Anti-abortion activists are planning to win 50 ridings for their cause in the upcoming federal election

Four years ago, Scott Hayward had the opportunity to work as an accountant at a golf course. It was his dream job.

“It paid well over three times what I make now,” said Hayward, a 29-year-old Chartered Professional Accountant, in a recent interview in Ottawa. “I love to golf.”

But Hayward chose instead to devote himself to fighting against abortion in Canada. He says he’s one of many young professionals who have sacrificed lucrative paycheques and career opportunities for the movement.

“This is truly the human rights issue of our time,” said Hayward, who’s Catholic and grew up in rural Manitoba in “a very pro-life family.”

It’s the numbers that fuel his passion for the cause. And he can rattle them off by heart.

“The thing that moves me, if I can say that, is when you look at the number of abortions in Canada every year … generally, the number is about 100,000, which I think is about one in four pregnancies,” Hayward said. “I believe it’s something about 300 children per day are aborted in Canada, which is about one every five or 10 minutes.”

WATCH BELOW: Access to abortions varies across Canada


Story continues below

After the Conservatives were defeated in the 2015 election and the Liberals formed a majority government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has been supportive of abortion rights, Hayward co-founded RightNow. It’s an anti-abortion group that’s on a mission to help win 50 federal ridings for candidates who identify as “pro-life” during the election in October — and more in the future.

“We saw in that 2015 election, 80 pro-life Members of Parliament that had a 100 per cent pro-life voting record running for reelection. And only 40 of them won,” Hayward said. “Almost instantaneously, we lost half of our pro-life representation in the House of Commons.”

But that representation did not lead to changes in the law. Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office in 2006 with a promise not to re-open the issue of abortion. Though a number of proposals related to pregnancy and abortion were put forward by Conservative MPs, none were passed or made into law.

Current Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has also said that while his government would not re-open the abortion debate if his party formed government, his MPs would still be free to vote on social issues according to their conscience.

Even after the election this fall, Hayward’s group already has plans to keep up its momentum to eventually attain a “pro-life majority” in the House of Commons to eventually pass legislation to restrict abortion access. Though their successful mobilization so far has alarmed some in the pro-choice movement, advocates say it is unlikely any proposed law to restrict abortion in Canada would pass.

But RightNow is pressing on, and has already come up repeatedly in the lead-up to the election.

The new “pro-life” movement

RightNow was founded in 2016 by Hayward and Alissa Golob, another long-time member of Canada’s anti-abortion movement. His penchant for numbers melds with her deep advocacy experience. 

In between election cycles, we’re identifying pro-life voters. And during election cycles, we’re helping get candidates elected. And during leadership races we interview the candidates and help sell memberships,” Golob told Global News.

For the last few months, they have been travelling across the country hosting training sessions and shoring up hundreds of volunteers for candidates who fit their criteria. Hayward said they have been working at least 12 hours a day, six days a week since January to prepare for the federal election.

They will not reveal their list of 50 ridings, not wanting to compromise their strategy, but Hayward pointed generally to battleground races in the Greater Toronto Area and Metro Vancouver. 

“We suspect it will come down to less than one per cent of the vote in a number of those ridings,” he said. “We don’t take any of them for granted.” 

Scott Hayward, co-founder of RightNow, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Global News

READ MORE: How the wave of U.S. restrictions will affect Canadian women sent there for abortions

Hayward also wouldn’t confirm whether all of RightNow’s candidates are running for the Conservatives, but the group has openly supported Conservative candidates provincially and federally, including Andrew Scheer. 

“We support the most winnable pro-life candidate in certain ridings, and generally they are from one political party for this round,” Hayward said. 

Though Scheer has said he will not re-open the issue of abortion, RightNow is hopeful the candidates they support will eventually put forward bills or motions to restrict abortion access in some way. 

Hayward and Golob point to Scheer’s previous statements that he supports free votes for all Conservatives MPs on matters of conscience. In an interview with RightNow during the 2017 Conservative leadership race, Scheer said: “I’ve always voted in favour of pro-life legislation … I can assure you that I support the right of individual MPs to speak out and bring, introduce matters that are important to them.”

WATCH BELOW: Conservative government will not reopen debate on ‘divisive social issues’: Scheer

Scheer reiterated this sentiment at a press conference on Thursday, when pressed about his stance on abortion and same-sex marriage, a week after the Liberals released a 2005 video of Scheer giving a speech in Parliament about his opposition to same-sex marriage.

