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Federal candidates spar over abortion, persecution of Christians to woo Catholic voters

When asked about reopening the abortion debate Thursday morning in New Brunswick, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told reporters that he was "personally pro-life," but pointed to all his policies in his platform that he says proves his party supports the rights of women, and that as prime minister he would ensure their rights are "always protected."

More than 1,200 people gathered in Toronto on Thursday evening to hear federal candidates duke it out over issues important to Catholics — and court their votes in the upcoming election. It’s part of a broader get-out-the-vote campaign for Catholics that includes events, guides on Catholic social teachings and the federal election, and “conscience cards” on various platform promises.

“We have earned a place at the democratic table and we expect our voices to be heard,” Cardinal Thomas Collins told the sold-out audience at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

The Archdiocese of Toronto, which includes nearly two million Catholics living in 57 ridings, organized the event.

Assisted death policy changed at Catholic hospital in Nova Scotia
Assisted death policy changed at Catholic hospital in Nova Scotia

The debate was attended by candidates from the Conservatives, Greens, Liberals, NDP and the People’s Party, and was livestreamed and viewed by congregations across the country. Organizers described it as the largest live audience for a federal debate during this campaign.

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“In any debate, the hardest part for us may be that we’re in the audience and don’t have the microphone,” Collins said. 

“We are forced to listen to positions we do not agree with and feel the urge to offer a rebuttal or correction. While tempting, that is not our role this evening.”

Scheer says he is ‘personally pro-life’; says he still supports women’s rights
Scheer says he is ‘personally pro-life’; says he still supports women’s rights

The crowd was also asked to hold their applause and reactions during the debate itself.

But many in the audience fell to that temptation by heckling or expressing loud agreement or disdain during the discussions on topics ranging from abortion and immigration to the environment and Christian persecution abroad.

In response to a question about how the parties would respond to the “global problem of Christian persecution,” the People’s Party (PPC) candidate for Cambridge—North Dumfries, David Haskell, cited a recent report by the British foreign secretary that found high rates of violence against Christians around the world, including in the Middle East. 

He said the PPC promises to give priority to refugees from the “most persecuted minorities.” Then he brought the issue back to Canada for the audience.

“We will also protect the rights of Christians and other believers here at home,” Haskell said.

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Federal Election 2019: Singh says NDP will ensure abortion services available in every province
Federal Election 2019: Singh says NDP will ensure abortion services available in every province

Haskell accused his counterparts of being afraid to say that Christians are being targeted, instead favouring broader terms such as “minorities,” due to “political correctness.”

He pointed to Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s apology after she said her personal hero was Jesus Christ in an interview with CBC News. “Sorry. That’s my answer,” May said last month.

That apology, for Haskell, is a sign of “political correctness” gone too far. 

“What kind of bizarre idea is it that every other faith can speak its name but Christianity can’t? And this is a problem that not just hurts us here, but hurts Christians worldwide,” Haskell said. “We need to be able to speak the name of Jesus, we need to be able to speak the name of Christianity. And we need to address these problems head on!”

The crowd erupted into cheers and thunderous applause, as the moderator waved his hands to get them to quiet down.

READ MORE: How a proposed conversion therapy ban and LGBTQ2 issues are mobilizing Canada’s Christian right

Conservative candidate Garnett Genuis for the Alberta riding of Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan stated that his party wants to reinstate the Office of Religious Freedom, opened under the previous Stephen Harper government with a mandate to protect religious minorities and promote pluralism. It was replaced by the Office of Human Rights, Freedom and Inclusion by the Liberals in 2016. 

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Matthew Green, the NDP candidate for Hamilton Centre, and Dan Turcotte, Green Party candidate for Don Valley, both said that the persecution of Christians abroad is concerning, as is persecution of anyone based on their beliefs. 

Green, the NDP candidate, also turned toward the situation at home, saying he was especially worried about Bill 21 in Quebec, new legislation that bans some public servants from wearing religious symbols. 

“It’s an example of state-sponsored discrimination against religious minorities,” Green said. “When religious minorities are targeted, all of our rights are at risk.”

READ MORE: Andrew Scheer’s Quebec conundrum and what it means for the Conservatives

Next came a discussion on “life issues,” including abortion, described by the moderator as perhaps “the single biggest issue for most Catholics.”

In a pre-recorded video question, Sister John Mary, a nun from the Sisters of Life, described how much of her work involves helping pregnant women in need.

“We also assist women who have suffered after abortion,” she said. “Many people are surprised to learn that Canada hasn’t had an abortion law in 30 years.”

She added that most major political parties do not want to propose legislation that restricts abortion access, nor provide “appropriate health care supports to those at the end of life.”

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She asked the candidates how they would defend the rights “of all Canadians, from conception to natural death.”

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

Genuis, the Conservative candidate, reiterated that while leader Andrew Scheer has said that he identifies as “pro-life,” he will not reopen the debate on abortion and will oppose measures that seek to restrict it. But he added that Conservative MPs are free to vote on these matters according to their conscience. 

“Individual members of Parliament can be pro-life, can speak about being pro-life, can speak at the March for Life, can express their points of view,” Genuis said. 

Haskell, the PPC candidate, said that people with differing views should be able to voice their opinions “without discrimination” and that’s why his party would allow free votes in Parliament and bring forward any legislation that’s of concern to Canadians, “including on abortion and euthanasia.” 

2019 Federal Election: May says party supports woman’s right to safe abortion
2019 Federal Election: May says party supports woman’s right to safe abortion

He was the only candidate who discussed concrete measures being pursued to restrict abortion access in Canada.

“Already, colleagues of mine from Red Deer have draft legislation to end third-trimester abortion and they will bring it forward as a private member’s bill.”

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Green Party candidate Turcotte said his party would support measures to address sexual violence and access to universal pharmacare so that women are able to access birth control measures. 

The NDP’s Matthew Green said his party supports a women’s right to choose an abortion, and for people to be able to choose when to end their lives. 

And Liberal candidate Francesco Sorbara, who mentioned his own Catholic faith throughout the evening, drew a few jeers when he said he supports abortion rights.

“From my understanding, no party will be reopening the debate on a woman’s right to choose,” he said.

Access to abortions varies across Canada
Access to abortions varies across Canada

Voting patterns among Catholics, Canada’s largest religious group with an estimated 12.8 million people (out of an estimated 22 million total Christians) have shifted across the country in recent years. The Catholic Church is also explicit that adherents have a moral obligation to vote.

Though the church is not overtly partisan, church doctrine states that it does “pass moral judgments even in matters related to politics, whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it.”

In 2011, former Conservative leader Stephen Harper said that his party was “the first choice” of Roman Catholic voters, who previously had voted in droves for the Liberal Party.

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An Angus Reid poll from 2011 confirmed Harper’s statement, finding that more than half of Catholics outside of Quebec planned to vote for the Conservatives. Among more devout Catholics, this number rises even further.  

During the last provincial election in Ontario, the Archdiocese of Toronto also provided a voting guide for Catholics.