The Ottawa Peace Movement

By Michael Duff | 1986-10-01 12:00:00

Sparks Street, Ottawa, at lunchtime on a summer day. The Parliament buildings are a block away and the mall swarms with office workers: women in brightly colored summer dresses and high heels and men in short-sleeve dress shirts and ties. They eat fast-melting ice cream cones, soak up the sun, and listen to a five-piece band blowing laid-back jazz on a sound stage provided by the local newspaper. This is the heart of civil servant Ottawa.

Two women and a man, late 20s, chat casually on a bench. They are asked: Have you ever been involved in the peace movement?

It's not true. The Ottawa peace movement is bigger and broader than that. It is professionals, unionists, artists, seniors, church congregations, students, teachers, feminists, retired generals, politicians, neighbors, teenagers. Many of them you never see; they don't march in the street, go to festivals, or get their pictures in the newspaper, but they're out there-the invisible supporters.

Maria and Paul Rigby have peace parties in their home. Both are infinitely warm and hospitable-the kind of people who chat easily with neighbors over the back fence. Paul, 45, is a professor of theology. He wears glasses and has an English accent. Maria, 37, has the same blue eyes, glasses, and an even wider smile.

She spends her days caring for their three children, and says the idea for peace parties came to her one day in the bathtub. "I thought that if I was at home, I could at least have people into our house and we could talk about it."

The Rigbys live in the tranquil neighborhood bounded by Main Street, the Rideau River, and St. Paul's University. It's a quiet, friendly area of old but well-kept bungalows, and young couples with kids. People stop their cars and chat in the middle of the street and play slow-pitch ball on the diamonds down the street.

Maria and Paul threw the first peace party in January 1984. Those guests were invited to host their own parties and since then, the number has mushroomed to the point that the Rigbys no longer know how many people have taken part. Certainly hundreds. Paul says the purpose of the parties is to draw more people into the search for peace, and to make the issue as important to society as unemployment, mortgages, and bank rates. A typical party begins with introductions around the room and statements from all guests as to why they have come. Most already know each other. Snacks and punch are provided, and a facilitator (often Paul) who is familiar with the issues, will start the discussion. He will fill in with facts when needed, and sometimes prevent a friendly conversation from turning into a debate. People will get quite excited, Paul says, but never out of hand. It's a safe environment. Guests are among friends and that level of trust permits a depth of discussion not obtained in large auditoriums or church halls.

The two most commonly discussed subjects are: Can we trust the Soviets? and the urgent need to escape the nuclear threat. For most members of the Peace Parties Network, including Paul and Maria, these heart-to-heart discussions are the first involvement in the peace movement.

"It's completely a group of friends and acquaintances in the neighborhood chatting about a serious issue, perhaps for the first time in their lives," Paul says.

Can we trust the Soviets? This 66-year-old woman with a Russian face and a Russian soul says yes.

Dr. Elizabeth Pollonetsky is co-founder and president of the Ottawa chapter of the Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Her father was Latvian and her mother, who is 91 and living with her in Ottawa, is Russian. Pollonetsky was born and raised in China. She was a prisoner of war in Hong Kong during the Second World War, practiced medicine in mainland China until 1949, and lived in Israel with her Jewish husband for five years. She came to Montréal and then to Ottawa, where she has been a government physician for 20 years. She is now semi-retired. She has broad, flat features, dark eyes with a hint of green, black hair with a touch of gray. She speaks perfect English with a Slavic trace. The poetic images and rhythms in her speech are Russian traits, she says.

"All you have to do," she says, "is see them [the Soviets] for what they are, not for what they are said to be. They are totally human people.

If you cut them, they'll bleed. And they bled a lot in World War II. They don't wish to bleed again if they can help it."

She is not making excuses for the Soviet government. She says the Soviet system gives socialism a bad name. She grew up in the time of Stalin, outside of the USSR and among expatriates who were critical of the leadership. But she says she believes Gorbachev and the new leaders are changing the USSR.

"I do feel that the leadership they have now is genuinely different from before. Fanaticism there is on the wane."

She bases her judgment on analysis of current events and through contacts with Soviets on official visits. She travels to the USSR as a translator for the Canadian government. "It's a good way to get free trips," she says.

Pollonetsky first joined the CPPNW (then called Physicians for Social Responsibility) in 1982. "It happened as it always does," she says. "A friend who already belongs calls and says 'you must come to a meeting."' Since then the Ottawa chapter has grown from 10 to 200 members-10 percent of the local physicians. They have brought in respected speakers, such as Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, Stephen Lewis, author Carl Sagan, and economist John Kenneth Galbraith, to address the members and the public, and to speak to government leaders.

Many Ottawa physicians don't join, Pollonetsky says, because they're too busy juggling professional, academic, and personal lives. But they're sympathetic, she says, and as many as 400--twice the local membership-have turned out to hear some guest speakers. She herself is active for maternal reasons: She has two daughters and three grandchildren. "I would like for a world to be there when my grandchildren grow up," she says.

