Linda Gibbons - A Canadian Pro-Life Hero

submitted by Kathie McGann

Note the arguments by the government spokesmen cited. When it comes to defending banana-republic style thuggery (against social conservatives), it's hard to tell whether Mike Harris' Tories or the New Democrats are worse. Either they don't know the basic facts or they are playing the cover-up game themselves to protect their own backsides and political agenda.

A test of free speech?:

Linda Gibbons has spent almost five years in jail for refusing to keep her distance at abortion protests. Bruce Ward asks her why. The Ottawa Citizen - January 31, 1999

TORONTO WEST DETENTION CENTRE - Linda Gibbons is a 50-year-old grandmother of four who has deliberately spent almost all of the past five years in a Toronto jail cell. To her lawyer and supporters, she is a prisoner of conscience, a woman who is behind bars on a simple freedom-of-speech case. To the justice system, she is simply a stubborn woman who refuses to stop breaking the law.

Her case is as divisive as the issue it involves - abortion. Essentially, Mrs. Gibbons is in jail for carrying a picket sign too close to an abortion clinic and speaking to women as they walk past - "counselling," she calls it. Her actions are illegal under an injunction passed in Ontario in 1994 that bans picketing within 18 metres of an abortion clinic.

To get out of jail on bail, she must promise to follow the rules and stay back. She refuses to do so. "I feel called to be part of the fight against the abortion industry," Mrs. Gibbons says in an interview in the visitors' room of the Toronto West Detention Centre. Going to jail for her beliefs is no big deal, she insists. "I feel like a very ordinary Christian doing a very ordinary thing."

Blaise MacLean, her lawyer, speaks bluntly about his client's sheer doggedness and her dealings with the legal system. "She is a prisoner of conscience," he says. "This is a straight political issue - freedom of speech.

Toronto Crown attorney Paul Culver says the Gibbons case boils down to one essential fact. "It's by her own choice," he says. "She could be out on bail every time she's charged just by agreeing to bail conditions, like staying away from the clinic. She won't do it. She keeps breaking the law, that's why she's in jail."

Her pending case comes to trial on Tuesday. She and two others are abortion a picketing incident last September at an abortion clinic in downtown Toronto. Mrs. Gibbons expects to be sentenced to six months in jail - the maximum penalty. "Last time, the Crown asked for a year, but that's the way it's been going," she says. "Four months in jail until the trial, and then I serve two-thirds of the six-month sentence. So it works out to about eights months in jail every time. I'm not sure how many times I've been convicted, but my record is long enough to have a second page."

The injunction - which established a restricted "bubble zone" at abortion clinics and banned pickets at the homes of doctors who perform abortions - was granted in 1994 by Mr. Justice George Adams. It was supposed to be temporary. The governing New Democratic Party initiated it to defuse the picketing issue until it could be decided by the courts in an expected civil suit.

But that challenge never materialized. The anti-abortion movement expected the Harris government would quash the abortion injunction after taking power - particularly since Charles Harnick, who became attorney general, had expressed concerns that the injunction was a suppression of free speech. But the injunction is still intact. Mr. Harnick will not comment on the Gibbons case because it is before the courts.

The government's position on the abortion injunction is that public safety is paramount, said spokesman Brendan Crawley. "In a number of jurisdictions, the incidents of violence associated with this issue have caused serious harm, even death. That's not acceptable. The attorney general is satisfied that any limits the injunction may impose are justified in the interests of public safety."

Mrs. Gibbons could carry on her always peaceful protests without attracting the police just by standing on the other side of the clinic's restricted zone, where picketing is allowed. "It's hard to counsel from across the street," she says. "The women going in there are in a lot of crisis, and you're hollering at them from a distance."

At demonstrations, she usually carries a plastic replica of a 10-week-old fetus, along with a sign depicting a baby and the slogan "Why, mom? When I have so much love to give you?" She says she won't obey the injunction - or any law that permits abortion - because doing so goes counter to her fundamentalist Christian beliefs. In her eyes, such laws have no validity and must not be followed because they are ethically and morally wrong.

How she came to that position is a little complicated. First, she has had an abortion herself, when she was 23, about 10 years before she became a born-again Christian. "When you've lost a child, there's no going back," she says.

After seeing The Silent Scream, an anti-abortion film said to depict a 12-week-old fetus being aborted, her life changed. She decided her personal ministry was to become a sort of perpetual protester who offers counsel to women about to enter abortion clinics.

