A recent campaign to shut down a call for peace echoes a darker period in Canadian history. But the dominant media and leading cancel culture critics all but ignored it.
Between June 19 and July 8 Dimitri Lascaris spoke across the country on “Making Peace With Russia, One Handshake At A Time.” The 12-city tour organized by the Canada-wide Peace and Justice Network followed the former Green Party leadership candidate’s visit to Russia in April.
There were efforts to disrupt or cancel all the events by calling and mass emailing venues, through in person protests and underhanded moves such as mass booking Eventbrite tickets without any plan to use them. Despite requiring advanced tickets and only revealing the locales at the last-minute, five venues buckled to pressure and canceled. The first Toronto event was held in a nearby pub after the Ontario Public Service Employees Union revoked the room booking at the last minute claiming they received threatening messages. The next stop in Winnipeg was held at a third location after two different venues canceled on short notice. In Montréal the talk was held in a park after the venue owner overrode his manager under outside pressure while an alternative venue was found in Halifax after the office of the Saint Mary’s University president intervened to deny the space.
A cabal of US and Canadian military funded figures such as Marcus Kolga and Jean-Christophe Boucher, as well as the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) and Ukrainian Embassy, targeted the different venues. They openly called for shutting down talks about ending the horrors in Ukraine and diminishing the risk of nuclear catastrophe.
Despite the hurdles, the events were generally well attended. But finding backup venues and making alternative arrangements is a major burden for small, all-volunteer, groups.
The coordinated bid to shutter Lascaris’ tour falls on the heels of two Montréal community centres canceling a talk with Université de Montréal history professor Samir Saul, Québec Green Party leader Alex Tyrell and myself about Canada’s role in the war. At the start of the year the right-wing UCC launched a concerted lobbying campaign to shut down opposition voices with the head of that organization openly demanding the Toronto Public Library cancel a room booking for a June 4 event on “The war in Ukraine and how to stop it”.
The cancel efforts are of little interest to the dominant media. They almost completely ignored Lascaris’ tour and nearly all establishment critics of cancel culture remained silent concerning the most intense attacks on peace organizing in more than half a century.
With an “unequivocally” regressive cultural value, warfare “makes for a conservative animus on the part of the populace”, explained Thorstein Veblen in 1904. “During war time, and within the military organization at all times, under martial law, civil rights are in abeyance; and the more warfare and armament the more abeyance.”
At the beginning of World War I the federal government adopted the War Measures Act, which granted the state sweeping powers to imprison almost anyone considered a security threat. Hundreds of pacifists and antiwar activists were arrested while the Industrial Workers of the World and a dozen other revolutionary organizations were banned. A large number of publications were censored and public meetings (except for church) held in Ukrainian, Russian, Finnish and other languages were outlawed.
On a number of occasions veterans attacked union and leftist groups offices and personnel. Labour organizer Ginger Goodwin was killed on Vancouver Island for opposing the war while in spring 1918 four opponents of conscription were killed by security forces in Québec City.
During WWII hundreds of dissidents and communists, including the president of the Canadian Seamen’s Union and Mayor of Montréal, were interned under the War Measures Act. Dozens of organizations and publications were also banned and like WWI official censorship was imposed.
In the Korean war official censorship reigned in theatre while government officials often went to extreme lengths to suppress information domestically. The Canadian Peace Congress chairman James Endicott was bitterly denounced with external minister Lester Pearson calling his college friend a “red stooge” and “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 venues refused to rent their space to the Peace Congress and Endicott’s Toronto home was firebombed during a large Peace Congress meeting.
During recent wars in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Libya the “conservative animus” unleashed was far less extreme. In the lead-up to the first Gulf War many media reported a rumor that body bags were thrown on the lawn of a soldier in Victoria. It probably never happened, according to Bob Bergen, but was used to discredit antiwar activists and suppress information.
During the war in Afghanistan NDP leader Jack Layton was dubbed “Taliban Jack” for calling for negotiations while 16 University of Regina professors were aggressively denounced by the Premier of Saskatchewan and federal MPs for calling on the school’s president to withdraw from an initiative set up by hawkish retired Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier offering free tuition to the children of dead soldiers because it was “a glorification of Canadian imperialism in Afghanistan.”
Rather than overt hostility, antiwar sentiment has for the most part simply been marginalized. The government and military has promoted martial patriotism while seeking to suppress and shape the flow of information, as I detail in A Propaganda System: How Canada’s Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War and Exploitation.
The qualitative shift in respect for anti-war dissent in recent decades was a political/cultural shift spurred by protests against nuclear weapons and the US war in Vietnam. By the 1980s peace and anti-nuclear protests attracted mainstream politicians and won substantial gains. In one of the city’s biggest ever demonstrations Vancouver’s mayor joined 100,000 marching for peace and nuclear disarmament on April 27, 1986. Two years later the War Measures Act was repealed.
During the first Iraq war many thousands took to the streets against Canada fighting. On two different occasions in early 2003 more than 100,000 marched in Montréal against Canada joining the invasion of Iraq. Five years later thousands marched to mark the anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq and to call for Canada to withdraw from Afghanistan.
But over the past decade and a half mass protests against war and militarism have dried up. Antiwar groups have become a shell of their former selves, losing much of the support they received from labour and other progressive organizations.
As a result, antiwar and anti-NATO views have been increasingly marginalized within the dominant media and official politics. Over the past 18 months NATO critics have been incessantly denigrated as Putin apologists, “campists” and “tankies” on social media. The ‘with us or against us’ attitude that has led to the demonization of antiwar voices is striking considering Canada is not formally at war and the fighting is far away. (By giving $2 billion in arms, providing intelligence assistance, promoting former Canadian soldiers fighting, expanding military training and dispatching special forces, etc. Canada is effectively at war with Russia.) The scope of the demonization and cancellation efforts harkens back to a more repressive time. Without a concerted response, the political climate is likely to worsen. Imagine the atmosphere if Canada formally sends troops to Ukraine or if a war breaks out with China.
Whether one agrees with everything Dimitri Lascaris has to say about the horrors in Ukraine the bid to shut down his speaking tour should be troubling. It reflects a regression towards a far more repressive time.