A Catholic university in Ottawa cancelled a contracted screening of an award-winning documentary about a doctor who provides abortions at sea and told organizers that they could either change the film or go somewhere else.
For the last six years, organizers behind the festival Choice have booked the amphitheater at Saint Paul University to host panels and film screenings with the goal of sparking discussion and better awareness of the options available in birth and child-rearing.
Located centrally in downtown Ottawa, Saint Paul is a Catholic university on several main bus routes that festival organizers say offers enough space so they do not have to turn anyone away who wants to attend panels or screenings.
Wendy Jolliffe, a volunteer with the Choice film festival, told Global News the university has always been “excellent” to organizers and never before told them what they could or could not show at screenings.
Past films have included documentaries about breastfeeding, maternal mental health, myths about childbirth and different methods of giving birth.
But on Wednesday, after the university learned the organizers planned to show a film that discussed abortion at the screening on Saturday, the school sent an email telling organizers to either pick a different film or choose another venue.
“What they said in the email was, ‘we’re sorry, we had to cancel the evening — or change the film,” said Jolliffe.
The film in question, Vessel, tells the story of Rebecca Gomperts, a doctor who began providing abortions at sea after witnessing the dangers women seeking abortions face in countries where the procedure is illegal.
It premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2014 and won both the Audience Award for Documentary in Competition and a Special Jury Award for Political Courage, and is available on Netflix in Canada.
WATCH BELOW: Vessel trailer
Jolliffe said in conversations with Saint Paul administrators, she quickly got the impression that forcing them to pick a different venue or cancel the screening may not have been the university’s idea.
“From what I understood it was completely out of their hands,” she said. “It’s way up in the Catholic Church. Exactly what level it was, you’d have to check with them but I get the impression it was very high. It was not something they could control at the university.”
The Ottawa Birth and Wellness Centre, located in the city’s southeast, ultimately agreed to host the Saturday screening but organizers say the smaller venue means they may have to turn people away.
A spokesperson for Saint Paul University said the decision was made to ask the organizers to find a different venue because the university has a policy of not holding events on campus that could be polarizing or that have the potential to bring protesters.
Global News also contacted Terrence Prendergast, Archbishop of Ottawa and chancellor of Saint Paul University, to ask whether he had any contact with the university on the matter but did not receive a response.
Women’s rights advocates quickly slammed the decision, which comes on the heels of a heated debate about free speech on university campuses in Canada.
Earlier this week, Wilfrid Laurier University was forced to issue an apology after officials there accused a teaching assistant of being transphobic and contributing to a hostile teaching environment after she showed her students a video of a debate held on Ontario public broadcaster TVO last year in which panelists argued for and against the required use of gender-neutral pronouns.
Science Minister Kirsty Duncan said that being able to express a variety of views is fundamental to a free society and challenged the Conservatives to offer their support for free speech in the matter.
“Our government is committed to creating open spaces for Canadians to debate and express their views. We also firmly support a women’s right to choose. In a free society, we may disagree with a person’s views, but we must defend their right to hold them-unless those views promote hate,” she said in a statement to Global News.
“We will continue to fight to ensure the Charter rights of Canadians are upheld, and I only hope the Opposition will be consistent in their support for free speech on campus and across the country.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who included in his party leadership campaign a pledge to withdraw federal funding from university’s that do not protect free speech, called the incident at Laurier “egregious” and slammed the university earlier this week.
WATCH ABOVE: Andrew Scheer slams Laurier University for stifling free speech
“To think that we’ve got to the state in Canada where a university would have an inquisition on a young grad student and make comparisons to Hitler, to bully her, to tell her that she committed acts of violence by showing a clip from a public broadcast on a public broadcaster, is ridiculous,” he said.
“I think the stifling of free speech is of growing concern to many people on all sides of the political spectrum.”
Global News requested a comment from Scheer on Saint Paul University’s decision not to allow the film to be shown on campus but has not received a response.