Preparing for Peace

The Campaign for a Department of Peace celebrates its growth with a national meeting in Toronto

By Ramya Ramanathan

Over three years ago, a small group of concerned Canadians came together to establish the first chapter of the Campaign for a Department of Peace for Canada. The campaign has now grown to 10 chapters across the country. The momentum is steadily growing as individuals from different walks of life from activists to political voices to youth are starting to raise their voices for peace. The second Pan-Canadian Annual General Meetings were held in Toronto from April 4-7.

It was a weekend like any other in Toronto -- except for the over 250 peace activists and those interested in learning more about peace who gathered at the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto on a Friday evening. This was the start to the 3-day pan-Canadian Annual General Meeting of the Campaign for the Canadian Department of Peace: an initiative calling for the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace -- a campaign based on the premise that the voice of peace needs to resound in the corridors of power in Canada. For, while influential lobbies from the military and industry have such a voice, peace does not.

The Campaign believes that Canada, as a middle power with a long history of peacekeeping and negotiated outcomes to conflict, stands in a unique position to take a lead in instituting such a department and a minister of peace. In the words of Saul Arbess, national co-chair and founding member, "We aim to reinvigorate Canada's role as a global peacemaker and peacebuilder by promoting a Federal Department of Peace via dialogue with the Canadian public and politicians."

The initiative has come a long way since the establishment of the first chapter. Currently 10 chapters exist across the country. In addition to gaining the support of various MPs from different parties, an endorsement from the Green Party of Canada and from the NDP's 30-member federal caucus, the movement continues to grow into a truly robust pan-Canadian campaign.

The three-day event was kicked off on April 4th with a lively multi-party political roundtable discussion titled "The Human Right to Peace." Panelists included Senator Douglas Roche, former Canadian Ambassador for Nuclear Disarmament, Elizabeth May from the Green Party, Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewsky and Olivia Chow of the NDP who were all vocal in their support for the Department of Peace. An empty chair on the stage signaled the missing voice from the Conservative party in the discussion.

In his eloquent speech, Senator Roche pointed out that it is critical to move humanity forward andto create a transition from the culture of war that surrounds us to a culture of peace. He also pointed out the need to change our attitudes, forms and political structures. He denounced nuclear weapons as incompatible with human rights. Calling nuclear weapons and climate change "the two biggest problems of the 21st century", he stressed the need for an integrated agenda, which took into account disarmament, development and human rights. His 21st century agenda for peace consists of: Abolition of nuclear weapons, mitigating climate change, poverty alleviation, global health and alliance of civilizations. He passionately underlined the need for a change in attitudes, "peace will come when a demand is made for it especially from those in civil society who understand its merit," he said.

Olivia Chow shared her belief that: "Peace is a process, not an end product alone...you have to build and that's difficult work." She said that for change to take place "we need an idea, structure, people and finances." She was in favour of taking all the money being spent for war and transferring it to peacebuilding.

Borys Wrzesnewsky preferred the term "Ministry" to "Department," for in his vision, this was "quite clearly a stand-alone ministry with its own individual departments... of humanitarians, civil peace builders, peacekeepers..." He expressed that it is his own personal mission to ensure that this Ministry is established.

Elizabeth May stressed her party's support of this initiative. "The Green Party of Canada has officially endorsed the creation of a Department of Peace. Peace does not happen without an investment or work. We need to have a voice at the cabinet table" she said.

Performer Emilio Zarris, whose musical interlude graced the evening, said, "It's time...we must stand up for peace. We need this tipping point. Change is imminent, that's why I am here today, singing for peace."

The vibrant event on Friday was followed by a full day of conversations on Saturday spanning a wide array of issues. Presentations were made on issues of nuclear disarmament, women and peacebuilding, civilian peace service, youth and peace, cities of peace and peace education.

Presenters included some key peace activists such as Murray Thomson of Pugwash, Robert Porter of the Global Campaign for Peace Education, Phyllis Creighton of the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and Science for Peace, Lyn Adamson of Nonviolent Peaceforce, Dr. Peter Stockdale, Youth Coordinator of the Canadian Department of Peace Initiative, and Dr. Vinay Jindal from Physicians for Global Survival among others. In break-out groups, attendees discussed issues of nuclear disarmament, women and UNArticle 1325, and civilian peace service.

