I was a tad nervous at my new job. Surrounded by six bishops at my first meeting with the Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs, it was hard to know what to expect.
A wise bishop led off with a softball question, “Do you know much about the work of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace?” Sure, I said, and proceeded to explain how I’d even participated in some projects of this agency when I lived in Latin America.
“Well, then,” came the bishop’s rejoinder, “can you explain what the Church is doing to promote peace — that second part of the organization’s name?”
It remains a terrific question: What are we Christians doing individually to promote peace, and how are we organizing to ensure that it becomes a reality in our national and global structures?
A new book helps provide some guidance towards this crucial challenge. Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety (Between the Lines Press, 2012) comes at the issue after serious study and reflection. Based in Kingston, Ont., author Ian McKay is a professor of history, while Jamie Swift, an accomplished writer, is director of the Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation of the Sisters of Providence.
The authors impress upon the reader that Canada is not the peaceable kingdom – neither innocent of empire nor exempt from the warlike passions of the elites.
From the 1899 to 1902 Boer War (where my paternal grandfather served), through “the Great War,” Korea and even up to the Afghan campaign, Canadian soldiers were active creators of an “anglosphere” (once led by Britain and now the U.S.) which they were told would civilize the world.
However, most Canadians also remain proud of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Lester B. Pearson and Canada’s once sterling commitment to peacekeeping efforts around the globe.
This “peacekeeping myth” McKay and Swift convincingly argue, meant different things. Early peacekeeping meant establishing an interposition force between belligerent groups who had agreed to such an international presence. But later, peacekeeping included monitoring human rights, elections and delivering humanitarian aid.
By the 1990s, a third phase saw peacekeepers become little more than imperial police, overseeing regime change in favour of Western interests.
By 1997 (and certainly by Sept. 11, 2001), a new Canadian myth, that of “the warrior nation,” was advanced by right-wing academics and politicians. Canadians were encouraged to recover from the “Vietnam syndrome” and the reprehensible torture of a boy in 1993’s Somalia Affair, refrain from any focus on war’s destruction and filth, and rediscover that Canada’s priority should be to offer the world war-ready armed forces.
Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canadian military spending rose to its highest level since 1945, more than $21 billion in 2009.
Few Canadians realize that our country spends slightly more than $63 million per day on the military. And planners are attempting to negotiate a permanent Canadian presence in up to seven foreign countries.
More interesting yet is the offensive to capture public hearts and minds at home. Don Cherry’s Coach’s Corner made that part of the public broadcaster’s Hockey Night in Canada, “an extended infomercial for war.”
Official Remembrance Day ceremonies and omnipresent yellow ribbons no longer emphasize “never again war,” but extoll war as an indispensable foundation of true Canadianism.
Most fascinating is Canada’s new official guide for immigrants studying to acquire Canadian citizenship, which dismisses peacekeeping in half a sentence. Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship then offers 20 of its 30 illustrations plainly depicting military events or figures.
Christians anxious to develop peace in their hearts, hearths and homelands need to recall that Canadian history also celebrates formidable movements for peace.
In May 1950, more than 12,000 people rallied for peace in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. Three hundred thousand Canadians signed the Ban the Bomb petition. The Canadian bishops echoed the Vatican’s call in 2002-03, opposing the invasion of Iraq. More than three in five Canadians opposed the mission in Afghanistan.
Beyond our necessary prayers for peace at every Mass, we can reject the myth of the warrior nation. We can support the ecumenical Project Ploughshares, which reminds us that the best way to ensure peace is through “an emboldened civil society that gives direct expression to the principles of justice, political participation and basic economic well-being.”
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)