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National conference stresses issues, goals

Eudora Pendergrast — March 1984

WINNIPEG – A National Conference on Strategies for the Canadian peace movement was held in Winnipeg from February 2nd to 5th. Organised by the Peace Petition Caravan Campaign, the conference had two main purposes: to discuss strategies for the Canadian peace movement, including the possibility of a national coalition organisation; and to build a strong and informed grass roots base for the PPCC.

Over~ 170 people from across Canada attended the conference, including representatives of peace and disarmament groups, labour, women’s groups, youth, native, ethnic, church and professional organisations. The participants were officially welcomed by Manitoba NDP Premier Howard Pawley, who expressed his admiration for “the efforts of the world wide grass roots peace movement.”

The conference was loosely structured, with no formal voting procedures. Although the opinions of those present were sought on a variety of issues, the conference functioned primarily as a forum for discussion, information-sharing and consensus-building, rather than as a vehicle for giving formal direction to PPCC organisers.. As a result, the conference began with some uncertainty about the extent to which opinions expressed at the conference would affect the PPCC as an organisation, and particularly its national coordinating body, the Canadian Committee.

Any confusion about the conference’s purpose did not, however, prevent those attending from plunging immediately into vigorous discussion of the issues of greatest concern to the peace movement. Three issues in particular generated debate: the extent to which the peace movement should accommodate a diversity of political views and tactical strategies; the value of some form of national structure for the peace movement; and the possibility of adding a fifth demand to the PPCC petition concerning Canada’s support for a U.S./ U.S.S.R nuclear weapons freeze.

The issue of diversity within the peace movement was raised during the first plenary session when one of the panelists criticised both the participation of the Canadian Peace Congress in the Canadian peace movement, and Operation Dismantle’s decision to question the legality of cruise testing in the courts.

Representatives of the Peace Congress and Operation Dismantle quickly took exception to these criticisms, and, along with a number of other conference attendants, strongly advocated the value of diversity in the peace movement.

Predictably, the local media immediately picked up on the sense of internal division generated by this debate. Within the conference itself, feelings were mixed on the value of such public self-scrutiny.

The debate on the value of a national structure for the peace movement was initiated by a presentation by Kim Killeen of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, on the second day of the conference. The ensuing debate was not acrimonious, but there were clear differences of opinion. (See the article by Al Rycroft for more extensive discussion of this issue.)

The most intense debate of the conference dealt with the decision of PPCC organisers not to include in the petition a fifth demand that Canada support the call at the United Nations for a U.S./ U.S.S.R. binding nuclear weapons freeze as a first step towards permanent nuclear disarmament.

(The four demands contained in the petition are: i) that cruise testing be halted; ii) that Canada become a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone; iii) that money spent on defense be diverted to socially useful purposes; and iv) that all of these matters be the subject of free debate in the House of Commons.)

Opposition to the proposed addition to the petition was based on both practical and political concerns. Practically, it was argued, a change at this stage would endanger the success of the Campaign and, in particular, would cause labour to withdraw its support. Those opposing the addition from a political, or ideological, point of view emphasised the importance of Canada putting its own house in order rather than focussing its attention on the super-powers.

Proponents of the addition also put forward practical and political arguments. Arguments of practicality stressed support for a U .S./ U:‘S.S.R. nuclear weapons freeze as a position which would appeal to a broad spectrum of the Canadian public.

From a political perspective, proponents of the additional pro-freeze demand argued that to ignore the role of the two superpowers was naive, since the arms race is, in fact, a race between them.

Although the freeze issue threatened to divide the conference, and the Campaign itself, a compromise position was ultimately agreed upon: the petition should remain unchanged, but the literature prepared for distribution should deal with the freeze issue.

It was also pointed out that local organisations, and, in fact, each canvasser, would have the opportunity to determine exactly what was to be said at the door.

The need to ensure that PPCC material is available in a wide variety of languages, and is accessible to all regions and ethnic groups in Canada was an important theme of discussion at the conference.

It was also emphasised that the peace movement should be aware of, and address, the particular concerns of women, and should reflect the non-hierarchical values of the women’s movement.

Workshops were held on all aspects of the PPCC, including organising, canvassing, fundraising, media relations and the nature of the caravan which will pick up the signed petitions and take them to ,Ottawa. Other workshops were devoted to civil disobedience, peace information, effective lobbying, and relationships with various sectors of Canadian society.

Although the debates revealed strong differences of opinion within the Canadian peace movement, the seriousness of the issues, and the commitment and intelligence with which they were addressed, were also invigorating. By the end of the conference there was a strong sense of optimism and purpose among the participants, and a determination to make the Campaign a national success for the Canadian peace movement.

Information of the Peace Petition Caravan Campaign, including local organising groups across Canada, can be obtained from the PPCC national office, 600 Bank St., Ottawa On. KIS 3T6.