The Anti-war Movement in Canada

James MacLean, September 15, 2008

The Memorial University Students Union has invited me to say a few words this evening about the anti-war movement in Canada. With Saturday's national day of action and the visit to St. John's of Iraq war-resister Ryan Johnson, the fate of conscientious objectors in the American armed forces who have taken refuge in Canada rather than go to war in Iraq has been a prominent concern of this movement. Support for American war resister refugees is one of many activities in which Canadian peace activists are involved from St. John's to Victoria, British Columbia.

To understand the Canadian anti-war movement, a good place to start is right here at Memorial University, with the Student Union. Before 2002 there was no close-knit anti-war movement across Canada, although there had been protests against Canada's joining American forces in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq and in the 1999 intensive bombing of Serbia. The contemporary peace movement in this country was born early in the fall of 2002, and was a direct consequence of the American government's plans to invade and destroy Iraq.

Here in St. John's it began in a downtown bar with a small group of volunteers, including MUNSU executive member Jessica Magalios, MUN Oxfam volunteer Katie Temple, and myself. From the outset, MUNSU was instrumental in organizing the St. John's Campaign Against War, providing the initial resources for the Campaign and its public events. The Campaign was organized as an association of student, community, faith, and labour organizations with membership open to individual volunteers. Within a few weeks about twenty such organizations had signed on.

Iraq invasion no surpise

One thing that can be said about the invasion of Iraq is that it was no surprise. The Bush administration had been ratcheting up threats of war against this country for almost a year before the actual invasion, and the threats reached a fevered pitch in the summer of 2002. The American government claimed that Iraq possessed nuclear and chemical "weapons of mass destruction" with which it planned to attack the United States. In accordance with the so-called Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war, they asserted that Iraq needed to be bombed and invaded in order to save the United States from this attack.

Of course these claims totally lacked plausibility. Why would a small third-world country decide to attack the most powerful military machine in the history of the world? As the year 2002 unfolded, the fraudulent character of the American allegations was obvious. The Iraqi government submitted to every ultimatum it was handed, such as providing full documentation on all its military installations and weapons. The most telling ultimatum which Iraq accepted was to allow surprise visits of foreign inspectors at any time, literally anywhere in the country, even in President Saddam Hussein's bedroom. One of these American inspectors, Scott Ritter, became disillusioned with what he had observed and admitted to having been a spy for the US government. Becoming an anti-war activist, Ritter also announced publicly, at the beginning of 2003, that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.

As the United States was preparing its invasion, it worked on building its so-called "coalition of the willing". Canada participated in the invasion plans, with high-ranking Canadian officers helping develop these plans at the military base of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with Canadian naval vessels escorting American military supply ships through the Persian Gulf, and with the airport here in St. John's providing the major transit point for the airborne transport of troops and equipment to the war zone. In the meantime the American government attempted to secure a veneer of legality for its war by pressuring members of the UN Security Council to authorize the invasion. The government of Jean Chrétien intimated that Canadian forces would be part of the bombing campaign and invasion if such authorization were forthcoming.

First protests in October 2002

The groups in St. John's that came together with MUNSU to oppose these blood-chilling plans held an initial demonstration on campus in early October of 2002, followed a short time later by an anti-war march and rally downtown. Coincidentally, and without our knowing it, on the same day peace coalitions which had come together in Montreal, Toronto, and other centres had organized marches. The new Canadian peace movement was born.

Here as elsewhere in the country it had two objectives, first to work in tandem with similar movements in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, to stop the war; and secondly to mobilize public opinion against Canadian participation. As preparations for the war built up, so did the rhythm and intensity of the demonstrations. Responsibility for cross-country co-ordination of the movement was taken on by the Toronto-based Canadian Peace Alliance, an umbrella organization funded by national labour unions and churches.

Ten million anti-war demonstrators

On February 15th, 2003, over ten million people around the world, including a thousand here in the streets of St. John's, rallied against the planned war. At the United Nations the French government announced that it would veto the American resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq, thereby rendering it illegal and thus minimizing Canadian participation.

We all know the response of the American government to these many millions of opponents to their war. The bombing campaign and invasion of Iraq began on March 20th, 2003, and a few weeks later, by April 9th US General Tommy Franks estimated that 30,000 Iraqis had been killed. Before long photos of the gruesome torture of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of US troops became public, and in 2004 the large city of Fallujah was completely levelled and much of its population massacred. By 2006 the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet calculated the number of Iraqis killed in the war to be in the range 393,000 to 943,000.

Canadian forces join Afghan invasion

While the Canadian anti-war movement continued to militate for American withdrawal from Iraq, Canada found itself plunged into the Afghanistan war which had been simmering since 2001. Canadian forces agreed to try to take control of Kandahar province in early 2006, a province which had remained largely loyal to sympathizers of the Islamic Emirate of Aghanistan (Taliban) government overthrown from Kabul in the American invasion. The offensive action of Canadian troops, promoted initially and then managed for over two years by General Rick Hillier, has from the beginning led to many thousands of civilian deaths, resulting mainly from Canadian artillery shelling and from aerial bombardment by Canada's US and NATO allies. This has understandably stiffened the resistance of the Pashtun Taliban, who with the support of much of the population have managed to secure control of about half of Afghanistan, including most of the areas inhabited by the Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group. [Four years later the Canadian invasion of Kandahar province has turned out to be a total failure, and Canadian forces have set themselves the much more modest objective of securing Kandahar city.]

The Canadian occupation of southern Afghanistan has presented a whole new challenge to the Canadian peace movement, and redirected its primary focus away Iraq and more to the war in Afghanistan. It is now naïve and ill-informed young Newfoundlanders and other Canadians who are killing and dying in a senseless and failed expeditionary war. The challenge is not so much to convince Canadians that the war is wrong, because opinion surveys have consistently shown since the beginning that less than 10% of the population strongly or solidly support this war of occupation, and that a majority of Canadians want the troops brought home. Yet the Conservative federal government and Liberal opposition agreed to extend it until 2011, and in the United States both presidential candidates have promised an intensification of this war. Here in Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Williams, despite his justifiable antipathy to Stephen Harper, has endorsed the war in various public statements and in symbolic actions such as appointing General Hillier as chancellor of Memorial University.

Challenges for the peace movement

The peace movement in this province remains strong, as participation in our public events shows. But we cannot minimize the difficulties we face, such as the increasing dependence of the North American economy, including here in Newfoundland and Labrador and at this university, on the war industry, as well as a certain war fatigue, a dejected feeling that the war machine steam roller is so powerful that nothing can be done to stop it. Ultimately those who want an end to these terrible atrocities and the contribution of our own society to them have a choice: either do nothing, or do something. What I call the "witness function" of the anti-war movement should not be considered unimportant. It is true that we have not stopped the tragedies of Iraq and Afghanistan, but history will record that we were not silent, and our resistance will over time contribute to a new moral consensus where war will be no more natural, normal or inevitable than slavery or absolute monarchy.

Other essays by James MacLean

Observations and analyses in these essays are those of the author, and are not to be attributed to the service provider or to any institution.