The peace movement is poorly represented in the media, Pollonetsky says, and she would like to see the formation of a Journalists for Social Responsibility group. A third generation of children is being fed the myth of the Soviet menace, she says, and this is the basis of the cold war.

She tells the story of friends who were billeting two visiting Soviet women doctors in their home. The next day, when the friends' daughter told classmates about the two Russian lady doctors, another child asked, "Do they have guns?"

Richard Sanders goes on the air at 4:30 pm. every other Wednesday. "Good afternoon. I'm Richard Sanders. Welcome to Voice for Peace."

Voice for Peace is Ottawa radio's first and only peace show. It's a musical voice, earnest and emotional, with a note of urgency. Sanders has logged 45 hours of airtime over a year and a half, first on CFUO, a University of Ottawa station broadcasting on campus to students, and off campus on cable FM to the public. Richard is now on CKCU FM, a Carleton University station with a broader listening area of about 80,000.

He's a radical. A spiritual, compassionate, heavy-set, near-sighted, 29-year-old radical with a masters degree in cultural anthropology. He goes to trial in September to face two charges of trespassing. The first charge is for blocking the road in front of the External Affairs building on the eve of a summit meeting. His mother and 24 others were charged with him and she was a guest on his next show. The second charge is for blocking the doorways of Eldorado Nuclear Ltd., the crown corporation that helps make Canada the world's biggest exporter of uranium. These were symbolic acts, he says, designed to expose a contradiction in the Canadian justice system-criminal behavior, protected by law.

"Those guys [Eldorado Nuclear] are importing uranium from South Africa, where the United Nations says the mine is using slave labor. They're destroying the environment, they're fueling the arms race, and we're the ones who get arrested," he says incredulously. "The laws that permit-even encourage-the production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons must be changed," he says, "and the only nonviolent way to change laws is to go to jail."

"I believe very strongly in the techniques that were used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King... and they were arrested hundreds of times," he says.

Sanders would break the law, without violence, in order to change it. His decision developed with his conscience. He was brought up in the Unitarian church-the Ottawa congregation is quite active in the peace movement-and his father's background is Quaker: pacifist. His parents have been active in social issues since the early 1960s, when Richard was a small child. They were part of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement, opposition to the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and they also belonged to the New Democratic Party. Sanders remembers a busy childhood.

"Friends were coming over, the phone was ringing, I was hearing about politics, the peace movement, the war, draft dodgers....By the end of high school, I was searching for a part I could play in the movement for social change."

He went to university and studied cultural anthropology-the history and organization of human societies. In particular, he studied spirituality, creativity and how individuals and their cultures are changed. Periodically, he left the books to travel. In Central America he saw the soldiers and machine guns that keep fascist governments in power. In India and Nepal he saw extreme poverty, temples and the mountains that fill a person with religious awe.

He did volunteer work with religious peace groups during university, and started working full time as coordinator of the Ottawa Peace Resource Centre in the fall of 1984. The resource centre is a focal point of the Ottawa peace movement. Sanders worked many 14-hour days for over a year and finally left the centre, tired, frustrated, and disillusioned with the docile methods of the peace movement.

He says he heard an External Affairs official, speaking about the strategies of the movement, admit that petitions and letters of protest are thrown into the garbage. The people who build nuclear weapons will not be dissuaded by "If we really believe that the world is on the edge of a precipice, that nuclear war can destroy us all, why are we sitting around writing petitions to the people who are doing it? Ifs like writing a letter to Satan."

Until she left municipal politics last year, Ottawa's most visible peace supporter was New Democratic Party President Marion Dewar. As Ottawa's mayor, she pushed the disarmament referendum and other peace bills through city council. She's led thousands of peace marchers through the city and up to the federal parliament buildings. She's always willing to speak at meetings, and has given legitimacy to a movement that struggles for credibility.

Now 58, Dewar often travels at the invitation of peace groups. In the past few months, she's addressed a conference at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the Peace Festival in Vancouver, and 50,000 people who walked in a Peace March in Winnipeg. She thinks the residents of Ottawa are willing to support the peace movement, but says federal civil servants are nervous of supporting political activities. "Peace is often seen as a political issue," she says. Dewar suggests the movement concentrate on peace promotion at the neighborhood, community level. She saw evidence of successful neighborhood campaigning in Winnipeg before their big march: lawn signs that said "We're walking for peace on June 14."

Since Dewar left, the city aldermen who say "peace is not a municipal issue" have gained the majority on council. "Many are rookies-first elected last November-who don't realize that it is the municipality that must organize and provide emergency services in the event of a nuclear attack," Dewar says. In a recent close vote (eight-six), council refused to renew the annual $6500 grant that the Ottawa Peace Resource Centre used to hire its one employee.