Those convictions have been tested by life in the Toronto jail where she has spent most of the past five years. "You get heroin addicts coming down in here. They've been living in stairwells, and they're just so sick. Some of the bugs they bring in are scary."

Most of her daylight hours are passed in the jail's common room where the four steel tables with stools are bolted to the floor. Then there's the noise. Even over the phone, the din from the cell range is relentless. "It's worst by the TV, it's always on full blast. Most of the girls play cards, or pass the time by braiding their hair, things like that. But I've got a pretty good rapport with most of them." She said she has the respect of most inmates mostly because she won't cave in to authority. They know she could walk out of jail today just by signing her name to a list of bail conditions.

She calls herself a typical "military brat" from a family of seven children who moved every time her dad got a promotion. "I was a mother hen to the four youngest ones. We always lived out in the countryside where it was cheaper, so it was like a farm upbringing."

She had a cleft lip and palate and underwent reconstructive surgery several times. A faint scar runs across her chin from her nose as a result. There were new schools almost every year. The taunts, though, were the same wherever she went. "It was hard, but you adjust," she said. "I would say I was happy growing up."

She is divorced — three grown children and four grandchildren she sees about twice a year. Before her jailings, she worked for an anti-abortion agency as a sort of house mother for pregnant women who had nowhere else to turn. Previously, she was a clerical worker for the Canadian Forces and at a truck leasing company. As a volunteer, she has taught disabled children how to swim.

She is soft-spoken. There's no fire-and-brimstone about her, no quoting from the scriptures about the wages of sin. Instead, she has a puckish sense of humour that comes out when she's feeling comfortable. Ask her what life behind bars is like and she jokes, "It's institutional."

The worst part? Adjusting to the meals. "Because it's maximum security here, you don't get full utensils - just a tablespoon to eat with. By the time you get served, the food is lukewarm if not cold. That's really hard if you like your food piping hot like I do. "It's Survival Eating."

She says she sustains herself through her faith. "I draw a bit of strength from my spiritual beliefs."

On Tuesday in provincial court, Mr. MacLean will argue that Mrs. Gibbons is being prosecuted on the wrong charge and before the wrong court. He contends that the appropriate charge is "disobey court order," not "obstruct peace officer," and that the case should be before the General Division court that issued the injunction.

"The best-case scenario would be for the judge to stay the obstruct peace officer charge, and charge Linda again - this time with the appropriate charge of disobey court order. "This would mean the case could be heard by judge and jury in the higher court, and I could raise constitutional issues like freedom of speech."

But no matter what the outcome of the case, Mrs. Gibbons insists she will continue with her protests. If she were released tomorrow, would she go right back to the abortion clinic and do it all over again?

A legal technicality releases a grandmother from jail to protest again

Whether Linda Gibbons knew the abortion clinic was open for business is a moot point - because the court wasn't convinced. But that minor legal detail has freed the 50-year-old grandmother who has spent the past six months in jail for protesting outside the Scott Clinic on Gerrard Street.

The charges against her were dropped yesterday after a judge found there wasn't enough evidence to prove she had violated a court injunction by picketing during hours of operation.

"I thought the decision was honourable and righteous," said Ms. Gibbons, who has spent a total of 60 months behind bars for picketing abortion clinics and violating court injunctions since 1989. "I think the judge realizes it's a freedom-of-speech issue."

Ms. Gibbons was charged with obstructing a peace officer following a protest outside the downtown clinic on Sept. 9. In 1994, an injunction created an 18-metre "bubble zone" around the clinic, keeping protestors from the entrance.

Ms. Gibbons, who claims to counsel women as they enter the facility, was arrested for picketing inside the restricted area. She refused to sign a bail condition that would have kept her away from the clinic, instead choosing to languish in jail. Her lawyer Blaise MacLean pointed out the injunction states protesters are banned only during business hours and that the Crown provided no evidence as to the exact hours of the clinic's operation.

Assistant Crown attorney Jennifer Crawford countered there was sufficient evidence that it was open for business because police testified that a manager from inside had called them for help and that patients had been entering the clinic. But Judge E.G. Hachborn ruled that although there was some evidence the clinic was open, the Crown failed to meet the burden of proof. "It was a technicality but an important technicality," Mr. MacLean said after the trial. "It upheld the obligation of the Crown to prove every element of its case, and that when it comes to dealing with issues like freedom of speech the Crown is held to a high standard and the order is interpreted restrictively."

Asked whether she would be back at the clinic to protest, Ms. Gibbons replied: "I'm sort of waiting on the Lord's direction but it's leading in that way."

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