Growing Pains: The Maturing of the Canadian Peace Movement

By David Langille | 1987-10-01 12:00:00

The Canadian peace movement is maturing. While it has a long history, the current generation of activists mainly became involved during the struggle to prevent the testing of cruise missiles in the Canadian North. That cohort of activists has matured and developed as they gained political experience.

After the initial stage of consciousness-raising and mass mobilization, an implicit division of labor was established: Some sections of the movement have continued to seek mass mobilization, civil disobedience or other radical and attention-getting means of protest; some have preferred to work through institutional channels, sponsoring research and educational programs, intervening in elections and lobbying parliamentarians; still others have concentrated on changing personal values and attitudes.

The peace movement is maturing in three senses. First, the individual activists are aging. For example, many of those who were students in the early '80s are in the work force today, with family responsibilities and professional careers. These careers, however time-consuming, yield access and influence. Consequently, the same people may now be less active but more effective -- using more subtle but more powerful tactics.

Second, the movement is maturing by institutionalizing. There are now over 1200 local peace groups, which have coalesced in municipal, regional and national networks, finally forming the Canadian Peace Alliance.

Although the peace movement has declined in activity and become increasingly concerned about organizational maintenance, it may actually have become more powerful and more effective as it moved off the streets and began "the long march through the institutions," broadening its base of support among professional groups and within political parties.

Institutionalization is not automatic or easy. There have been tensions between those who want stronger organizations and better co-ordination and those who question the pursuit of power, or who fear centralization and the usurpation of their own power base. Institutionalization has been impeded by regionalism, and the suspicions that always arise when several organizations are competing for limited resources.

Nevertheless, it is institutions that will carry us through the slumps. We can't rely solely on spontaneous activity. We have to be well organized (not just as loose networks) if we are to have flexible, adequate resources. The movement requires good, democratic decision-making structures, which help protect groups from being infiltrated or disrupted by people with hostile agendas.

Third, the movement is maturing in its analyses and proposals for change. Institutionalization has not meant that the movement has scaled down its aspirations.; quite the contrary. Even though the movement can claim few victories, its goals have actually escalated. Over the decade, there has been a progression from simple fear-mongering and a fixation with particular weapons systems (neutron bombs, cruise missiles, Pershings, and more recently, Star Wars), to electoral campaigns and long-term educational programs. The growing interest in common security (as proposed by the Palme Commission) and alternative defence show the developing quality of discourse within the movement today.

However, to say that the movement is maturing is not necessarily to say that it is winning. I want to turn to appraising our effectiveness now. It is not an easy topic to address, since there are so many standards to choose among.

Evaluating the Effectiveness of the Movement

Any effort to evaluate the effectiveness of the peace movement must take account of the enormous diversity in our ranks and the changing character of the movement. Should we gauge our effectiveness in terms of simply forestalling nuclear war, or in terms of "positive peace" -- i.e. actually solving the political and social problems that lie at the root of conflicts? Should we measure our success in terms of short term or long-range objectives? In terms of handling external problems or our internal (organizational) problems? In terms of sustaining our highest (and possibly utopian) visions, or of winning small, practical, concrete victories?

For example, to refer to only five of the many possible criteria, we can measure our effectiveness by whether we: (1) change public policy on defence, security and foreign relations; (2) achieve the stated objectives of peace organizations; (3) change public opinion; (4) strengthen the movement for the longer-term struggle; and (5) change the political structures to democratize policy-making on security questions.

Peace activists everywhere share a commitment to peace. They do, however, see it in very different ways. Some, for example, seek nothing more ambitious than to restrain the outbreak of war through arms control, nuclear or conventional disarmament, or alternative defence. Others seek to change the very structures that give rise to war by promoting peaceful public policies, such as alternative security schemes, economic conversion and development, justice and human rights. For the latter group, the indicators of success would be the nonviolence and nonbelligerence of nations, shrinking military expenditures, and increasing support for international institutions.

