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Trudeau dashes ex-MPs' comeback hopes

Trudeau dashes ex-MPs' comeback hopes Dan McTeague speaks in Toronto on May 12, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

OTTAWA - Gar Knutson, Dan McTeague and Joe Volpe represented the Liberal party in the House of Commons for a combined 52 years.

Knutson and Volpe served in cabinet.

Yet the three former veteran MPs could find their hopes of making a political comeback dashed by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's edict that abortion opponents need not apply to run for the party in the 2015 election.

Indeed, Knutson is resigned to being barred from seeking a Liberal nomination.

"As I'm sitting here right now, I fully expect to be red-lighted," Knutson said in a brief phone interview Thursday.

Knutson had hoped to seek the party's nomination in Ottawa-Orleans, where Trudeau's hand-picked star recruit, retired general Andrew Leslie, is vying to become the Liberal standard bearer in 2015.

His dream was shattered Wednesday when Trudeau announced that no one will be allowed to seek a Liberal nomination unless they commit to support a woman's right to choose to have an abortion.

"I have made it clear that future candidates need to be completely understanding that they will be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills," Trudeau said.

The only exception he'll make is for incumbent Liberal MPs, several of whom share Knutson's belief that abortion is morally wrong.

The exception does not apply to former MPs, however.

And that means Knutson, Volpe and McTeague could find themselves shut out of the party they represented for 11, 23 and 18 years respectively.

When the trio were last elected, the Liberal party did not have a formal position on abortion, considering it a matter of conscience that should be left to each individual.

But that changed in 2012, when delegates to the party's national convention endorsed a resolution that explicitly supported a woman's right to choose an abortion.

It changed again when Trudeau, who describes himself as "resolutely pro-choice," was elected leader a year ago.

Anyone hoping to be a Liberal candidate in 2015 must first win approval from the party's "green-light committee" to run in a nomination contest. As part of the committee's vetting process, Trudeau has instructed that would-be candidates must commit to take a pro-choice position in any vote on abortion.

Knutson appears to have concluded he can't make that promise.

McTeague did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Volpe, however, suggested the fight against abortion is over, as far as he's concerned.

"I'm one of those people who fights the good fight and then moves on," he said in an interview.

The Supreme Court "pretty much laid that issue to rest" when it struck down Canada's abortion law in 1988, he added.

While he has not applied yet for nomination papers or discussed the matter with anyone in the party, Volpe said he can't see why the abortion issue should have any impact on his comeback hopes. He indicated that he has no problem with Trudeau taking a strong stand in favour of women's right to have abortions.

"I've been there with three prime ministers, a couple of interim leaders ... and all of them I think, perhaps save one, there was always a movement by the leader to put his personal stamp on either the party or a particular aspect of the party," Volpe said.

"It's an exercise that happens all the time ... It's what everybody would expect of any leader."

Trudeau was not on Parliament Hill on Thursday, where thousands — including busloads of school children — gathered for their annual day-long rally against abortion.

The rally was briefly interrupted by two topless women, who rushed the stage shouting "My body, my rules" as the Catholic Archbishop of Quebec was addressing the crowd. The RCMP hauled the women away.

Abortion opponents used to be a strong, vocal minority within the Liberal caucus; some used to routinely speak at the annual anti-abortion rally.

But Trudeau is now moving the party onto the same turf occupied by the NDP, which has long been officially supportive of a woman's right to choose.

However, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair maintained Thursday that his party is still the only unequivocal pro-choice party.

"We think it is a matter of rights and here it's not debatable, it's not negotiable," he said after an event in Montreal.

By contrast, Mulcair said Trudeau's exemption for incumbent MPs means "the Liberal Party of Canada is going to have two sets of people in its caucus: people who believe in freedom of choice and people who believe that women should not have the right to choose about their own reproductive rights."

The NDP is hoping to draw attention to that divide with a motion, tabled Thursday by Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, which calls on MPs to affirm that "a woman's right to choose abortion is a fundamental question of equality and human rights, both in Canada and around the world."

The vote on the motion, the timing of which is not yet clear, will put at least four Liberals who oppose abortion — Toronto MPs John McKay and Judy Sgro, Winnipeg MP Kevin Lamoureux and Prince Edward Island MP Lawrence MacAulay — on the spot. They'll have to choose between standing by their beliefs or potentially embarrassing their leader.

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