Whatever Happened to Anti-war Protests?
Paul Champ, the lawyer representing Amnesty International Canada and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, was minutes from making his submissions in Federal Court last week to stop the further transfer by Canadian Forces of Afghan prisoners into the hands of Afghan authorities. While waiting for the judge to arrive and getting his "game face" on, as he puts it, an aide rushed into the packed courtroom and handed government lawyers a file, which was then dropped on Champ's desk. It was a new detainee agreement.
The document was a stunning break in a case that had thrown the Conservatives into an uncharacteristic panic. "They were doing everything they could not to have this motion go ahead," says Champ. "They were begging the court." While Amnesty argues that the new agreement doesn't go far enough - it allows for greater monitoring of detainees but doesn't halt transfers - it is still a major concession. Without the court challenge, said the judge, the agreement, signed and faxed over from Kabul just hours before it appeared, would likely not have emerged.
The allegations of detainee abuse were fast becoming a flashpoint for opponents of Canada's mission in Afghanistan. "It's a clear example that the mission is flawed," says Joe Cressy, the Ottawa-based youth director of the Canadian Peace Alliance. But Amnesty goes out of its way to say it's not opposed to Canada's military in Afghanistan - nor are they apologists for the Taliban. They are, however, doing more than anyone to raise important questions about Canada's role in the war. Today's anti-war movement has less to do with peaceniks carrying placards and more about professional advocates and institutions acting as watchdogs. Most of the hot-button issues that have emerged out of the mission to Afghanistan, and more broadly from Canada's war on terror - including Maher Arar's rendition to Syria and the use of security certificates to detain suspected terrorists - have been fought by rights groups like Amnesty in the courts and at public hearings, not in the public squares by outraged citizens. "It's not something you see in the streets," says Matthew Behrens, who runs Toronto-based Homes Not Bombs. "You have to go and sit in the Federal Court."
Polls taken in the last year have consistently shown support for Canada's 2,500-troop mission hovering around 50 per cent (it's been as low as 44 per cent and as high as 57 per cent). In April, the same month six Canadian troops were killed by a roadside bomb outside of Kandahar, an Ipsos-Reid poll revealed that 52 per cent of Canadians still supported the military effort (during which 54 soldiers and one diplomat have been killed). And the divide is regional: while 64 per cent of Albertans don't even oppose the idea of troops "roughing up or manhandling" Taliban prisoners, 71 per cent of Quebecers don't want the Canadian Forces to be playing any combat role in Afghanistan whatsoever. Overall, when asked by pollsters, 43 per cent of Canadians oppose the use of our troops in Afghanistan for security and combat. The split makes for a complex anti-war message. "It's not a 20-second sound bite," says NDP defence critic Dawn Black.
For most, the war doesn't hit home enough to force them into action. There's no military draft, which has traditionally led to dissent, and reservists are only sent over if they volunteer. And left-wing fringe groups don't seem to hold much appeal to the average opponent of war. (Some people may not, for instance, support the fact that in late March, members of the Canadian Peace Alliance attended a conference in Cairo that also included representatives from Hamas and Hezbollah - both of which are on Canada's list of terrorist organizations.) Canadians are also keenly aware of who they're up against - the Taliban. "Even those who have misgivings about the mission must understand that the Canadian forces in Afghanistan are facing a uniquely repulsive opponent," says David Frum, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute. "This is one of those debates where you have to be prepared to answer the question: so what would you do instead? That's a difficult question to answer."
There's also the issue of fatigue. "Movements go through cycles," says David Langille, the director of the Toronto-based Centre for Social Justice. "Not long ago we hit the streets in massive numbers in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. It's hard to sustain that level of activity with organizations that operate on a shoestring. Activists get burned out."
Today's anti-war movement - if it can even be called that - is being fought and debated on other levels, whether on the Internet, in churches, or between members of NGOs, says Ernie Regehr, a senior policy adviser for Project Ploughshares, a faith-based anti-war organization that seeks to influence government and NGOs. Anti-war groups recognize that times have changed. "Our role is not at this point to mobilize but to engage in education and outreach," says Cressy.
All of this helps explain the dismal turnout at peace rallies. On March 17, protests were held in at least 10 Canadian cities. Sounds impressive, until you consider the size of the crowds - Ottawa, 200; Toronto, 200; Winnipeg, 200; Halifax, 100. Hamilton drew 105 people and a golden Lab that "made as much noise as any protester," according to a local newspaper report. Aside from the occasional flare-up, large protests are not even happening on university campuses (even in the peace-loving province of Quebec). Polls indicate that younger Canadians are more opposed to the war than older generations - just not enough to drive thousands into the streets.
Canadians aren't as wired for protest as Europeans and Americans. While activists point proudly to several moments in their history - Vietnam, cruise-missile testing in the '80s, Iraq - critics contend that Canada has never had a serious grassroots anti-war movement. "Separatism is what a big grassroots movement looks like here," says Michael Neumann, a philosophy professor at Trent University and author of What's Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche. "Canada has never had a sixties-style left." Neumann argues that one of the problems is the left's war position. "The left can't connect with it because it doesn't involve high principles," he says. "It's not that the war is violating important principles or in a bad cause."
Others say that the image that Canadians hold of their country as a global peacekeeper has muted the anti-war movement. Even those on the inside admit that activists themselves are divided over Canada's role in Afghanistan. Some groups argue that NATO intervention is abhorrent and imperialistic. Others think Canada can do good in Afghanistan, but are concerned about our troops being involved in counter-insurgency warfare. "It's hard to mobilize people around a choice of military tactics," says Langille. "Right now Afghanistan isn't clear-cut enough to provoke a mass mobilization."
As well, veterans of the '60's anti-war movement concede that we're living in a less idealistic era. "Generations have become much more cynical and despairing - perhaps more realistic than we were - and preoccupied with paying the rent," says Langille. "That doesn't mean they don't care about the issues. To some extent, they don't have the time."
Amnesty and the BCCLA certainly do. They may continue with the injunction in a month or so, after reviewing the new agreement. At the very least, they've proven themselves capable of getting the government's attention. "I don't think Col. Steven Noonan [a former commander in Afghanistan] or Colleen Swords, an assistant deputy minister at foreign affairs, were very happy," says Champ, "that they had to take time from their days to swear an affidavit and then come down and be cross-examined by me." Human rights groups have been a thorn in the government's side. They're not anti-war, but that may just be the secret to their success.
See also POLITICAL PROTEST.
Maclean's May 21, 2007