Time for peace

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, November 2012

A department of peace could help reframe our approach to conflict.

For almost a century the red poppy has been the prevailing international symbol for remembering the war dead and their ultimate sacrifice. It’s a very effective badge, a bright stain of blood that will be pinned onto the lapels of a few million Canadians every year at this time. Some will take time to ponder the little flower’s burden; others will wear it out of unparsed habit or the primordial desire to stay in step with the crowd. Mine compels me to try visualizing the 117,000 Canadian soldiers who’ve been killed in all battles to date (according to the Royal Canadian Legion’s website). The image both boggles and numbs my mind.

It also feeds my increasing disquiet with poppies and ceremonies and minutes of silence. When we stand respectfully in front of the cenotaph, are we simply paying homage to the dead or also inadvertently giving tacit support for the ongoing military precept that warring on is the only way to ensure the fallen have not “died in vain”? We don’t bring doves and ploughshares to these ceremonies but weaponry and gun salutes continue to be an enduring sight. What does that say about peace as a priority?

“We need to create a culture of peace and non-violence in order to obviate wars, and we’re a long way from that now, with sabres rattling in many places,” says Saul Arbess, cofounder of the Canadian Department for Peace Initiative (CDPI) and currently the Victoria chapter’s chair. The organization’s mission is to work towards the establishment of a federal department and minister of peace whose mandate would be conflict transformation by peaceful means.

“That would certainly change the way the cabinet looks at events that can potentially lead to conflict and violence. There’s no one [in government] doing that right now; in fact we have become a belligerent on the world stage as opposed to a peacekeeping nation,” says Arbess.

The goal is a lofty one that Arbess concedes won’t happen on the current government’s watch. Still, it’s not exactly a pipedream either. CDPI has doggedly put forth Department of Peace Bills that passed first reading in parliament in 2009 and again in 2011. Meanwhile, it’s also been directing its efforts at a more local level. That’s paying off in Victoria, where the City officially gave its support to the proposed Department of Peace last August. As well, several recent peace events have received solid public support, and Mayor Dean Fortin has joined Mayors for Peace, a global association comprised of more than 3000 colleagues.

“We want this to happen in cities across the country,” says Arbess. “This is where people live, where governments are more responsive than at any other level. We feel that we can build a groundswell of support by engaging cities.”

Adding to the groundswell is the White Poppy Campaign, whose organizers are again gearing up to distribute free white poppies on November 1 (at noon on City Hall grounds). The white poppy has been around since the 1930s and is now a symbol of active peace work throughout the world, says Theresa Wolfwood, a local activist and writer for peace and justice. She doesn’t object to the traditional Remembrance Day ceremony but wonders what the point of it is if we do nothing to prevent further casualties. Civilian deaths are an urgent concern, she says, given that up to 80 percent of today’s casualties are unarmed civilians caught in the crosshairs of modern weaponry, including the remote-controlled drones that military analysts say are the weapons of the future.

The white poppy campaign has not been without its detractors. The Royal Canadian Legion, perhaps perceiving it as a threat to the significant fund-raising power of the red poppy, has called it an insult to veterans. But Mavis De Girolamo, a long-time volunteer with the Victoria White Poppy Campaign, suggests the two causes can complement each other. “I wear both,” she says. “They can go together. We can remember the fallen as well as work towards a future of non-violence.”

I find myself agreeing. What better way to honour those who died for peace than by taking up their cause? What better way than by demanding an overhaul of the death-oriented politics and machinery of conflict? Elsewhere in life we work hard to fix the perils that kill people—from the treacherous curves in our highways to the holes in our social safety nets to the threats against our food and water supplies. Why not here?

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic hopes you’ll check the www.departmentofpeace.ca as well as the Peace Pledge Union website—click on “white poppies” for more background information.