Once home to the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, this site became an abortion-rights battleground when Dr. Henry Morgentaler moved in upstairs.
When the Toronto Women’s Bookstore needed space to expand from its Kensington Market home in 1975, it settled upon the ground floor of a three-storey semi-detached former residence on Harbord Street. As one of the first feminist bookstores in Canada, the collective-run business quickly became a supplier to libraries, schools, and women’s centres who drew on stock the emphasized works by Canadian authors on topics ranging from health to non-sexist kid-lit. During its first few months on Harbord, store staff estimated that around 25 per cent of its clientele were men who were either curious about the concept or deeply committed to feminist issues.
During the spring of 1983, the bookstore learned it would have a new upstairs neighbour. Following a search delayed by threats of prosecution from the provincial government, Dr. Henry Morgentaler (who passed away last week), announced he would open his first Toronto abortion clinic on the upper two floors of 85 Harbord on June 15. The press was shown a freshly renovated space filled with plants and wicker furniture that Morgentaler hoped would create “a soothing atmosphere” for patients.
The clinic’s move-in wasn’t a peaceful one. Ontario Attorney-General Roy McMurtry expected police to charge in if any abortions were performed; at the time, the only legal option required the consent of abortion committees offered by some hospitals. Anti-abortion groups promised plenty of protests. When opening day arrived, a man wielding garden shears attacked Morgentaler. Repeatedly yelling “bad people, bad people,” Augusto Da Silva was intercepted by pro-choice supporters (led by clinic spokesperson Judy Rebick) before Morgentaler was seriously harmed. Da Silva then waved his shears in the air, told the crowd to move back, then ran from the scene. (He was soon arrested.)
The inevitable police raid came on July 5, 1983. After a pair of undercover Metro Toronto Police officers arranged an abortion, other officers swept in and removed equipment during a three-and-a-half hour blitz. Morgentaler, who was vacationing in California, surrendered to police upon his return to Toronto two days later. The raid set off years of legal battles that culminated in the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to strike down federal abortion law in January 1988.
85 Harbord became a battleground in the divide over women’s choice and a target for extreme anti-abortionists. Around 3:15 a.m. on July 29, 1983, a man who failed to break into the clinic managed to get into the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. He set bags of paper afire under the stairwell, which ironically was near the pregnancy and childbirth section. A note left behind read “If your mother had taken your life away, you would not be living it up, Morgentaler.”
While the clinic suffered smoke damage, the bookstore was gutted. The back stock was destroyed, while recently renovated basement offices suffered water damage. With the support of customers, the bookstore set up temporary quarters in the Poor Alex theatre building at Bloor and Brunswick before moving into a new home at 73 Harbord in June 1984. The store remained a neighbourhood fixture until it closed in November 2012.
The fire increased the anxiety of neighbours, who formed an action committee to get rid of the clinic. Over 2,000 residents signed a petition demanding its closure. The Harbord Street Business and Residents Association soon arose and plead with demonstrators to leave their neighbourhood alone. Die-hards ignored their pleas; as Right to Life Campaign president Laura McArthur observed when asked if she was concerned about the impact of her group’s constant picketing on local businesses, “I have no sympathy for these people when they have an illegal operation in their neighbourhood. They should be joining the pickets.” For a time, a pro-life group ran a pseudo-restaurant in the adjoining half of the building at 87 Harbord, further exacerbating tensions.
When the Supreme Court decision was announced on January 28, 1988, Morgentaler arrived at the clinic around 7 p.m. to greet supporters. “No longer can women be treated as second-class citizens,” he told the crowd. “It is also a victory for children. I wish to repeat our slogan: Every child a wanted child and every mother a willing mother. Never again will we lose this right.”
The ruling didn’t cool tensions. Violent clashes occasionally erupted, such as one that resulted in 160 arrests from both sides of the divide in January 1989. An injunction against pro-life demonstrators from picketing in front of the clinic was granted in May 1989, but vandals continued to spray-paint anti-abortion messages.
At 3:23 a.m. on May 18, 1992, a blast blew off the front wall of the building. A gasoline bomb sent glass and debris onto Harbord. The clinic had just rebuilt its entrance following a firebomb attack that January. “It looks like a war zone,” one neighbourhood resident told the Star while waiting to return home. “This is stupidity… It really is.” The blast accelerated plans for the clinic to move to larger quarters—by the end of the year it settled on its current home near Leaside at 727 Hillsdale Ave. E.
The old clinic was demolished and a new 85-87 Harbord Street was built for office and residential use. Space on the 85 side of the building is currently for lease, while past tenants of 87 include Ms. Emma Designs.
Additional material from the July 10, 1975, July 6, 1983, and January 29, 1988 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the June 7, 1983, June 8, 1983, June 16, 1983, July 30, 1983, August 1, 1983, August 17, 1983, February 10, 1985, August 27, 1985, January 15, 1989, May 19, 1992, and September 28, 1998 editions of the Toronto Star.