize the request to raise the March for Life flag came from an individual and not a charitable or non-profit organization, as set out in the criteria. With that, the flag came down.
“This group marches on Parliament Hill and they have the right to go and express their point of view,” Watson said Friday. “I think most people in our city, and certainly myself and our council, don’t support this push to limit a woman’s right to choose her own medical treatment.”
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Thursday’s incident came amid concerns from an Ottawa abortion clinic that the city was failing to protect its patients and staff from protesters who “consistently frightened and harassed patients and workers trying to enter and exit the building,” according to the Ottawa Citizen.
Watson has since asked city lawyers to look at the idea of creating a bylaw offering protection to abortion clinics, the newspaper reported, as is done in some other Canadian jurisdictions.
— With files from The Canadian Press