Think Tank for Activists: Inside the Rideau Institute

How to influence the public debate on war -- and reach a new generation of activists

By Brian Adeba | 2008-07-01 12:00:00

Steve Staples walks into the Rideau Institute office on Sparks Street in Ottawa, heading straight for the coat room. From behind her desk, his administrative assistant Meghan shouts out to him, "You got two phone calls."

"Thanks Meghan," Staples answers as he walks into his office. It's 9:00 a.m, the start of another working day for Staples, founder and president of the Rideau Institute. As he checks his messages, he can hear the incessant ring of the telephone at Meghan's desk. Some of the calls are for Anthony Salloum, the Rideau Institute's program director. Some are for two other staff, who help with chores at the Institute.

Besides answering the telephone, Staples has been busy in other ways. Since the Rideau Institute was established last January, he has been constantly on his feet, scanning newspapers for any foreign affairs and defence related issues, consulting with experts, and closely monitoring media broadcasts. In addition, Staples and Salloum maintain a state of readiness to answer questions from reporters and respond to summons to appear before parliamentary committees in the House of Commons.

"It's a dynamic and unpredictable situation," says Staples.

"We have to be quick to respond. Sometimes we get a few days' notice to appear before parliamentarians."

Starting with a bang

Being busy and alert has paid off. Barely 18 months on the public policy and think-tank landscape in Canada, the Rideau Institute has managed to garner, what even opponents acknowledge, is an admirable influence on the public debate on issues such as Canada's presence in Afghanistan, defence spending, Canadian casualty figures in Kandahar and non-competitive contracts from the Department of National Defence. Staples sees the Rideau Institute as a vehicle for "balance" and countering views from "hawkish organizations."

The Rideau Institute entered the public debate on Afghanistan with a bang. Last October, after months of planning and research, the Institute co-authored a report with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The report looked at defence spending in Afghanistan and concluded that dollar for dollar, Canada outspends other NATO countries like Turkey, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Greece, Norway, Denmark and others. The report also outlined that Canadian military spending currently surpasses Cold War era levels. By mentioning that Canadian military spending--about $18 billion a year--makes Canada the sixth highest military spender in NATO, the report contextualized the cost of the war in Afghanistan for the Canadian public and received wide coverage in the media.

A month earlier, Rideau Institute collaboration with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives resulted in a report that said Canada was taking a disproportionately higher casualty rate in Afghanistan compared to its NATO partners. In other words, the report makes the argument that Canadian soldiers face more danger in Afghanistan, than American soldiers in Iraq. Staples points to these reports as having influenced the public debate on Afghanistan significantly, and making the public aware of the Rideau Institute's role in enlightening Canadians on defence and security issues.

"The fact that Canada has taken a disproportionately high number of casualties, related to other countries, has now become an accepted part of the debate where it wasn't in the beginning," he says.

Now it is not uncommon for journalists to quote the Rideau Institute in almost every story they write on Canada's involvement in Afghanistan.

In addition, Staples says that through an access to information request, the Rideau Institute is aware that the Department of National Defence did its own study on Canadian casualty rates in Afghanistan and the results back the figures presented by the Institute.

Some of the arguments the Rideau Institute has proposed have provoked debate about Canada's military presence in Kandahar. In February, Staples told a panel discussion on CBC television that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and that it is now time to explore a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Canada, Staples said, should be at the helm of such negotiations. On the other hand, the Conservative government has long maintained that it will not talk to "terrorists," despite media reports that suggest that Afghans living in areas where the Taliban are active support the idea.

In early May, the Globe and Mail reported that Canadian soldiers were discreetly reaching out to the Taliban. In March, Des Browne, Britain's secretary for defence, said Britain and other democratic states should consider negotiating with elements of the Taliban.

"When we first put that idea forward, it was considered outrageous, but now it's moved to the mainstream," says Staples.

Stopping the Radarsat-2 sale

Moving issues of national importance from the periphery to the centre of the public debate has now become synonymous with the Rideau Institute. But if there is one issue that Staples feels is the Rideau Institute's biggest victory, it is the Institute's role in preventing the sale of Canada's $1.3 billion remote sensing satellite, Radarsat-2, to US technology giant Alliant Techsystems Inc. last month (see Newsworthy, page 31 this issue). Had Industry Minister Jim Prentice given the deal the green light, Staples says it would have allowed a major US arms manufacturer access to Canadian technology that would be used to militarize space.

The campaign to sensitize the public and other stakeholders about the dangers of the deal, was an uphill battle, Staples concedes.

"We were up against more powerful, better funded lobbyists, but we were able to outmanoeuvre them. We were faster, we had better analysis, and our messages were tightly attuned to the various interests of the political parties."