An all-Liberal panel on legislative action and advocacy followed composed of Dr. Ruby Dhalla, MP for Brampton-Springdale; Borys Wrzesnewskyj, MP for Etobicoke Centre; and Jim Karygiannis, MP Scarborough-Agincourt, all who were greatly interested in the initiative.

Ruby Dhalla pointed out that advocacy work was very important and that it was not only critical to engage local members of parliament but also to create champions among them. Boris Wrzesnewskyj stated that as a middle power, Canada has two important legacies, which can help us take a leading role in peace: a Pearsonian legacy of peace and multiculturalism. Jim Karygiannis called on everyone to put party politics aside and make the Department of Peace a reality. "This is not a party platform, it is a people's platform," he said.

Rob Acheson, co-chair of the Toronto chapter, who has met with 35 MPs in the Greater Toronto Area in the last year, believes that there is a growing interest in the conversation around the Department of Peace. "Most are in agreement with the ideals and focus of a Department of Peace but not all are convinced a full department is necessary. Several think a peace commission would suffice working through existing departments. However at least a dozen are very supportive of the full ministry." He doesn't read much into the fact that Conservatives were not at the conference. "It was as much a matter of timing as anything else...anyway, our job is to garner more public support and make the campaign so compelling that they will not be able to ignore it."

Planning and AGM sessions including a national board meeting, open to the public, were held on Sunday with members from various chapters including Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton and London being present.

A positive "Can Do" energy seemed to surround the events. From the politicians who attended to those just learning about the department of peace, there was an overwhelming belief that peace is possible. One audience member likened the idea of the Department of Peace to the issues of the abolition of slavery or apartheid: once upon a time, people had believed that it was never going to be possible to do either.

"I feel that I can go forward and talk about it now. I really didn't know how big the movement was, and hopefully it will continue to grow. I will do my part in getting it there," shared one audience member.

A number of youth were in the audience. One graduate student from OISE expressed his satisfaction at having representatives from three political parties present during the meetings and felt satisfied by their commitment to the Department of Peace. But like many others, he was actively asking, "what is it going to take to make the Department of Peace a reality?"

Numerous innovative ideas and keen questions emerged during the discussion. Concern was expressed that our current priorities and institutions do not speak to the needs of a culture of peace. Other aspects discussed included the human tendency to violence; the process of choosing a minister of peace; and how civil society would continue to feed into this model of the Department of Peace.

An oft-repeated question was, "Where will the funding come from?" As Bill Bhaneja, national co-chair and co-founder of the campaign, said repeatedly during the events, 'We are looking for only two percent of the military budgets to be put into the Department of Peace. We need resources and talented people who can do in-depth long term thinking." Not too much to ask, is it?

Senator Doug Roche suggested introducing in the war museum a section on the peace movement in Canada. He pointed out that it is important for Canada to recover its role as a builder of peace, rather than as a promoter of war.

Jean Trudel of the Montreal chapter called the meeting "necessary and uplifting...It brought a greater focus on the overall picture of our initiative and a sense of responsibility to continue on....and the change we want to see..."

Some like Anton Wagner, peace activist and former coordinator of the Hiroshima Day Coalition, called the meetings, "productive and empowering." He said "...Now, this is a real political movement with legs that is going to go somewhere. Politicians that came on both days (Friday and Saturday) see this as a real issue that their constituency is interested in. It's not just one kookie person sending emails any more." What strikes Anton the most is "how the umbrella of the Department of Peace brings together people working on different peace issues."

Lyn Adamson, co-chair of the Toronto chapter believes that the word about the Campaign for a Department of Peace needs to spread across the country before it's election time. She says that, "Meetings in communities wherever there are supporters of this initiative is vital. Meetings with MPs right across this country, from all the political parties, is also essential. This is the only way to develop the necessary support. Letters to the party leaders urging them to place Canada as a leader in peace building, urging them to fund concrete initiatives for peace including creating a Department of Peace with a cabinet-level minister is vital. As she explains, "We know that the government responds to grassroots initiatives across the country -- the public opposition to the war in Iraq is the reason Canada did not become involved."

Ramya Ramanathan is active in the Toronto DoP group. For more information about the Campaign for a Department of Peace, go to <www.departmentofpeace.ca >

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2008

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2008, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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