The People's Enquiry

By Michael Candler

THE "PEOPLE'S ENQUIRY INTO THE IMPLICATIONS of Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental and Test Ranges (CFMETR) at Nanoose Bay" took place in Nanaimo B.C. on January 18-19. Its overflow audience of more than five hundred people was twice the size projected.

The enquiry was held to study an obscure agreement with the United States which allows the U.S. access to one of the world's most sophisticated underwater test ranges. Although nominally Canadian, it is used primarily by the U.S. Navy to perfect its awesome anti-submarine warfare arsenal, which defence analysts believe is developing a first-strike capability.

The opposition to renewing the Agreement must surprise the Canadian government, since the Nanoose Agreement had until recently been noncontroversial. In 1965, CFMETR had been created as a "torpedo test range," ostensibly for use by both nations, which signed a 10 year agreement that attracted no public notice. In 1976, the U.S. proposed renewing the agreement for ten years and to expand the facility. Again there was no public debate and no opposition. As the latest expiration date approached, the Canadian government expected a renewal with as little controversy as the past ones.

Early in 1984, however, local peace activists made the facility into a focal point for demonstrations and, later that year, formed the Nanoose Conversion Campaign (NCC) to pressure the Canadian government into cancelling the CFMETR Agreement, or at least into holding a public enquiry to examine its implications.

NCC's research and publicity, and the establishment of a Peace Camp made CFMETR into a local issue--intensified by the repeated visits by U.S. nuclear submarines, believed to be carrying nuclear weapons. The government, however, ignored demands for a public enquiry, apparently hoping that the questions--and the protesters--would go away.

However, the agreement is now at the center of a debate that is attracting national and even international attention. The People's Enquiry increased opposition to it and united peace groups and those who question the government's right to negotiate important agreements in secret and then foist the results upon the Canadian public as a fait accompli.

The idea of a People's Enquiry began in March 1985 when the NCC presented their slide show to the Gabriola Island Peace Association (GIPA). GIPA members considered the questions outlined by the NCC important enough to deserve the public enquiry they were petitioning for. The organizers secured the participation of Victoria's Bishop Remi De Roo and publisher Mel Hurtig as moderators and a panel comprising retired Major-General Johnson, radiation expert Dr. Rosalie Bertell, and Victoria peace activist Terry Padgham.

Much was learned about CFMETR during the enquiry. Robert Aldridge, a former arms designer for Lockheed, explained how destabilizing anti-submarine warfare is. Since Nanoose Bay is one of the two most advanced testing ranges for U.S. anti-submarine warfare, the complicity of Canada in the arms race was clearly established, This elevated the enquiry from a minor local issue to an important hearing.

The danger posed by the visits of nuclear vessels was examined in terms of the hazards of low-level radiation to public health. A spokesperson for the Fishermen's union outlined the risk to the marine environment. Patricia Willis, an independent researcher from Denman Island, detailed the poor safety records of both the "nuclear navy" and the commercial nuclear industry, pointing out that both types of reactors are based on the same design. Finally, Dr. Dorothy Goresky, National President of Physicians for Social Responsibility, explained in devastating detail the consequences of Nanoose Bay's being a nuclear target.

The cure for these problems is prevention--in this case, to cancel the agreement. To this end, Phil Esmonde of the South Pacific Peoples' Foundation spoke of the nuclear free South Pacific and offered a vision of a nuclear free Nanoose.

The effect of CFMETR on our sovereignty was examined in several papers. As Gayle Gavin, a delegate from End the Arms Race pointed out, "It has been the consistent Canadian policy not to join the nuclear club, but by participating in the development and testing of nuclear weapons systems for the Americans we are violating that policy." Victoria lawyer William Pearce quoted William Kincade, Senior Associate of the U.S. based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as saying that Canada will become "tied into the U.S. nuclear strategy for North America, militarily and politically, [which] removes any possibility of a credible, independent role for Canada. Canada will become to the United States what Poland has been to the Soviets."

Even now, with the many secret arrangements in effect between the U.S. and Canada, it is possible that a U.S. first-strike on the Soviet Union could be launched from Canadian soil without the permission--or even the knowledge--of our government. Thus our sovereign right to maintain peaceful relations with others may be jeopardized by decisions made by foreign powers. Canadian forces have in the past been put on alert by the United States without prior consultation.

Media analyst Barrie Zwicker explained how the media ignore military and nuclear news and how the government with its national security phobia tries to keep the public ignorant of such agreements as CFMETR. Whether in collusion or not, the government and the media forestall the public input so vital to democracy. Hence the need for a People's Enquiry.

The other major section to the conference pertained to the economics of CFMETR. To prolonged applause, Art Kube, President of the powerful B.C. Federation of Labour, insisted that the Nanoose Bay Agreement be terminated. Of his union, he said, "If there is a request from a major coalition that we should play our part, we will not shy away from it."

