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It began with a welcome from Elder Evelyn Commanda, to the unceded and unconquered territory of the Algonquin nation. Her powerful statement reminded us why we were gathered: “We walk on our ancestors. And the dust of my ancestors is being used for war.”
On May 25, 2016, eight peace activists entered the Office of Global Affairs in Ottawa to demand an immediate end to Canada’s $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. With weapons purchased from its Western partners, Saudi Arabia commits some of the most heinous atrocities in the world today, including torture, beheadings, murder of unarmed demonstrators, and bombings of civilians in neighbouring Yemen.
The regime uses LAVs (light armoured vehicles) mounted with machine guns to kill demonstrators — the same type of LAVs that have long been purchased from Canada and a new generation of which is slated to roll off assembly lines in London, Ontario by year’s end.
Some of these Western partners, notably Sweden, have been so sickened by Saudi Arabia’s flagrant disregard for human rights that they have halted arms sales to the regime indefinitely. But not Canada.
Indigenous elders teach us that the key to protecting our peoples and our planet from war is to wake up.
To wake up to the fact that the production of arms is what makes war possible.
To wake up to the fact that millions of people are displaced by wars that are fought with weapons made in Canada — now the second biggest arms exporter to the Middle East.
To wake up to the fact that the ongoing history of Canada is one of colonialism, imperialism and militarism. From chemical warfare in Vietnam to helicopter gunships in Sri Lanka to cruise missiles in Iraq, it is weapons made in Canada that have continued to make death and destruction possible.
A few years back, to avoid the scrutiny of congressional oversight in its home country, American weapons giant General Dynamics began lobbying the Canadian government for a lucrative deal with Saudi Arabia. The former Conservative government obliged.
While the deal was sealed by Stephen Harper, it was the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau that gave the green light to start delivering the next round of LAVs to Saudi Arabia.
So now on this sunny day in May, we were more than willing to wait it out for Trudeau’s foreign affairs minister to arrive back in his office, and get this arms deal cancelled once and for all.
Acknowledging that Stephane Dion was in Japan for a G7 meeting, we felt it was imperative for him to board the next flight back to Ottawa to address the life-threatening situation posed by the deal. While waiting, we proceeded to hand out copies of the letter to office workers streaming through the lobby of Global Affairs.
Many took the letter with a smile, saying “I know why you’re here” in an unmistakable tone of agreement that the arms deal was an abomination.
Noticing that more workers were looking on curiously from behind glassed-in security areas, we unfurled our banner with the direct demand: No More Arms Deals.
You see, no matter which country Canada sells weapons to — whether it’s the United States or Saudi Arabia — we know that weapons and armoured vehicles are used exclusively for one thing: to suppress dissent and kill people.
Within Canada itself, the situation offers little difference. Terradyne, a weapons manufacturer in Richmond Hill destined to be another benefactor of the deal with Saudi Arabia, boasts of selling LAVs to the police in Mexico, Colombia…and Winnipeg. Infamous for human rights crimes against Indigenous peoples, it is more than likely the Winnipeg police will use their new armoured vehicle to oppress poor, racialized communities.
Selling arms to countries which purportedly abide by human rights law was a non-starter for us. Our demand for an end to the arms deal with Saudi Arabia represented a beginning, not an end. The cancellation would be an important step towards transforming Canada from a militarized economy to a green and sustainable one.
As the RCMP and Ottawa police descended on us, even a representative from Dion’s office appeared to be experiencing a moral dilemma. While calling on the police for our immediate removal, he whispered to me: “I understand why you are here. It’s a horrible deal. What can I do though? I have to do my job”.
No — you don’t have to do your job. You don’t have to participate in the blood-soaked arms industry.
You don’t have to repeat the lies of your government. It is not about jobs. It is not about foreign relations. It’s about merchants of death and our active complicity in allowing them to profit from the murder of people at home and abroad. The weapons industry can indeed be stopped — by non-cooperation.
On May 25, it took only three people being arrested and five people supporting us to jam the system. A small committed group of people posed a threat so serious to the government that the department which facilitates the arms trade for Canada was shut down, demonstrating that nonviolent civil disobedience can stop war and start the healing.
Kevin Shimmin is a union organizer and a founding member of Homes not Bombs.
Photos courtesy of Murray Lumley.