Building an Antiwar Movement in Canada

The Canadian Peace Alliance recently held its 20th anniversary conference in Ottawa, November 11-13, gathering close to 200 anti-war activists from across the country. Convened under the slogan of ‘Challenging Canada’s Role in Empire’, participants came out of the weekend resolving to make March 18, 2006 – the 3rd anniversary of the illegal invasion of Iraq – the largest day of protest against the occupation since the massive pre-war rallies of 2002-2003.

Peace and justice coalitions and organizations in Canada are also gearing up to campaign against war and occupation during the federal election. Foreign policy issues that need to be highlighted – and that have yet to be consistently raised by the federal New Democrats (NDP) or any other major party – include Canada’s stepped-up role in the occupation of Afghanistan, the overthrow of democracy in Haiti, and the Liberal government’s refusal to come out in support of U.S. war resisters’ right to stay in Canada.

So as we set out on the anti-war campaign trail, towards both mass rallies on March 18 and the goal of having a meaningful impact on the discourse surrounding the election, it is useful to consider the obstacles in our path.

The first, already alluded to, is that the NDP – unlike in the period before the launching of the Iraq war – has failed to aggressively raise any of the key issues, with the possible exception of the war resisters. Jack Layton’s refusal to condemn General Rick Hillier’s bellicose and racist remarks regarding the Afghanistan war in July 2005 was an ominous signal; the NDP’s silence on Haiti, with some important exceptions, has also hurt efforts to disseminate the truth about Canada’s role in throwing out a democratically elected president in the hemisphere’s poorest country. The sheer scale of the human rights disaster in Haiti, and the growing exposure of Canada’s role, may just compel the NDP and Layton to make this a campaign issue.

There are, though, larger and more deeply rooted causes behind the lack of awareness of Canadian complicity in policies of war and Empire. The generalized corporate media blackout, of course, almost goes without saying, but it has been particularly galling with respect to the lack of substantive coverage on Haiti.

The single biggest impediment to getting people mobilized around war and occupation issues is the widespread perception that Canada’s hands are clean in the world; that unseemly regime changes are things carried out by George W. Bush and that at worst we are benevolent bystanders or well-meaning peacekeepers coming in after the fact.

Perhaps one under-utilized way to get around this pervasive myth is to highlight the blatant war profiteering of massive Canadian corporations. While the sordid operations of the likes of Exxon and Halliburton are internationally known, equally rapacious war companies based north of the 49th parallel are getting away with scant attention. The two that stand out are Gildan Activewear and SNC-Lavalin. 

For commuters in the Vancouver area, in particular, these two mega-corporations are becoming downright ubiquitous. SNC-Lavalin has been awarded the contract for the largest P3 (public-private partnership) in British Columbia’s history, the multi-billion dollar construction of a rapid transit line from downtown to the airport and the suburb of Richmond (the RAV-line). Meanwhile, SNC also partners with the public sector wherever the Canadian and American armies venture, holding a contract to supply the U.S. army with hundreds of millions of bullets each year, building the new Canadian Embassy in occupied Port-au-Prince, and receiving ‘reconstruction’ contracts in Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere.

Gildan Activewear is a massive garment manufacturer, controlling 40% of the North American t-shirt market. Following the coup against Aristide, and the de facto government’s decision to overturn minimum wage increases brought in by the Lavalas Party government, Gildan announced that it would be moving some operations from Honduras to Haiti. The company is currently engaged in a massive publicity campaign, with ads on hundreds of bus shelters in Vancouver proclaiming the sweatshop label ‘A part of your life’. It has been speculated that they are building their public profile with an eye to winning the Vancouver 2010 Olympics clothing contract. The cases of Gildan and SNC are not unique in terms of Canadian corporations, but only two of the most blatant examples that belie the quaint notion of a harmless, innocent big business community, and the related myth of a political policy pursuing lofty, disinterested ‘humanitarian’ objectives.

Nearly two years ago now, at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, acclaimed author and activist Arundhati Roy made a widely discussed call for the anti-war movement to take aim at the corporate backers of Empire:

I suggest we choose by some means two of the major corporations that are profiting from the destruction of Iraq. We could then list every project they are involved in. We could locate their offices in every city and every country across the world. We could go after them. We could shut them down. It’s a question of bringing our collective wisdom and experience of past struggles to bear on a single target. It’s a question of the desire to win. (‘The New American Century’, The Nation, February 9, 2004)

No such coordinated global campaign has really taken flight. This doesn’t, however, diminish the importance of identifying and exposing the corporate machinations behind war.

Here in Canada, we should focus on explaining the very real business interests behind our government’s foreign policy, beginning with the profits of Gildan and SNC-Lavalin. These corporations are indeed ‘a part of our lives’. It’s high time we made them, and their government allies, pay a political and financial price for the destruction they have wrought, from Iraq to Haiti and far beyond.

Today’s system of empire is much more than the demonic image of Dick Cheney and his Halliburton gang. As we head into a federal election campaign, and build towards the March 18 rallies across Canada, we would do well to remember that there are more than enough warmongers with addresses much closer to home.

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