The year was 1978. Jim Hughes had known his ups and downs in the business world. He’d experienced some failures but Hughes had worked through them and could finally consider himself a successful businessman. He was 35.
Then came the moment that changed his life. Hughes was shocked when he attended a right-to-life presentation and saw a slideshow detailing the development of the child in the womb.
“My wife Ginny, who is a nurse, said, ‘You know they can kill those children right up until the time they’re born.’ I said, ‘Bull—-! What are you talking about?’ ” said Hughes.
It was the eureka moment for Hughes, the national president of Campaign Life Coalition, the political arm of the pro-life movement in Canada, one that launched him onto the path that has put him for 40 years on the frontlines of the abortion battle in Canada. For 32 of those years he’s been president of Campaign Life. He’ll be relinquishing that role at the end of September, passing the reins to Jeff Gunnarson.
When Campaign Life began planting its seed in 1978, amalgamating all the pro-life groups nationwide that would not compromise on the abortion issue, Hughes knew he had to get on board. It wasn’t with the intention of making it his life’s focus, but sometimes things just happen that way.
“My wife said to me, ‘Why don’t you give two years of your life to this.’ We could get by on her nurse’s salary. I said OK. I said to God ‘I’ll give you two years’ and I think He was laughing like crazy and said, ‘I’ve got news for you Mac, you’re going to be around a lot longer than that,’ ” laughs Hughes.
Now 75, and a father of four and grandfather of six, Hughes sees it as the right time to pass the torch.
“I felt that since I started in October 1978, since it’s 40 years now and we’ve got a great team of people, it’s a perfect time to turn it over to others to run it,” said Hughes from his modest office in Campaign Life’s downtown Toronto headquarters.
He’s adamant that he will carry on the fight against the culture of death that has come to be the reality of our day, maintaining an office at Campaign Life “and keep doing all the work they want me to do” as president emeritus.
“You can’t walk away when they’re killing children before birth,” he said. “You can’t walk away when they’re trying to take away our constitutional rights. You can’t walk away when they’re killing old people.”
Gunnarson recalls the words of a man named Vladimir, from Russia or Poland, he can’t recall for sure, that show the high regard Hughes has among pro-lifers. “He proclaimed Jim decades ago as ‘the pope of the pro-life movement’,” said Gunnarson.
Campaign Life, he says matter-of-factly, would not be what it is without Hughes. From the activist side, from the business side, he has built up an organization that is large and has had an impact on the nation.
“He has a sixth sense of things, and not just the activist side but the business side as well. He’s got the Midas touch.”
Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, recognizes the “tireless” contributions Hughes has made to the cause.
“We are grateful for his efforts to protect life at all stages, as a passionate defender and advocate for the unborn and vulnerable,” said Collins. “Many have been inspired by his work and have joined the pro-life movement because of his passion and zeal for the sanctity of life.”
Hughes has been at the helm of numerous initiatives over the years. He established the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus to aid and support pro-life politicians in Ottawa. REAL Women of Canada arose out of Campaign Life, the Family Coalition Party began in 1987 with strong support from Campaign Life, and the pro-life newspaper The Interim was founded by Hughes in 1983.
Campaign Life’s voice has also been raised at the United Nations, convincing UN delegates to reject anti-life and anti-family proposals. And of course there is the National March for Life, the annual rally on Parliament Hill that attracts thousands to Ottawa each May.
After 40 years of pro-life work, the pessimist would say that Hughes and Campaign Life have been unsuccessful. Abortion was struck from the Criminal Code in 1988. And since June 2017, euthanasia under the guise of “Medical Assistance in Dying” has been a reality in Canada.
Even the ruling Liberal Party has made it quite plain that pro-lifers have no place in their party (as have the NDP for 40 years), and if you want to hire a summer student with federal government blessing, the Liberals have decided you must support the party’s pro-abortion policy.
Hughes though, takes comfort from the words of Mother Teresa. Her message, he said, was “if you want to change the world, change your heart so that you are doing what Jesus would have you do, then deal with what’s at your feet.”
“I keep trying to do all those little things that might add up to something else,” said Hughes.
Many have said Campaign Life has been too uncompromising in its approach and that it has perhaps damaged the cause. Maybe a little give and take, being more pragmatic, could have brought small victories. Hughes disagrees. He believes being steadfast has actually been a strength.
“We’ll never lose this (battle). In the end we’re going to win. The thing is now to be faithful. If you’re faithful and true to the course, not compromising … we’re not going to change our tactics.”
It hasn’t won them friends in many quarters. He’s been called a terrorist among other disparaging names. Hughes recalls one Catholic priest referred to Campaign Life as “the pro-life Taliban.”
“All that means is that these children are being left in the dust and it’s our job to step in and stop that from happening,” he said.
He will always maintain a sense of hope that abortion will end. It comes from Hughes’ faith that God is in charge and He has called Hughes to do what he does. Hughes reverts to a street fighter’s mentality when he says the pro-life cause will win in the end.
“These people that are promoting this hatred, killing and what not, they’re not going to beat me. I’m on God’s side and as long as I’m on His side, He’s bigger than they are.”
Hughes is quick to note all those who have helped along the way. The late Father Ted Colleton was a personal hero and dear friend to Hughes, as was the late Father. Alphonse de Valk, founder of Catholic Insight magazine which was dedicated to frank discussion of pro-life issues.
Tom Wappel is another, a Toronto Liberal MP who faithfully professed the pro-life cause for two decades on Parliament Hill.
But it’s the grassroots that Hughes is particularly proud to be associated with. These “fantastic people” from across the country — “from little fishing towns to lumber camps to big cities and little towns, farmers, everybody” — have been an inspiration.
“It’s all those people out there whose names nobody will ever know but they are the backbone of the country.”
Hughes calls himself a “connecter” and Gunnarson sees it every day in his work. Some in fact, see Campaign Life and Hughes as one and the same. Gunnarson takes that as a testament to Hughes.
“He didn’t want it to become about a person. It became that anyway because Jim is so strong as a leader.”