December 6, on the second day of the biennial (every two years) convention of the Canadian Peace Alliance, 100 or so delegates and observers gathered in the bitter cold on the sidewalk outside the student centre at Ryerson University in Toronto. Behind a massive banner and carrying dozens of placards saying “Troops Out of Afghanistan” we marched to join the 3,000 strong anti-Harper rally taking place that day at City Hall. We took the streets, and as our little contingent turned the last corner before arriving at City Hall, we took up the chant, “Harper Out of Ottawa, Canada Out of Afghanistan.” The message couldn’t have been clearer – no matter what government is in office, there is a movement on the streets telling any who will listen, Afghanistan is still the issue.
Most in the crowd greeted us with enthusiasm. Thousands of NDP members have been central to the anti-war movement. But Jack Layton has told them that the Afghanistan file is on the shelf while he pursues the increasingly forlorn project of coalescing with the Liberals. Suddenly, it is not at all clear that the NDP federal leadership considers it “legitimate” to be against Harper and against the war at the same time. The CPA contingent gave voice again to the crowd that was in its vast majority anti-war. The reception was fantastic (except for some disgruntled senior Liberal Party members). It was a moment when all present were very proud to be part of Canada’s anti-war movement. Opposing the war in Afghanistan is not a bargaining chip to be used in parliamentary coalition negotiations. It is a non-negotiable matter of principle. The troops must come home. The killing must stop.
The convention was an intense three-day event, December 5 to 7, which brought together elected delegates from 39 anti-war and peace organizations from across the country. Together with observers, more than 100 people attended.
The central decision of the conference was the adoption of a two-year “Campaign Goals, Strategy and Actions.” The delegates unanimously agreed that for the next two years, the war in Afghanistan and the War Resisters Campaign would be the strategic focuses for the CPA. The plan commits the CPA to two bi-national demonstrations against the war in Afghanistan each year, one in the spring, one in the autumn. The first one in 2009 will be held in the first week of April to coincide with the call from anti-war groups in Europe to mark the 60th anniversary of the creation of NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is prosecuting the brutal war in Afghanistan.
One of the most intense discussions occurred at a packed workshop centred around the war at home, and the attack on civil liberties. Matthew Behrens from Homes not Bombs said “the biggest losers from the Coalition have been the people of Afghanistan.” He and others expressed the fear that along with the war taking a back seat, so would campaigns around Islamophobia and the attacks on racialized communities. Delegates from the Tamil Youth Organization talked about how their community has been harassed and labelled as “terrorist”, and the implications that has had on community members. There was considerable enthusiasm for the idea of organizing a conference centred on the defence of civil liberties.
The issue of the changing political terrain and the war in Afghanistan was a recurring theme throughout the convention. On the opening panel, Maude Barlow from the Council of Canadians said of the coalition, “we don’t agree with the concession around Afghanistan,” but nonetheless said that the coalition gave us “an opportunity to have our voices heard.” You can support the coalition, she argued, without agreeing with all its policies. On the Saturday panel, “Thinking Strategically: Building the movement to end the war,” Susan Spratt from the Canadian Auto Workers Union made a similar point. “Without a coalition” she argued, “we’re going to end up with a fascist regime that won’t budge on the war.”
But the overwhelming sentiment at the convention was that the anti-war movement had to steer an independent course. The CPA has a responsibility to keep the issue of “Troops Out of Afghanistan” in the public eye, by keeping the anti-war movement active and on the streets. This is even more the case when the political party with an official position calling for Troops Out – the NDP – has shamefully traded the push to end to the war for the promise of six cabinet seats.
The coming months will not be easy. In Canada, the Afghanistan issue has become confused because of the actions of the Coalition. In the United States, the election of Barack Obama has rightly excited millions. But while Obama is committed to winding down the war in Iraq, he is equally committed to a major escalation in Afghanistan. He is using his massive popularity to argue that Afghanistan is the “good war,” an argument that will confuse many people.
Raymond Legault from the Quebec based “Collectif Échec à la guerre” – attending the convention as an observer – argued that we had to face the fact that “fewer people are at our protests and rallies, not more.” This doesn’t mean an end to organizing, it just means that organizing has to take a different shape. “We don’t hear much about the reality of the war,” he said. “We need to bring this reality to people.” To that end, Échec à la guerre is organizing a Peoples’ Summit in Quebec for the autumn of 2009, to provide a forum where the bitter reality of war can be made more visible. The CPA delegates voted to organize a similar Peoples’ Summit in English Canada.
The convention was a real success, a coalescing of local anti-war organizing that revealed the framework around which our movement can continue to organize and build in the coming months – challenging Canada’s war both abroad and at home.
© 2008 Paul Kellogg