The Nanoose Conversion Campaign's own paper, far from being a harangue, focussed on creative strategies for converting the base to other uses. It showed that military installations are notoriously unstable due to unpredictable changes in government policy. Moreover, critical decisions determining the continuation of many Canadian facilities, including Nanoose, are made in the U.S. As examples, NCC cited 24 Northern Canadian communities that were hurt when the U.S. withdrew funding for the Pinetree Radar stations. There was a similar economic dislocation in 1984 when the Canadian government relocated the 409th squadron to Alberta from Comox. At Nanoose, where all equipment is owned by the U.S., a pull-out would effectively strip the base of its use.

To show the positive results of conversion to peaceful economy, NCC cited a U.S. government study assessing the effects of military base closures throughout the United States during the last 20 years. This study, by the Office of Economic Assistance, showed that, among other benefits, 50 percent more jobs were created by conversion.

In the Nanoose Bay area this factor is important, since proponents of the agreement (such as the Chamber of Commerce) always speak of CFMETR's "economic contribution to Nanaimo and surrounding district." Showing evidence that a civilian, rather than a military economy, is stronger, more diversified, and more job productive, NCC invited the Chambers of Commerce to join it in planning a transition to such a future. The more lead-time and thinking that goes into a conversion, the quicker the transition and the greater the benefits would be for the local economy. After hearing this constructive paper, the audience rose to a standing ovation.

Conspicuously absent from the enquiry were the Department of National Defence, the Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce, and the Conservative and Liberal parties. The organizers recounted their numerous attempts to get these groups to give their views on the issue. In contrast to the other political parties, the NDP presented a paper that reiterated support for cancelling the CFMETR Agreement.

In this "people's" event the audience played a vital role, posing questions to nearly every speaker. One questioner asked how the NCC could be certain that nuclear weapons were being brought into Nanoose Bay. The NCC explained that all U.S. nuclear submarines carry the SUBROC nuclear missile. And retired U.S. Rear Admiral La Rocque was quoted as saying that "any ship that is capable of carrying nuclear weapons, carried nuclear weapons. They do not off-load them when they go into foreign ports."

After hearing evidence for two days, each of the panelists proposed a recommendation for the audience's vote. Major-General Johnson's recommendation was wholeheartedly adopted: that the agreement be terminated and CFMETR be converted to nonmilitary uses. Also adopted overwhelmingly was Dr. Bertell's recommendation for a scientific study of "what has been happening radiologically to the environment and to the health of the people in Nanoose."

Panelist Terry Padgham recommended that "the Canadian government end our complicity in the preparation for global war and destruction by making Canada a nuclear weapons free zone. She also urged our government to support the creation of nuclear weapons free zones in other nations and to hold a full public enquiry into our military policies and the Department of Defence." Her proposals received unanimous assent.

The People's Enquiry made the topic into a major issue which may become significant in elections in this region. The enquiry was covered not only by the "alternate press," but by many mainstream media, nationally and internationally. Requests for stories have come from throughout the Pacific Rim, the United States (including The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists), the USSR (the Moscow News), and Great Britain (the BBC and the Financial Times).

Paramount for the NCC is to keep up the enquiry's momentum. Its paper is being distributed to Chambers of Commerce the local MP (who declined to attend the enquiry), and other proponents of the facility. The NCC is attempting to dialogue with these groups and individuals, and also continuing to present its slide show on request throughout the area.

Consideration is being given to undertaking a radiation study at Nanoose. The People's Enquiry planners hope to provide a quarterly update as further information about Nanoose is uncovered. Future activities by the NCC will emphasize low-level radiation hazards, the risks of hosting nuclear reactors, and the horror of having nuclear weapons in a local bay.

Since the agreement has an automatic renewal clause, the only perceived reason for renegotiation with the U.S. (which former Fisheries Minister John Fraser has confirmed is now underway) is either to cancel or expand the agreement. The basis for fear of expansion was confirmed by a recent discovery that the U.S. Navy has bought land on Saltspring Island for a microwave tower, to improve communications between Nanoose and the U.S. Commander at the Naval Undersea Warfare Engineering Station at Keyport, Washington.

The enquiry's stunning success demonstrates what a tiny community peace group can do. However, the real measure of success will be increased pressure on the government to cancel the agreement. The agreement can be terminated at any time, so pressure on the government will continue, even if the agreement is renewed.

(Donations or enquiries to the Nanoose Conversion Campaign, 225-285 Prideaux St., Nanaimo, B.C., V9R 2N2. Proceedings of the enquiry, including the papers and discussions at the enquiry, should be available by May at a cost of $10. Write GIPA, Box 82, Gabriola Island, B.C., V0R 1X0.)

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1986

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1986, page 5. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Michael Candler here

Peace Magazine homepage