The Peace Resource Centre is one room in the basement of a church. Shelves along one wall are filled with books, booklets, and cardboard files; the friendly woman at the desk just inside the door explains that the collection is arranged by subject, geographical area, and working organization. A rack filled with magazines sits in one corner and two file cabinets in another. A man dressed in a shirt and tie, with a packsack and bicycle helmet beside him, is working at the oval table that fills much of the room. The ceiling is low; the walls are covered with posters and bulging cardboard boxes squat against the baseboards.

The centre has been open for almost three years and is directed by a seven-member board that oversees operation and fundraising. It acts as an umbrella organization. It keeps a list of local groups, with files on what they do, and with contact people for each. It publishes a monthly calendar of peace events and distributes over 3000 copies around Ottawa. Some copies it sends to groups in other cities in exchange for their newsletters. The staff are all volunteers. The last paid coordinator was laid off in June when the city cancelled the centre's grant.

That coordinator was Margaret Jensen. She doesn't like public speaking; she doesn't even like knocking on doors and talking to people. She says she takes the quiet jobs.

"This is a library," she says. "That's one reason I got involved here. I like libraries."

She is 42, has a soft voice, light blue eyes and long, blonde hair, half-heartedly tied back in a pony tail. She dresses simply; her eyeglasses have thick frames and she wears shoes with round toes and flat heels;

She came to Ottawa from the United States in 1976, when her husband took a job teaching linguistics at the University of Ottawa. She also has a degree in that field. While in Boston, she took part in some of the final demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Until that time, she says, she believed what the government was saying.

"I was under this shroud of propaganda, thinking that all was well with the world," she says. "Then I found out what was happening, and joined in a few marches at the end."

She did a lot of reading, she says, and became upset, especially by the damage developed countries had done to the Third World and the environment. She decided it didn't have to be that way. "There are plenty of people who can propose concrete, realizable ways to prevent this sort of thing from happening. It seems logical to try and work to make the changes," she says.

She handed out flyers and knocked on doors in Ottawa for the disarmament referendum in 1982, then got involved shortly afterwards in the protest against the testing of the cruise missile in Canada. She began at the Peace Resource Centre as a volunteer and became paid coordinator in 1985. She's not on the payroll any longer, but if anyone has a question they can't answer, they phone Margaret.

While the Peace Resource Centre makes a list of peace groups in the city, it's the Ottawa Disarmament Coalition (ODC) that introduces them to each other.

The ODC meets monthly at a community centre. At the July meeting, there were 24 people representing 14 groups present. Their ages ranged from Andrew Dicks, 17, of Youth for Peace, to Charlotte McEwen, 70+, of Canadians in Support of the Helsinki Process (a model of negotiating based on agreement by consensus).

The meeting started promptly and the first item on the agenda was introductions around the table. Chairpersons for the evening were Michael Ostrof, 35, dark, gruff, and solid like a tree, and Kristin Ostling, 26, blond, dressed in a pink T-shirt, and chewing gum like a new non-smoker. Some members represented large, established, and dynamic groups that plan and stage events on their own. The largest in the region is the local chapter of Operation Dismantle, with 370 members and an equal number of official supporters. At ODC meetings, they announce their plans, enlist support, and coordinate the scheduling of events with other groups.

Other members were from smaller, newer groups with more specific purposes. The Nurses for Social Responsibility, who were represented for the first time, have 40 members, and work mainly within the medical profession. At ODC meetings, such groups learn about local events and about new subjects to discuss with their members.

The ODC was first formed in 1983 and now has 20 group members and 50 individual members. That's less than half of the groups in Ottawa and includes none from across the river in Hull, Québec. But unlike the past, these are solid groups that don't disappear before the next meeting.

The ODC is able to stage citywide campaigns, such as the upcoming Peace Week in October, in coordination with national and international peace planning.

Geoff Bickerton, 34, co-founder of the ODC, is tall and slim, and a bit of a mystery at first. Much of his face is hidden by a thick, brown beard, and he's careful with his words. But he's warm, quick to offer support to groups that have been allies in the past, and when he finally smiles, it's a gleeful, optimistic, boyish grin. He became an activist on June 12, 1982. That he knows the exact date is not surprising. He is the one at ODC meetings with the logical, reasoned arguments-the analytical mind. (He uses those same attributes as Director of Research for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.) On June 12, 1982, Bickerton took part in a demonstration in New York City. He asked afterwards what more he could do and was told, "Go home and get active." He followed that advice and is still active because he is disturbed by the American government.

"I think that the leadership of the United States is crazy," he says, "and the only way to stop them is mass, public, democratic involvement."

Canada could play an important role, he says, by leaving NATO and NORAD and declaring itself a nuclear weapons free zone. He thinks that would help dissolve the two power blocs which divide the world into two hostile camps. But Canadians would have to make those decisions themselves, he says.

"I don't think the Canadian peace movement should be telling either the Americans or the Soviets what they should do. We should focus on what we should do, as a sovereign country."

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1986

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1986, page 16. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Michael Duff here

Peace Magazine homepage