HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – As I arrived at the G8 Development Ministers summit here today, protestors were still making their sentiments felt from a small park across from the hotel. It was an eclectic group, comprised of critics for financial transactions, trade reform, and workers rights organizations.

One group apparently came to life later in the afternoon after the government’s parliamentary secretary for International Development rose during Question Period and stated firmly that his government would in no way fund abortions in its G8 child and maternal health initiative as part of its CIDA funding. This marked the first time the Harper Conservatives had disclosed that abortion was excluded. By the time news of that pronouncement reached the protestors here in Halifax it pumped new life into their grievances.

Abortion is a hot button issue, to be sure, and Canadians remain divided over it. Nevertheless, access to the full range of family planning options (which includes the option of abortion) has been a part of Canadian foreign aid policy for years. Furthermore, many of our partnering donor nations have held to similar ground for decades. Then suddenly the Conservatives announced a short while ago that their program for child and maternal health might include contraception. This caused a ripple in the international donor community. But when the government then stated it didn’t want to reintroduce the debate about abortion itself, it ironically opened the floodgates of consternation about Canada’s leadership role in child and maternal health around the world.

The Conservatives are naturally allowed their own policy pronouncements, but the difference with this one is that it breaks a long-held tradition of past Canadian governments (Conservative and Liberal), as well as those of our other partners. To say that those partners have no issue with this is a clear and outlandish misnomer. Hilary Clinton came to Ottawa to express her outrage at the Conservative policy, and British Foreign Minister David Millband has spoken out forcefully for safe and viable abortions as part of any effective child and maternal health policy.

When the parliamentary secretary stood in his place today and gave his unequivocal answer on abortion, he very likely was speaking from his conscience and also appeasing his base.  In doing so, sadly, he placed our partners once again in a difficult position of actually being in Canada and having great difficulty with our policies. These are the same partners who stood back astonished that the Canadians pulled out of various African countries just at the time they themselves were all recommitting future efforts to that continent.

Our G8 partners have assembled here in Halifax hoping that Canada will provide solid leadership for the poorest women and children of the world. Thanks to the answer in today’s QP, they are more confused than ever. And as far as the women and children are concerned, the poorest and most destitute live in Africa while we’ve moved to Latin America.  It’s a unique Canadian circle that our partners just can’t square. Oh, they’ll be supportive to the media and on the surface thank Canada for its leadership, but they are confused, and more than that they’re concerned.

It’s good to have morals and principles, yet breaking understandings with key partners can also be an act of ethical failure, as it is do deny desperate women the choices they require.  We’ve got to just hope that the abortion issue doesn’t derail the good work that can be done here.  The Conservatives have introduced the issue by denying it.  Nevertheless, Bev Oda has a unique opportunity to construct a comprehensive plan of action for child and maternal health, and I wish her well.  It’s just hard for Canada to design that edifice when it’s missing some key tools in its toolbox.  More later.