Kwantlen Poly latest university under fire by pro-life club seeking official status

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Another skirmish is shaping up in the war between between pro-choice and anti-abortion groups on Canadian university campuses.

The battleground this time is Kwantlen Polytechnic University, a suburban Vancouver school where agriculture student Oliver Capko has given the student association an ultimatum: grant his pro-life group official club status or end up in court.

Capko, 18, said the association last month denied his application to set up Protectores Vitae on grounds the would-be club goes against the student's association pro-choice policy, the Vancouver Province reported.

He called the ban discriminatory because it denies pro-life supporters the right to freely express their beliefs.

"We're very disappointed," Capko said in a news release according to LifeSiteNews. "Our student association is supposed to represent us and not censor us for having a different position."

Capko's group has the support of the the right-leaning, Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which is prepared to file suit in B.C. Supreme Court if Protectores Vitae isn't sanctioned by the association.

The centre recently issued a report that found Canadian university campuses were less than receptive to free speech, focusing especially on how student unions treat pro-life groups.

[Related: 'Campus Freedom Index' gives free speech a failing grade at Canadian universities ]

"Here we have almost a textbook example of exactly the type of attitude that is so prevalent in the mindsets of student politicians that have been elected to student unions," centre president John Carpay, who's representing Capko's group pro-bono, told the National Post.

"This is a good opportunity to try to stop this arrogance and censorship in its tracks while it's happening, and that makes it quite different from other cases [we're aware of]."

Kwantlen Student Association spokesman Christopher Girodat said its "officially pro-choice" stance means a pro-life group isn't eligible for official club status, which would give it access to funding, the Province reported. But it could become a second-tier "recognized group," a category reserved for groups that are "political, religious or controversial," he said.

Those groups, which include the Kwantlen Muslim Association and the pro-marijuana Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, can get access to meeting rooms and advertising through the association, but no funding.

"We do recognize the right to assemble on campus and to voice their views to the student body which is why we have recognized groups as a category of campus groups," Girodat told the Post.

Carpay's centre has gone to bat for pro-life groups before. Last year, he applied to the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench to overturn a ruling by the University of Calgary board of governors that found the campus pro-life club guilty of misconduct for repeatedly setting up displays involving aborted fetuses, the Calgary Herald reported at the time.

Last January, student officials at Carleton University in Ottawa proposed a referendum that would effectively censor campus pro-life groups, which had already been de-funded and decertified by the Carleton Student Union Association in 2010 after police arrested five students for erecting graphic displays.

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Kwantlen student Capko's effort may prove successful. In 2010, the University of Victoria was forced to reinstate its campus pro-life club after it was threatened with a lawsuit, according to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

As at Kwantlen, UVic's student association had an official pro-choice policy and viewed all pro-life advocacy as harassment and hate propaganda against women, the civil liberties association said.

"This is an acceptable settlement," civil liberties spokesman John Dixon said of the reinstatement. "But why did it take a lawsuit to extract a modicum of respect for free speech rights on the campus of a public university?

"Academic freedom, and the claim of universities to independence from outside interference, is predicated on the ancient and honourable idea that the pursuit of truth requires an environment of uninhibited discussion, where even the spirited clash of opposing viewpoints is valued and protected. Hopefully, other Canadian universities will get the message."