On the morning of Scheer’s press conference, Liberal Heritage Minister Melanie Joly Tweeted a video clip from an interview Hayward gave in which he cited Scheer’s position on allowing MPs to speak their minds.

“While some Conservatives say the abortion debate is closed, this new video proves Scheer tells anti-choice activists the opposite,” Joly wrote in the Tweet.

When Scheer was asked whether Conservative backbenchers under his government would be punished if they tried to bring forward proposals related to abortion, he said that his government would “oppose measures to open this” but that his party welcomes people with different perspectives on a number of issues.

Golob said Scheer’s statements didn’t change things for RightNow.

“Scheer’s been saying the same thing he’s been saying for years,” she said. “I’m glad that there’s a party that’s standing up [and] allowing freedom of expression, freedom of conscience.”

READ MORE: Provinces violating law by making women pay for abortions, health minister says

Before RightNow existed, the anti-abortion movement in Canada had generally followed the same formula year after year. Groups like the Campaign Life Coalition support politicians that identify as “pro-life” but there wasn’t a group solely dedicated to getting anti-abortion candidates elected.

“All we do is political work,” Golob said. We’re identifying pro-life voters and during election cycles we’re helping get candidates elected. And during leadership races we interview the candidates and help sell memberships.”

And that work is done through precision and numbers. Simply opposing abortion is not enough for RightNow to get behind a candidate. They will only get involved if the candidate has a statistical chance of winning. 

RightNow co-founder Alissa Golob giving a presentation.

RightNow/Facebook

WATCH BELOW: Trudeau says women’s rights to make choices with their bodies are under attack

That means they won’t be supporting any candidates running for the People’s Party of Canada or the Christian Heritage Party, the latter of which calls itselfCanada’s only pro-Life federal political party.”

“They haven’t won a seat in the 30-plus years that they’ve been around. So if there’s evidence to show that one of their candidates has a shot at winning, we’ll take a look at it. But that hasn’t been the case so far,” Golob said. 

This strategy has already served them well at a provincial level — and they hope to replicate that success to send their chosen candidates to Ottawa. 

The Sam Oosterhoff example

Golob cites Ontario MPP Sam Oosterhoff as one example of the group’s abilities, and his campaign has helped form its blueprint.

Oosterhoff became the youngest MPP in the legislature’s history in 2016 when he was elected to represent the Niagara West riding at the age of 19.

But just a few months earlier, Golob never would have imagined that such a feat was possible. 

In a RightNow webinar posted online earlier this month entitled Strategic Election Mobilization Presentation, Golob describes how she first met Oosterhoff at a conference in 2016. He said he had an interest in running for public office.

He told her he was 18 years old. “I just kind of said ‘Ok, great. Nice to meet you,’ and didn’t take it too seriously because of how old he was.”

READ MORE: How abortion rights work in Canada — and whether they could be put at risk

But he messaged her a couple months later saying that MPP Tim Hudak had stepped down and that he wanted to run. He would be up against two political heavyweights for the nomination: former Conservative MP Rick Dykstra and a sitting city councillor named Tony Quirk. 

“He actually had a pretty good plan. Because as you can see his last name is Oosterhoff. So he is very Dutch and he belongs to a Dutch Reformed Church. And there are a lot of Dutch Reformed people and churches in that area,” Golob says in the video.

Sam Oosterhoff speaks to members of the media.

The Canadian Press/Christopher Katsarov

Oosterhoff had kicked off his campaign by going through his church contacts, Golob said. She says he told her that it was like “shooting fish out of a barrel.” 

But the problem, she said, was that it was just him and his brother doing it.

“They could have done that for the next month and they wouldn’t have been able to sell enough memberships,” she said. So she drove to Niagara from Toronto and met with local anti-abortion activists. They signed up to help out with the campaign at least once a week, she said. 

“They helped Sam and they helped behind the scenes very strategically, very quietly,” Golob said. “I don’t even think half the riding knew he was running. But the social conservatives knew he was running, and they were the ones that were helping, and they were the ones that were buying memberships and ready to vote.”

(A spokesperson for Oosterhoff did not respond to requests for comment from Global News.)

WATCH BELOW: 19-year-old student becomes youngest ever member of Ontario legislature

In the end, Oosterhoff was elected.

