OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is cheering Liberal MPs who walked out of a hearing Tuesday to prevent a Conservative counterpart with anti-abortion views from being named to head up the House of Commons committee on the status of women.
All the Liberal members of the committee got up and walked out right before they were scheduled to hold a vote on nominating Alberta MP Rachael Harder to the position of committee chair.
Harder, who represents the riding of Lethbridge, didn’t want to discuss the matter Tuesday but she has in the past expressed support for laws enacted to protect the rights of “unborn children,” and has said she believes life begins at conception.
Trudeau told a news conference that his government supports the independence of committees, and that the Liberals on the status of women committee made the decision to walk out on their own — but that he supports their position.
“We will always defend women’s rights in this party and in this government,” Trudeau said.
“Quite frankly, one would hope that the committee for the status of women would have a spokesperson who would be able to stand up and unequivocally defend women’s rights. That’s sort of the point of the status of women committee.”
The Liberals hold a majority on the committee and could have voted down the nomination, but instead opted to make a show of their disapproval by walking out of the hearing.
As they left, Liberal MPs denounced Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer — also opposed to abortion, but in a far more delicate position as leader than an MP from Alberta — for putting Harder forward for the job.
“These are not liberal values,” said Liberal MP Marc Serre. “We wanted to take a position as a party that we don’t support this decision by the leader of the Opposition.”
The Liberals are challenging Scheer to put forward someone who is not from the right-wing fringe of his party — and who doesn’t share his opinion on abortion.
Scheer, however, insisted Tuesday that he put forward Harder’s name because she’s a hard-working, strong and democratically elected MP, and repeated his position that his Conservative caucus has no interest in advancing an anti-abortion agenda.
And he made it clear that despite what the prime minister said later, he believes Trudeau had a hand in Tuesday’s theatrics.
“It’s certainly unprecedented that the prime minister would interfere and block the nomination of a democratically elected member of Parliament to serve as chair of a committee,” he said.
“I think it shows a lack of respect for the parliamentary process. It’s very unfortunate.”
Conservative MP Lisa Raitt, one of several Tories who ran against Scheer for the leadership, defended the choice of Harder to chair the committee, insisting that her personal feelings about an issue needn’t cloud her ability to do the job.
“Look at it this way: her beliefs are her beliefs, and she holds them herself. There are members of cabinet, Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, who hold the same beliefs,” Raitt said.
Trudeau has made it abundantly clear that those members of cabinet are expected to toe the party line when it comes to voting on issues that might conflict with their beliefs on abortion, she added.
“When the government says Rachel Harder can’t be the chair of this committee, what they’re saying is they don’t trust her to put her personal beliefs aside. They don’t give her the benefit of the doubt.”
Committee vice-chair and Liberal MP Pam Damoff said it now falls to the Conservatives to decide what to do next.
Inside the meeting room, Harder accused the Liberal MPs of disrespecting the democratic process. She refused to respond to questions from journalists asking about her position on abortion.
Maryam Monsef, the minister for the status of women, echoed Trudeau’s support.
“I support their choice,” she said. “And applaud their decision to be heard.”
Sheila Malcolmson, the NDP status of women critic who first flagged Harder’s nomination, thanked the Liberals for taking action.
“Ms. Harder’s position and commitment to advance legislation restricting a woman’s right to choose makes her an inappropriate choice to head the House of Commons committee charged with defending women’s rights in Canada,” Malcolmson said.
“Reproductive justice is foundational to women’s rights and there can be no question that we will defend all women’s rights as we pursue the advancement of the status of women in Canada.”