Internet-based campaigning

While getting the message out can be a challenge when funding is limited, the Rideau Institute's successes can be attributed to its innovative use of the Internet to reach out. Through its website , a network of 15, 000 supporters, the Institute is able to tap into the core group of those dissatisfied with the war in Afghanistan. In a video on the site, Staples reminds Canadians that they are individual stake holders in Canada's politics and that they have the power to change things. He reminds viewers that it's their tax dollars that fund the war in Afghanistan, adding that although Canada is there as part of NATO, "We are really fighting for George Bush and we are taking heavy causalities."

Another of the reasons behind the success of the Rideau Institute is the fact that it is located in Ottawa, just a block away from Parliament Hill. In addition, Staples and Salloum, both experienced hands in working with politicians, have managed to create a network of connections among politicians of all stripes on the Hill.

Challenging reports

But perhaps the most important reason behind the Rideau Institute's success is the reports it releases. Always eye-catching and challenging the views of the establishment, the reports are giving Canadians access to an alternative understanding of security and defence issues.

Observers say what the Rideau Institute is doing is an extension of the work of the peace movement, but in a new and innovative way. Robert Hackett, professor of communication at Simon Fraser University, says the Rideau Institute has raised the profile of the peace movement by not calling its work peace activism and shifting away from the movement's old tactics of reaching out.

"It is a recognition of the importance of policy institutions and think tanks in the media, and that's been building for 20 years now," says Hackett, also founder of the Campaign for Democratic Media, a nation-wide grassroots organization.

Hackett says that in the past, the peace movement's tactics of simultaneous mass demonstrations in several cities, in attempts to reach out to the public, are no longer effective. Since disgraced former media baron Conrad Black bought a chain of newspapers across Canada almost 15 years ago, Hackett says there has been a "conscious" shift to the right in editorial policy in leading newspapers. As such, mass rallies by the peace movement get little play in the media, a trend Hackett says has been on the rise since the late `90s.

"Right wing tax cut rallies certainly get a bit of attention from the press[compared to demonstrations by the peace movement]," he says.

The Rideau Institute, Hackett adds, is attempting to get around that by not presenting itself as advocates for the left, but as informed specialists.

"Swaying public opinion is much more effective than a rally. I think it is important to have that dimension and it is urgently needed to get out a non-militarist foreign policy."

John Siebert, executive director of Project Ploughshares in Waterloo, says the media attention that the Rideau Institute is generating is "a welcome addition" and effective for the cause of those who champion peace. Siebert credits this to the research the Institute conducts and its proximity to the centre of politics in Ottawa.

Are think tanks only for the Right?

But the activities of the Rideau Institute must be seen from the perspective of an advocacy group and not as an independent research body, argues David Bercuson, director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

"What bugs me--and I have tried to make this point to journalists--is that they always describe the Rideau Institute as a think tank. But they are an advocacy group. There's a big difference between an advocacy group and a think tank," says Bercuson, adding that this is shown by the fact that the Rideau Institute does not have charitable status with Revenue Canada and is thus not seen as a knowledge-generating organization by the government.

"For me that's a very important factor," he says.

In any case, Bercuson says he has little respect for the research the Rideau Institute conducts because it is carried out by people who have little background in international relations, strategic studies, and military affairs.

"It's always pursuing the same point of view. There's never several different perspectives on any one thing, it's always predictable," says Bercuson.

But Staples says the Rideau Institute has never hidden the fact that it is an advocacy group. Its website describes it as "a public policy research and advocacy group based in Ottawa." Staples says "archaic laws" at Revenue Canada serve to hamstrung independent research and prevents organizations from speaking out.

Regarding the Rideau Institute's research, Staples says it has not proven to be wrong since the establishment of the Institute.

"In fact in some cases, even the Department of National Defence has replicated our research and come to the same conclusions," he says, referring to the report on Canadian casualty figures in Afghanistan.

In the future, Staples says the Rideau Institute plans to open offices in Quebec, southern Ontario and on the West Coast in order to reach out to more Canadians.

"If we could win on the strength of our arguments alone, we would live in Nirvana already, but that's not how politics works. Your ideas have to be backed up by a base of public support," he says.

The Rideau Institute, he says, is a work in progress and there's still mileage to cover.

"It's like a bicycle. If you stop pedalling, it will fall over."

Brian Adeba is an Ottawa journalist.

Contact information and links

Rideau Institute

The Hope Building

63 Sparks St., Suite 608

Ottawa, ON K1P 5A6

tel 613-565-9449; fax 613-249-7091


n The Rideau Institute's main website is at <>. It also has three freestanding websites for the campaigns it runs :

n <> The Ceasefire Campaign. Originally created under the aegis of the Polaris Institute, the campaign focuses on defence issues and active online campaigning

n <>The Ceasefire blog. Topical articles by Rideau Institute researchers and others.

n <> Right On Canada. A campaign to put human rights back on the Canadian political agenda; also addresses transnational environmental issues such as genetic engineering.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2008

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2008, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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