Earlier this year, he spoke at an anti-abortion rally on the lawn of the Ontario legislature and vowed to make abortion “unthinkable in our lifetime.” His remarks prompted an outcry from opposition leaders. Premier Doug Ford responded by saying that he would not re-open the abortion debate, but that his MPPs are free to “speak their mind.”

“Not everyone is going to be as strong and ardent as Sam,” Golob said. “But this is just a very good example of an underdog candidate winning when social conservatives are organized, they are effective, and they use their time and resources in the most strategic way possible.”

“There are enough pro-life people in each of the ridings to tip the scale in our favour.”

Beyond prayer 

Before RightNow, both Golob and Hayward worked with Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), a national group founded in 1978 that supports candidates at all levels of government who oppose abortion, regardless of their chances of winning. But it also organizes things like prayer vigils, rallies, and other public demonstrations. 

One of those is the LifeChain initiative. “Every year, people hold up signs on the street at the same time for the same hour. And I grew up doing that. So people are just very used to it,” Golob told Global News. She previously worked with CLC as a youth coordinator. 

“If you don’t know how many people are seeing your sign or how many conversations you’re having to change minds or to reach out to people and find that common ground, you’re just holding it in the hopes that maybe you change someone or affected someone.”

READ MORE: The forgotten history of Canadian women who travelled around the world for abortions

With RightNow, she and Hayward say they are sticking to evidence-based methods to select their ridings and get their candidates elected. 

“The name of the game from now until Oct. 21 is to get as many door knockers out there as possible for our pro-life candidates,” Hayward said. He added that RightNow is on track to meet its goal of having at least 20 volunteers in all of their target ridings, meaning around 1,000.

They both state repeatedly that their organization is a “conjecture-free zone.”

“We don’t operate on conjecture. We operate on numbers. We operate on the most unbiased, ideally statistical evidence that’s available to us,” Hayward said. 

“If we keep doing the same things politically in the pro-life movement we have been doing for the last 40 years, we are going to end up in the same place in the next 40 years.”

And with a shift in tactics by the movement comes an evolution of its demographics, something that RightNow is tapping into.

“I see a lot more young people than when I first started,” Golob said.

“We focused a lot in areas in the GTA and Vancouver, B.C., where it’s ethnically diverse because a lot of new Canadians have social conservative leanings and oftentimes don’t translate those into votes. Getting into temples or mosques, or whatever the case may be, has also been a successful endeavour that we’ll continue.

Unrealistic expectations?

Joyce Arthur is the executive director of pro-choice organization the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, which was founded in 2005. She has been following RightNow’s progress for years.

“It is a bit alarming that they’ve had success at getting candidates nominated in ridings and grooming them,” Arthur told Global News. 

“What is interesting is that RightNow is quite sophisticated in its methods and successful at that riding level. But they have no plan going forward to have their hopes realized of those candidates actually passing legislation,” she said. “It’s very very difficult to pass anti-abortion legislation in Canada. I don’t even see that as a real threat.” 

It is also very rare for private members’ bills to become law.

WATCH BELOW: Andrew Scheer says he won’t ‘reopen’ abortion if elected

She pointed to RightNow’s support for Scheer, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and Alberta Premier Jason Kenny.

“In all these cases, the folks that they elected have backed down from any promise to re-look at the abortion issue or possibly pass a law.”

Arthur added that she is more concerned about ongoing issues around access to abortion that exist in Canada, even though it is is legal. 

“Scheer constantly says he’s not going to reopen the debate, but that’s not good enough,” she said. “We need to improve access, hold provinces to account to make sure that they’re providing accessible abortion care that is fully funded.”

As for pro-choice advocates and groups, Joyce said that the movement is at a disadvantage when compared to the anti-abortion counterparts.

“The pro-choice movement can’t really compete with the anti-choice movement in terms of organization, funding,” she said.

People take part in the March For Life rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

But she said that her group and others are doing outreach to grassroots supporters ahead of the election, contacting candidates and current MPs, and sending letters of support for abortion rights.

“We also have our own list of anti-choice MPs,” she said. “So we are keeping that up to date, and currently, going to create a list of ridings around 70 or so across Canada where based on the 2015 results we really need to support progressive candidates.”

While Arthur says she is confident that RightNow will not be able to achieve their goal of passing anti-abortion legislation, she knows they are playing the long game.

“We always have to be vigilant. The pro-choice movement has actually had lots of successes over the decades. And we should be able to continue those successes,” she said. “We just can’t give them an inch.”

SHARE THIS ARTICLE

Want to discuss? Please read our Commenting Policy first.