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INTERVIEW: Looking back with Paul McRae

Roy McFarlane — August 1984

“The role of the Member of Parliament must reach beyond the mere political pleasantries – the public trap.pings of the job. If we politicians fail to prevent the continued escalation of the Nuclear Arms Race, the destruction in our time of civilization as we know it, is inevitable.”

- Paul McRae in a recent letter to his constituents in Thunder Bay and Atikokan.

Until John Turner’s election call, Paul McRae has been the Liberal Member of Parliament representing Thunder Bay-Atikokan. During the past four years, he has been the most visible and vocal of all Liberal back benchers advocating a freeze to the arms race, and arguing against the testing of the cruise missile in Canada. The following are excerpts from an interview conducted for The Peace Calendar at the beginning of July.

The Peace Calendar: What was it that spurred you on to take an active role in advocating an end to the arms race?

McRae: The first time I really felt I had to get involved was at a meeting of the World’s Future Conference in Ottawa in 1980. For the first time I ran into the idea that the Americans, the American government was talking about the possibility of fighting a nuclear war. I always thought that deterrence was the totality of the thing, and that’s all they were concerned about. But there was a group there discussing this, and the Pentagon people were there saying “We’ve got to think aboUt this.” That’s when Carter mentioned it.

My first encounter was with Jim Stark and Operation Dismantle, which was shortly after this, perhaps six months after. The ground was very fertile at this point, made fertile by this glaring fact that these people were believing that you could have a nuclear war and survive.

TPC: This was before the Reagan administration was elected.

McRae: This was before the Reagan administration was elected, just before, in the summer. They were elected the following November.

I guess the next major thing that I was into was the Standing Committee on External Affairs and National Defence, of which I had never been a member. When we had the hearings on peace and security, Jim Stark said “Go on, get out there, get to those hearings.” From there on, as far as I’m concerned, things really took off.

I was, to say the least, shocked at the report that came out of the hearings by the committee. I was part of a group who did a minority report

and the testing of the cruise; the freeze; no first use; the whole idea of a global vote – these were all part of what we called the Minority Report.

There were three NDP, two Tory and one (myselO from the Liberal Party who signed that. I guess that threw me,in a visible way, into the middle of the peace movement.

The members of this group, in the Minority Report, then agreed to support the vote…

TPC: The municipal votes.

McRae: To support the municipal votes on the issue of disarmament. I think I spoke to 15 communities around the country leading up to those votes. The recognition I got was very, very good. I think Canadians showed that they really were concerned. It was remarkable. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Then I sent a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, a very long and involved letter which apparently had some effect. It dealt with the freeze, the testing of the cruise missile and what the government was doing. It had considerable effect on the Prime Minister.

TPC: When did you send this letter?

McRae: It was sent out just before the Prime Minister went to the summit meeting in Williamsburg. It created a lot of uproar within the government.

To the degree that I was able to insert myself in the cruise argument, I did what I could and the letter was part of that. The government’s still very uneasy about the cruise. I don’t know what will happen after the election, but, I would think that it is going to loom around as being unsolved.

I was part of trying to get our government involved in the “four continent” middle power initiative. I think that the Prime Minister wanted to go with it, but some of the people around him, I think, distracted him from it. It was a great disappointment that we didn’t get involved in it, because there were a number of countries that would have come along, I think if Canada had. Particularly, I believe, Romania, because there was a real attempt to bring a Warsaw Pact country into it.

The plan, as I came to envision it, was much more elaborate than what actually happened. It consisted of three relatively separate components. The first was some kind of major effort to educate the people allover the world, using films and so on, to the incredible dangers of nuclear war. Coincident with this would have been a meeting, covered by satellite, of heads of states — one could envision nine or ten countries that would have come along, and a statement advocating some kind of end to the arms race.

But the third ingredient, and the one I thought tremendously important — given the hard-nose relationship, the almost impossible relationship that exists between the two superpowers, their inability to meet with each other -was to set up some kind of agenda created by people going back and forth between the two superpowers, letting them develop an agenda without having to face each other. Then you start working on what really is common ground, because we really can talk about areas where there is some agreement.

The reason I felt very badly about our not being involved, about these things not developing, was because I think there was a way to bring the two superpowers together. What really bothered me was that Prime Minster Trudeau’s ten points of common ground were really close to what I’d consider an agenda.

He’s always had problems between this particular movement and NATO. One of the things I found very strong over the last year or so is the degree to which NATO is a very strong defender of the status quo. Their attitudes don’t bother me so much, as the degree with which they’re able to have effects.

At the time of writing the letter to the Prime Minister I was very concerned with the kind of things that were going on, like the two track INF talks. There was a great deal of misinformation, or one-sided information.

TPC: Coming from where?

McRae: Coming particularly from the American government. Half truths. I mean to say things that were true, but they were half true.

Now the point was that we could have moved to a better situation in the fall, that there was no justification for deployment. But nobody knew this.

