Canada’s odious history of blocking anti-war voice lives again

A campaign to cancel an anti-war speaking tour represents a troubling return to a more repressive Canadian era. People who care about democracy and free speech should be appalled.

On June 19 Dimitri Lascaris began on “Making Peace With Russia, One Handshake At A Time.” The ten-city tour organized by the Canada-wide Peace and Justice Network follows the former Green party leadership candidate’s visit to Russia.

Concerned about previous shutdown efforts by the government-backed Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), organizers in most cities have made the venue secret until the last-minute. To mitigate against disruptions, they also required individuals to purchase tickets in advance.

The first stop in London faced an effort to have it canceled but still took place after the owner of the venue refused to listen to multiple hostile emails. The second event in Hamilton was met with an aggressive protest requiring significant security. The Toronto event scheduled for the next evening was canceled at the last minute after the Ontario Public Service Employees Union revoked the room booking claiming they received threatening emails. The next stop in Winnipeg was held at a third location after two different venues canceled on short notice. In Victoria the strategy to disrupt the upcoming talk appears to be to book all the eventbrite tickets without planning to use them. For small, all volunteer groups organizing backup venues and plans is a major burden.

The coordinated bid to shutter Lascaris’ tour falls on the heels of two leftish Montréal community centres canceling a talk with Université de Montréal history professor Samir Saul, Québec Green Party leader Alex Tyrell and myself about the war. Three weeks ago, the head of the UCC also demanded the Toronto Public Library cancel a room booking for an event on “The war in Ukraine and how to stop it”. In April the World Socialist Website reported on the UCC’s concerted lobbying campaign to shut down opposition voices in “Far-right Ukrainian Canadian Congress urges Trudeau government to censor anti-war meetings and activists”.

The campaign to shut down Lascaris’ speaking tour reflects a long, odious, Canadian history of harassing antiwar voices, which frequently proved prophetic.

At the beginning of World War I Robert Borden’s government passed the War Measures Act. It granted the state sweeping powers to imprison almost anyone considered a security threat. Hundreds of pacifists and antiwar activists were arrested under the act.

The government banned the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and a dozen other revolutionary or Bolshevik organizations. Public meetings (except for church) held in Ukrainian, Russian, Finnish and other languages were outlawed. The War Measures Act empowered the state to imprison entire ethnic groups, which led to the internment of 8,500 mostly Ukrainian-Canadians during WWI (as well as hundreds of others who were not in any way affiliated with the enemy).

There were at least 24,000 political trials during WWI of individuals accused of being at odds with some element of the war. In Polarity, Patriotism, and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914-1919 Brock Millman writes: “By 1917 it would have been rather hard for a Canadian to express any opinion in any way, in any medium, or to be considered to harbour any thought conceivably prejudicial to the government’s war policy and not be in danger of prosecution, apt to lead to rather heavy punishment. It could be dangerous, even, to be acquainted with such a person, particularly if he were a member of one of a number of organizations that, from time to time, found themselves the particular objects of government loathing.”

The War Measures Act also allowed “censorship and control and suppression of publications, writings, maps, plans, photographs, communication and means of communication.” Over 250 publications were banned by the Press Censor’s Office and many books and films were censored.

Similar to WWI, during World War II legislation was used to clamp down on undesirables. The Communist Party of Canada was declared an unlawful association in the spring of 1940, and it stayed that way even after the USSR became a war ally. Empowered to issue their own search warrants, RCMP officers were ordered to arrest members of more than a dozen banned organizations.

Hundreds of Communists were sent to internment camps. The two highest profile political detainees were the Communist president of the Canadian Seamen’s Union, Pat Sullivan, and the Mayor of Montréal, Camillien Houde. Houde was interned (without trial) for four years because he called on Quebec men to ignore the national registration measure introduced by Ottawa.

Over 20,000 Japanese Canadians were imprisoned during the war. Thousands of others, including hundreds of Jewish refugees from the Nazis, were also interned.

There was formal censorship during WWII. A dozen publications were banned and at least three corporate dailies — Vancouver Sun, Le Droit and Le Soleil — were fined for breaching censorship regulations. Many books were also banned. At its high point the Department of National Defence Directorate of Censorship oversaw nearly 1,000 employees who mostly opened mail. More than 45 million letters and packages were opened during WWII.

During the Korean War there was censorship in theatre (Korea and Japan). More than 17 reporters were expelled and many stories were suppressed. In Canada government officials also pressured the media to suppress information. In response to gory radio reports, Defence Minister Brooke Claxton asked CBC Chairman Arnold Davidson Dunton, who had been general manager of the WWII Wartime Information Board, “to advise radio stations to prioritize propriety” (socially proper behaviour).

After the outbreak of a series of diseases at the start of 1952, China and North Korea accused the US of using biological weapons. Though the claims have neither been conclusively substantiated or disproven — some internal documents are still restricted — in Orienting Canada: Race, Empire, and the Transpacific, John Price details Ottawa’s authoritarian response to the accusations, some of which were made at the time by Canadian peace groups. When the Ottawa Citizenrevealed that British, Canadian, and US military scientists had recently met in Ottawa to discuss biological warfare, External Affairs minister Lester Pearson wrote the paper’s owner to complain and squash the story elsewhere. Price writes: “In reaction to a 2 May Ottawa Citizen article revealing that tri-national meetings of military scientists to discuss biological warfare were being held in Ottawa and other Canadian cities, [External Affairs Deputy Under-Secretary Escott] Reid noted that Pearson felt that such articles played into the hands of communist propagandists and that he now felt he had to write to Mr. Southam (owner of the Citizen) to complain. Omar Solandt, head of the Defence Research Board, reported Reid, had told Pearson at a meeting to discuss the fallout from the accusation, that ‘as soon as he heard of the story he had taken measures to see that it was not carried further and had it killed in the Ottawa Journal and over the CP wires.’ On the grounds of national security, the truth about Canadian involvement in biological warfare preparations remained hidden.”

During the war Canadian Peace Congress chairman James Endicott was bitterly denounced for, among other things, accusing the US-led forces of employing biological weapons. Pearson called Endicott, who had been a college friend, a “red stooge” and the “bait on the end of a Red hook.” Pearson even called for individuals to destroy the Peace Congress from the inside. The external minister publicly applauded 50 engineering students who swamped a membership meeting of the University of Toronto Peace Congress branch. He proclaimed, “if more Canadians were to show something of this high-spirited crusading zeal, we would very soon hear little of the Canadian Peace Congress and its works. We would simply take it over.”

Government attacks spurred media and public hostility. A number of public venues refused to rent their space to the Peace Congress and Endicott’s Toronto home was firebombed during a large Peace Congress meeting.

Whether or not one agrees with Dimitri Lascaris’ position on the war, Canadians should oppose bids to return to this country to a time when anti-war positions were actively repressed. It’s imperative to stand up to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress’ efforts to shut down critical discussion of Ottawa’s role in the war.


On Monday at 6 PM ET Dimitri Lascaris will join my Canadian Foreign Policy Hour to discuss the bid to shut down his speaking tour, which continues. Register for CFPH here

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