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Vancouver conference lively

Jennifer Kinloch — December 1984

VANCOUVER — The Canadian conference on “Nuclear War — the Search for Solutions,” held October 19-21, was able to successfully balance the interests of the academic and those of the grassroots activist. Over 500 people attended the conference, which was sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR).

The highlight of the proceedings was a lively exchange between Soviet commentator Sergey Plekhanov and Jane Sharp of Cornell University which clearly illustrated the differences between the superpowers. Anatol Rapoport of the University of Toronto provided a mediating voice. When the three were asked why the tensions persisted and the arms race continued, Plekhanov answered that ideological differences were the root problem. Sharp pointed to violations of human rights as the source of difficulty. Rapoport attributed our plight to the technological imperative of weapons systems.

Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll gave a rousing talk Friday evening appealing to Canadians, as the sole non-European NATO ally of the United States, to playa leadership role in the move to disarmament. He pointed to Canada’s unique opportunity to interpret the needs of Europeans to our North American neighbour. He urged Canadian rejection of cruise missile testing and continued political pressure for substantive change,

Dean Michael Pentz of Britain provided a European perspective and stressed that the nature of the nuclear weapon is that it isn’t really a weapon since it was built not to be used. The impassioned talk ended on an optimistic note as Pentz pointed out that the success of the human species has always rested on its power of foresight, its ability to project problems and discern consequences,

Both the physicians speaking at the conference, Marat Vartanian of the Soviet Union and Joanne Santa Barbara of Hamilton, Ontario, contributed reports on the psychological effects of the threat of nuclear war. While Canadian and Soviet children are more pessimistic about the chances of nuclear war than American children, they are much more optimistic about the hopes for prevention and much more realistic about the consequences of a nuclear war. Santa Barbara also emphasized the positive side of anxiety as being a healthy condition of alert to an imminent threat.

The Canadian section of the conference, “Charting the Course”, was the least noteworthy. However, among the more significant contributions were the remarks of retired Admiral Robert Falls, the first Canadian to be chair of the Military committee of NATO. Falls stated that the public has highly overrated the military role in decision-making, and he called the military the mere custodians of the weapons.

Ian Carr, outgoing president of PSR, made some contentious assertions about Canada’s role in promoting disarmament. For example, he stated that “the left are not the right people to effect social change; the centre and the right must”, He also suggested that “perhaps we must be quiet about things (the cruise) we should like to be noisy about.”

The workshops focussed on some thirteen topics, but the best attended was one entitled “Strategies for the Canadian Peace Movement”, sponsored by Vancouver’s End the Arms Race coalition, This session clearly indicated that the spirit of the conference was the search for effective political action, a general consensus was reached on the need for a national coordinating body for major disarmament campaigns.

Although there was no concluding plenary session, where resolutions could have emerged, and although the issue of the economic impact of the arms race was not addressed, the conference was quite worthwhile, as will be the published proceedings that are to be produced by PSR.