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Murray Thomson's lasting legacy

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Age Is More: Image: Still from Murray Thomson/YouTube

Murray Thomson, who co-founded Peace Brigades International (PBI) in September 1981, passed away at 96 years of age on May 2 in Ottawa, Canada.

The founding statement for PBI that Thomson helped draft almost 40 years ago said, "We are forming an organisation with the capacity to mobilise and provide trained volunteers in areas of high tension, to avert violent outbreaks."

There was no way for Thomson and the 10 other people who gathered on Grindstone Island -- situated about 100 kilometres southwest of Ottawa -- from August 13 to September 4, 1981 that the seed they planted with their vision would grow into a global organization.

PBI currently supports the work of human rights defenders in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nepal, Indonesia and Kenya.

Fathi Zabaar, the New York City-based Tunisian human rights activist who chairs PBI's International Council says, "In 2017, PBI's community of activists provided effective protection and support to more than one thousand women, men and LGBTI defenders, despite the challenging context and huge risk those working to change the world continued to face."

PBI also has country group offices in numerous countries that support and amplify this work, including Peace Brigades International-Canada based in Ottawa. The International Office for PBI is located in Brussels.

Along with Thomson, there were two other people from Canada at that meeting: Henry Wiseman and Hans Sinn. Wiseman passed away at 93 years of age of in Guelph, Ontario in January 2017. Sinn remains active and still lives in the Ottawa Valley.

In April 2015, Sinn told Ottawa Magazine about the founding of PBI in 1981. "Our first project was in Guatemala. The mothers of the disappeared appealed to us for an international presence. By looking for their children, who had been made to disappear, they came under threat too," Sinn said. 

Sinn added, "They needed a link to the outside world -- for protection and for international pressure to help improve the situation -- and we provided that."

When asked about "PBI spin-offs", Sinn said, "The Guatemala Stove Project is a big thing for people in Perth. It helps people build stoves, which replace open wood fires that are health hazards, in particular for women, who traditionally cook."

And while PBI's largest presence is now in Latin America, the organization has monitored human rights violations on Turtle Island throughout the 1990s.

PBI's North America Project was established following the July-September 1990 armed confrontation (known as the Oka Crisis) between Mohawk of Kanesatake land defenders who opposed the expansion of a golf course onto Indigenous burial grounds and the Quebec police and Canadian army.

The North America Project, which lasted between 1992 and 1999, visited various frontlines, including Nitassinan in December 1992, to highlight the destructive impact of Hydro Quebec's dams on the Innu people; Ipperwash in September 1995, following the Ontario Provincial Police shooting of Indigenous land defender Dudley George; Barriere Lake in April 1996, where the traditional, customary government was being defended against the imposition of Indian Act band council elections by the federal government; and Esgenoopetitj in 1999, where the Mi'kmaq challenged federal rules on their right to fish in Burnt Church, New Brunswick.

Thomson's contributions to human rights and peace extend far beyond the formation of Peace Brigades International.

He helped found the Quaker Peace Education Centre-Grindstone Island in 1963, which worked to address the question: "How can we, who advocate nonviolence, actually practise it in hostile, threatening situations?" and Project Ploughshares in 1976, which was based around the observation that newly independent countries were spending vast amounts of borrowed money to build up military institutions rather than on the public interest and social needs.

Thomson also helped found the Group of 78 in 1981 to promote peace and disarmament, equitable and sustainable development, and a revitalized United Nations system, and Peacefund Canada in 1985 as a campaign aimed at allowing conscientious objectors to have their tax payments spent only for non-military purposes.

Thomson helped found Canadian Friends of Burma in 1991 to support the pro-democracy movement in the struggle for peace, democracy, human rights and equality and Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention in 2008, a group which seeks a verifiable treaty on the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

Thomson made an extraordinary contribution to peace, justice and human rights during his lifetime and his example inspires many of us to continue that work.

For more on Thomson's life of faith and activism, please see the rabble.ca blog by Dennis Gruending, the Tribute to 'a renaissance man of peace' by Koozma J. Tarasoff, and the post by Peace Brigades International-Canada.

Brent Patterson is Executive Director of Peace Brigades International-Canada, a political activist, and a writer.

Image: Still from Murray Thomson/YouTube​

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