There were 600 SS-4s and -5s deployed prior to 1962, each with a single warhead 7 times the explosive power of the new SS-20s. The final offer that the Soviets made against no (NATO) deployment was 120 SS-20s — get rid of all the -4s and -5s — 120 SS-20s which would have 360 warheads. Each warhead had one seventh the explosive power. It was a more stable weapon in that it was solid fuel and didn’t have to be fueled up in the event that war was going to happen. In order to use the -4s and -5s, they’d have to be used as a first strike weapon. So the thing was a much safer situation that the Soviets would have agreed to. There was no justification for our deployment and nobody knew.

So I realized that there was an incredible need for information — but it wasn’t good enough for me to say it — information that had a prestigious basis. In other words, the numbers I have may be perfectly correct (maybe the best numbers you can find – we use SIPRI (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) stuff and things like that) but the point of the matter is, who am I to produce these things against the massive operation known as the DND (Department of National Defense) or the Pentagon? I had a very strong feeling that we had to have an independently-based operation where this kind of information would become available.

When the Prime Miriister got into what he got into, when he decided to take on this thing, to set up his task force, this Peace Institute would have been absolutely vital. It would have been tremendous in giving him good information because he knew at that point that he had to deal with a pretty adversarial group.

So I went after him about that, talked about it and so on. I think there were others, there were other things that happened along there. When we started the last session, in the Throne Speech in December of 1983, this was mentioned. For one reason or another it was delayed. Finally we got to the point of legislation, and it was terribly important to me that it be set up independent of the departments concerned. The independence was the key thing.

When we came to the point of going to committee there were some suggestions made of changes. One of the most important of which was that, if the government asked the Institute to do some work, in the original, it said “shall,” and they took that out and replaced it with the word “may.” In other words it was discretionary.

It didn’t take very long to realize that there were two different elements at work at the hearings. For the most part the largest number of groups were from the peace movement, however, there was a small group, but very vocal, who represented the strategic studies institutes in this country.

These are institutes that” are not staffed by civil servants, but they are funded by the Department of National Defence. There are five of them in the country and there seemed to be a very strong rationale-that the institute should take on the form of a strategic institute. And the peace groups were saying that the nature of the thing should be such that they should be conducting peace studies — conflict resolution, resolving the differences between the superpowers, regional differences like the Middle East and Latin America. Some members of the committee were favouring one group, others (like myselO were favouring the peace structure.

Then it became known that a director of one of these strategic institutes was to become the Executive Director of the Peace Institute. That was a real shock, and it became clear to me that this thing would become the headquarters of the strategic studies institutes in Canada. It would be very different from what any of us had considered. So I spent a tremendous amount of time, I’ve never spent as much time – seventy-hour weeks – with the help of the peace movement, the opposition parties, and the people of our own party.

On the very last day in committee, the Minister (Allan MacEachan) brought in an amendment saying that the board would choose its own Executive Director.

The last important factor was the composition of the board itself, which the Minister revealed the following day, even though the board members hadn’t been individually solicited. Of the fourteen Canadian members, eight of them are very strongly identifiable with the peace movement, two or three would be by nature inclined towards strategic studies, the other three would be what I call “neutral.” Basically one could predict that the Executive Director would be supportive of the notions of peace studies and conflict resolution. So I felt, that doesn’t mean it’s allover, but I felt this was one success.

If the government, (or the Liberal party) is serious about the whole issue, they have to make sure that the institute has this role because there is a need for absolutely prestigious information. Prestigious information is not better than good information, it’s just that. ..

TPC: It has more credibility…

McRae: It carries more prestige, therefore it’s more believable, more credible. And that is directly related to the common ground approach of Prime Minister Trudeau. You take those ten points to the Peace Institute, then you start moving seriously on the world stage. And it seems to me that for Canada, from my experience, this is the best way we can contribute, by putting these two things together. Attempting to get a freeze, looking very carefully at the umbrella agreement, because there are some things that are far worse than the testing of the cruise.

TPC: Can you give me an example?

McRae: Well things like the whole NA VST AR and MILST AR projects which we are sort of committed to, or building components for and the testing of these things. The whole antisatellite thing. You don’t see them listed, but they’ll be part of the agreement. And it goes on and on.

TPC: What can we expect from a Liberal government under John Turner in the field of disarmament?

McRae: It’s very hard for me to be sure. You’ve got three major factors in the cabinet: John Turner, Jean Chretien and Lloyd Axworthy. John Turner has not developed a great sense of the thing. He hasn’t been around people involved in this, though I’m not knocking him. Jean Chretien may be from the same mold, but as a Minister he’s learned to be skeptical of the information he receives and will make sure he gets alternative information.

But the third person is Lloyd Axworthy. He is very strongly committed to the whole peace movement, not just in seeing it as a political thing. I was hoping he’d become Minister of External Affairs.

The others in the new cabinet are Don Johnson and Charles Caccia; I think they’ll carry the ball. I hope other Members of Parliament will become involved as well.

There’s a lot of logic in continuing with Prime Minister Trudeau’s peace initiative and the ten points of common ground. There is also strong support in the Turner camp for the Peace Institute.