To use such high standards as these would seem to be very utopian. Actually, however, during the past few years, the objectives of the peace movement seem not to have diminished, but to have escalated. From opposing particular weapons systems a few years ago, the conversation shifted to abolishing all nuclear weapons, and increasingly now, to questioning the whole concept of military security and warfare as a means of settling disputes. Is the movement engaged in a long-term struggle for a major social change? Is the end of warfare on the agenda? Is it correct to compare today's peace movement to previous movements for the eradication of slavery, the introduction of democracy, the emancipation of women and the abolition of capital punishment? Any verdict regarding our effectiveness depends on an assumption as to what our movement aims to accomplish in the long run.

Setting The Agenda

When choosing goals for campaigns, the peace movement always must strive to reconcile several contradictory tendencies. First, for example, there is the tension between idealism and realism. Any social movement must balance its ultimate commitments against what is politically feasible at any given moment. Political change, which is the practice of the possible, inevitably require compromises. The peace movement must mediate between utopian visionaries and the pragmatic dealings of the politicians.

A second difficult choice in agenda-setting concerns whether to focus narrowly or work on a broad-based, inclusive set of goals. For example, to what extent should the peace movement champion human rights, liberation struggles, or environmental concerns? Certainly all of these issues are related and worthy, but even if peace groups endorsed every worthy cause, they could not actively campaign for them all.

For instance, certain groups have chosen to champion the rights of the independent peace groups in Eastern Europe. Some of them choose this priority to protect our natural counterparts in the East. Others, however, have supported Soviet bloc dissidents so as to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the Western media and gain wider public support. Unfortunately, they are unlikely ever to satisfy the right-wing media that considers us all to be on the KGB payroll, or at least unwitting dupes of the Soviets. Furthermore, it remains unproven that the peace movement would win more support by demonstrating more "balance." Therefore, while the peace movement as a whole should remain concerned about human rights, only a few groups can be expected to make this their campaign priority. Most Canadian peace groups, to date, have opted for a more focused agenda.

Canada's Participation in NATO

At the present, the hottest issue being debated within the movement concerns whether our agenda should specifically advocate Canada's withdrawal from NATO. This question has been brought to the fore by the New Democratic Party's announcement in August of its defence policy.

We are in an unusual situation here in Canada, in that the most popular political party in the country advocates a stronger position than that endorsed by most of the peace movement. Activists are asking themselves whether NATO enhances our peace and security or inhibits arms control and disarmament. Our political strategy on the question should be to build support rather than cave in to public opinion. The NDP's instinct will be to remain silent about policies which appear relatively unpopular, out of step, or ahead of public opinion. Unfortunately for them, this quietism or timidity will make it easier for their political opponents to raise the issue and define it in their terms -- i.e. to paint the NDP as weak and waffling.

Unfortunately for the peace movement, the NDP has tried to forestall such an attack by taking a tough stance and promising a massive military build-up of their own. However, this effort at damage-control will not win them any votes, and will only complicate progress towards disarmament. They won't be able to pacify the military by giving them more weapons. It will be up to the peace movement to challenge our membership in NATO and to press the NDP to pursue a more consistent defence policy.

Alternative Policies for Peace and Security

The Conservative Government's White Paper proposed spending $150 billion in a massive military build up; the NDP's defence paper also entailed an enormous increase in military expenditures. Perhaps the Canadian peace movement focused too much on the nuclear arms race between the superpowers and has neglected alternative defence for Canada. That must change. We must not accept a pre-nuclear definition of security, nor bemoan the lack of Canadian cavalry in the aerospace age. Let's not prepare to refight World War Two. Instead, let's re-examine the Cold War assumptions which underlie Canadian defence policy. Can we afford to build more frigates and submarines when we have not yet satisfied the basic human needs for food and housing, health care and education for all? What are our priorities? Our job is to change the way people think -- to teach new definitions of peace and security.

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1987

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1987, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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