Around 30 Clinic 554 supporters attended a candlelit vigil on the grounds of the Provincial Legislative Building on Sept. 25 when police officers and the sergeant-at-arms tore down the tents set up for the night’s camp-out.
“They barged in and started tearing down the tents and we told them that we felt that their actions were illegal, that they didn’t have any legal authority to do that,” said Kerri Froc, a faculty of law professor at the University of New Brunswick.
Froc, UNB law alumna Kathleen Adams and other protesters organized a vigil and camp-out after the announcement that Clinic 554 will be closing at the end of the month.
Protesters set up tents in the afternoon and announced the vigil would begin at 7 p.m. Around 5 p.m., police and the sergeant-at-arms stopped by the Legislature to have organizers take down their tents. Froc said they asked for legal authority and the police left but warned the protestors to remove their tents by 7 p.m.
“They ignored us. I mean, it’s two or three police officers plus a very grumpy sergeant-at-arms throwing their weight around with two women with tents,” said Froc.
Adams’ and Froc’s tents were taken and put behind a barrier, still on the legislature grounds.
Karen Pearlston, a UNB law professor and member of Reproductive Justice N.B., also attended the vigil. She said the fight to save Clinic 554 has been going on for much longer than these protests and vigils held during one week.
“We’ve been trying to meet with Blaine Higgs and Ted Flemming since they got their first mandate and they’ve refused to meet with us and they’ve refused to meet with Clinic 554,” Pearlston said.
“That’s what’s shocking to me.”
Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin also attended the vigil. Atwin said that the closing announcement of Clinic 554 doesn’t mean the fight will stop and the conversation will end.
“The wraparound care that they do [at Clinic 554] is just unmatched in the city,” said Atwin.
She said the clinic doesn’t just do abortions, but they also do trans and LGBTQ+ community care as well as addiction and mental health care.
Under the Medical Services Payment Act, Regulation 84-20 doesn’t allow Medicare to cover abortions done out-of-hospital. Pearlston said the team at Clinic 554 takes on some of the costs of the abortions if patients can’t afford it.
Atwin said Regulation 84-20 could be repealed “with a stroke of a pen” from Blaine Higgs and wished more local politicians attended to show their support.
Fredericton-South MLA David Coon said the notice served Friday night appeared to have been written the same day as the vigil.
There were no notices served for legislature camp-outs in the past like Adams’ four-day camp-out a few days prior.
What led up to the vigil?
Adams first camped on the lawn of the Provincial Legislative Building on Sept. 19 and stayed for four days to protest the closure of Clinic 554. She said she wasn’t leaving until she achieved her goal.
“I have lots of things to do,” Adams said.
“But, this is the highest priority one.”
Six other protestors sat on the grass with bubbles, paint, dog treat and toys for pets on the first day of the protest.
The federal government said New Brunswick’s refusal to fund Clinic 554 is in violation of the Canada Health Act. According to CBC News, Higgs said the province has a legal opinion stating otherwise.
One of the protest organizers, Melissa Lukings, is a law student at UNB.
“When you need a second opinion, if you’re fortunate enough to have a law school in your province … that is an incredible resource. Why aren’t you using it?” Lukings said.
Clinic 554 is a family doctor practice that serves around 3,000 patients. It is the only clinic that provides abortion services in Fredericton.
Lukings said hospital abortions cost the government $1,300 while an abortion at Clinic 554 costs between $700 and $850.
Clinic 554 also offers contraception counselling and a variety of contraceptions, hormone readiness assessments, counselling services, pelvic and chest exams, pre and post-surgical care, hormone replacement therapy, intrauterine device (IUD) insertion and education about hormone injection technique.
“I like thinking that I’m going to be able to get the services that I want and I think that I deserve,” said Adams. “Actually, I know I deserve [them] because everyone else in Canada has them.”
New Brunswick is the only province in Canada that doesn’t fund out-of-hospital abortions.
Lukings said if Higgs doesn’t want to be the one to allow greater abortion access for personal reasons, he doesn’t have to be.
“There are others who will make that call for you. You can step down,” Lukings said.
“But he won’t get his pension then.”
On Sept. 25, FLIP Saint John, an activist group committed to exposing community systemic injustices, organized a province-wide student strike and protested in support of Clinic 554. Students walked out of classes and attended protests, one held in Dieppe, one in Moncton, one in Saint John and two in Fredericton.
Of the 15 students protesting in front of UNB Fredericton’s Aitken House, Lauren McCabe from St. Thomas University wanted to make a statement with her refusal to do work.
“I feel like [walking out is] all that we can do as students really, it’s the power that we hold in the system, is that we do our work,” said McCabe.
“If we don’t do that, it’s really us putting our foot down [in] the way that we can.”
The day after the tents were taken
After the police took the tents and the camp-out was cancelled, protestors returned to the Legislature at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday. Froc returned with a new sign reading, “keep your hands off my uterus and off my tent.”
Atwin and Coon also returned.
“I will get to the bottom of what happened last night,” said Coon to a crowd of around 65 people.
He said there’s no reason that people shouldn’t be able to hold a vigil and stay in tents overnight.
“There’s absolutely nothing I know about that would prevent that,” said Coon.
Pearlston also returned for another day of protesting, addressing the crowd with a 15-minute speech. She said she helped fundraise $125,000 when it was needed to open Clinic 554 and now she’s fighting against its closure.
The clinic opened in 2015.
“Clinic 554 is our clinic,” Pearlston said.
She thanked the crowd, particularly the long-time activists who “are still part of the struggle.”
Pearlston said with the closure of Clinic 554, access to abortions will be limited to those who can afford to travel to Moncton or Bathurst, those who have a drive to the hospital, those who can take time off work and those who are not past the 13-week six-day gestational age.
“We want to open a dialogue and it’s hard to open a dialogue when they kick you off the grounds,” Pearlston said.
“We’re going to keep coming back [and] we need all of you to come back.”
With files from Aaron Sousa