I was one of the speakers at a public consultation held in Ottawa on November 3 by the Canadian Department of Peace Initiative (CDPI). The group has been advocating for federal government legislation to create a Canadian Department of Peace. The rationale is that the Department of National Defence is devoted to planning and prosecuting war but that we should also have a Department of Peace with a minister at the cabinet table. His or her department would be responsible for providing a peace lens in all federal government activities as well as promoting peace building activities in Canada and abroad.
The proposal is supported by a short list of prominent Canadians. They include: former Foreign Affairs Ministers Lloyd Axworthy (Liberal) and Flora Macdonald (Progressive Conservative); former NDP leader Alexa McDonough; and former independent Senator Douglas Roche. Alex Atamanenko, an NDP MP has a Private Members Bill before Parliament that would establish a peace department. He, along representatives of his party, the Liberals and Greens attended and spoke at a CDPI public forum on November 2.
On the down side, there was no one there from the governing party and the organizers admit that Conservatives have not been open to their message. There were no television cameras or newspaper reporters on hand either. Interest in a Department of Peace, it seems, is a marginal idea in Ottawa’s political and media establishment.
Professor Ian McKay, co-author with Kingston writer Jamie Swift of the recent book Warrior Nation, spoke on Nov. 2. He said there is a concerted effort to change Canada’s image from that of peaceable kingdom to one of a warrior nation. The campaign is led by the Prime Minister and involves the Defence Department, as well as think tanks, defence journals, sympathetic journalists and academics and the conservative blogosphere. McKay says they “push the war button at every turn” and are also busily revising history so that every past military event is cast as a great victory.
Senator Douglas Roche
The “warriors” dismiss the idea of a peace department and see it as misguided, woolly-headed or even dangerous. That kind of thinking annoys former Senator Douglas Roche, Canada’s former disarmament ambassador to the United Nations. Roche talked about it in an interview with me in 2008: “There is this idea,” he said, “that anyone who works in these areas is a fuzzy-headed idealist and the other people are realists, and you are marginalized for your ostensible idealism. I would argue that the realists are actually those people who recognize that the status quo is not sustainable and are looking for answers to the overarching issues of our time.”
A Big Idea
The Department of Peace is a Big Idea, one that has promise and faces challenges. Those opposed to control Parliament, its budget, and the government’s vast public relations capacity. In immediate legislative terms, using a Private Members Bill is almost certainly doomed to failure. Few such bills get to the floor of the House of Commons for debate and even fewer ever pass. They exist mostly for individual MPs to put forward matters they consider important, and their main potential value is in raising an issue for debate.
Legislative change, such as that of creating a new department of government, will have to come from the centre and likely that won’t happen while the Conservatives are in power. But governments come and go and this one will too. The Department of Peace advocates may convince a future government of the wisdom of their idea.
There have been other big ideas that seemed impossible to achieve but which were later accomplished. One was having women attain the vote in early years of the 20th century. Another was winning public health care in the 1960s. These ideas appear natural and inevitable when seen from today’s vantage point but it took many years of advocacy and movement building to win them.
The big idea here is that peace and peacemaking are vastly superior to war and conflict but what practical steps can be taken to move in that direction? One is a Department of Peace with its own minister and budget to promote peace and peace building. According to Atamanenko’s Private Members Bill, one department goal would be to create a Canadian Civilian Peace Service. That would involve having professionally trained citizens available to participate in Canada and abroad to help prevent conflict and violence. The department would also establish a Civilian Peace Service Cadet program.
Reservoir of support
There is a reservoir of support and some precedent for these kinds of initiatives in Canada. For example, there is already a group called Civilian Peace Service Canada, which is training and certifying peace professionals. In more general terms, Canada’s image as a middle- power and honest broker in international affairs is one that many people cherish despite recent efforts to diminish that legacy. Lester Pearson, Lloyd Axworthy, and Romeo Dallaire are deeply respected individuals for their work in diplomacy and peace making.
Canada has a political culture in which it is at least possible to advocate for peace. It is significant that the NDP, Liberal and Green parties have all shown some measure of support for the peace department proposal. The official opposition has dozens of young MPs from Quebec who may well be open to the proposal and their party has a chance of forming the next government. Quebecers have shown themselves to be a pacific group of people. Public opinion there was the main reason why federal politicians resisted pressure to have Canada participate in the war against Iraq.
Ideas are important. The warriors have political scientists, revisionist historians and think tanks that support their projects – and they often receive Department of Defence money to do so. But there is intellectual support for peace as well among a significant group of Canadian academics and thinkers.
Faith and volunteerism
There is support for peace and peace making among faith communities in Canada – in the traditional and smaller peace churches, but also in the United, Anglican and mainline Protestant churches. Catholics have been less vocal but the late Pope John Paul II repeatedly denounced the war against Iraq as offending the church’s just war theology.
Canadians have a strong tradition of volunteerism in organizations such as CUSO, Frontier College, Katimavik, the Mennonite Central committee and other groups. There are Christian Peacemaker Teams that train volunteers and send them to serve in conflict zones, including the West Bank, Colombia and some First Nations reserves in Canada. The role they play resembles that of the Canadian Civilian Peace Service proposed by the Department of Peace initiative.
On side with Einstein
Albert Einstein who once said: “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” Those behind the department of peace Initiative would agree and they are attempting to provide one practical response to that sentiment.