Die-in Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne on Sunday April 5, 2009. Photo: Takver/Flickr

This Thursday, there will be a ceremony on Parliament Hill to honour this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize: the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. A few days later, the King of Norway will officially award the prize in Oslo.

There are Canadians involved in the Campaign, among them peace activist and Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow, who will be honoured on Thursday.

But the event promises to be more than a bit embarrassing for the Trudeau government. The Liberals have followed in the footsteps of their Conservative predecessors in refusing to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Over 120 countries have signed, but none of the nuclear powers.

Canada is, and has always been, a non-nuclear country. We had a brief flirtation with nuclear weapons in the 1960s, in the early days of the Pearson Liberal government, but determined grassroots opposition put an end to that. Pierre Elliott Trudeau, then a private citizen, famously called Pearson the “de-frocked Prince of Peace” after the latter said, in 1963, that he would allow nuclear-armed missiles on Canadian soil.

In the early 1980s, toward the end of his tenure as prime minister, the elder Trudeau went on an international campaign for peace, and in the process significantly irritated the Reagan regime in the U.S.

New Trudeau is not the same as the old one

Pierre Trudeau’s son does not seem to share his father’s passion for peace and disarmament. The son’s government has lined up with most of its NATO allies, and against much of the rest of the world, in boycotting the entire Prohibition treaty process.

Last June, the NDP presented an opposition day motion calling on the government to support the nuclear arms prohibition treaty.  Speaking to the motion, Linda Duncan, the veteran Edmonton MP, explained:

Nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction… not yet prohibited. Canada played a key role in global actions to ban chemical and biological weapons and landmines, yet our government is boycotting actions to ban nuclear weapons… What is puzzling is that we have a government that claims that “Canada is back”… and is committed to a multilateral approach… It seems to find that of value on climate change. Why not on the threat of nuclear war?

Responding for the government, former general, and current parliamentary secretary to the global affairs minister, Andrew Leslie, alluded to an uncertain and dangerous world:

In the current security climate, countries with nuclear weapons regard them as essential for their security… It is unrealistic to expect countries to disarm when they face very real threats, including from nuclear weapon proliferators like North Korea. Only when these countries have the confidence in their security, without the need for nuclear deterrence, will they be ready to… eliminate their nuclear weapon stockpiles. This is a pragmatic and realistic approach.

Less than two weeks ago, Canada’s former ambassador for disarmament Peggy Mason, currently head of the Rideau Institute, testified before the Commons Committee on National Defence. She provided a cogent answer to Leslie.

She traced the history of disarmament efforts, noting that there was a huge missed opportunity at the end of the Cold War. At that time, Mason noted, NATO could have declared that its members’ nuclear weapons were for deterrence only and commit to a no-first-use policy.

“Tragically,” Mason said, “that was not the result of the ensuing NATO review of its strategic doctrine. Instead, unbelievably, the most powerful conventional military alliance on Earth reiterated the need for nuclear weapons as a means to prevent war (not just to deter the use of other nuclear weapons)…”

In other words, Mason explained, NATO’s nuclear-armed members told the rest of the world: “Don’t do as we do, do as we say.” In the intervening years, efforts at a negotiated reduction of nuclear weapons by the nuclear powers themselves have moved in fits and starts — mostly fits. 

A new Trump-driven arms race?

And so, the rest of the world has grown impatient and decided to take matters into its own hands. Ergo, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Canada has not chosen to join with the majority of the planet, says Mason, but has, rather, “unequivocally and unprecedentedly thrown its lot in with the Western nuclear weapons states…”

No too long ago, the Trump administration in the U.S. put a stop to the modest efforts at arms control Obama undertook, and moved to ramp up its nuclear program. That bellicose policy is notionally intended to chasten such rogue nuclear states as North Korea.

It does not seem to be working out, so far.

As even senior U.S. government officials have publicly recognized, a hot war on the Korean peninsula would not be feasible without incurring, at the very least, huge losses of life and property in South Korea and Japan.

As all of this is happening, Canada is, for the most part, uncomfortably staring at its shoes. We were once on the forefront of worldwide peace efforts, with such achievements as the land mines treaty. Now, we are content to take a back seat to our nuclear-armed allies.

It should be an interesting ceremony on Parliament Hill, this Thursday. 

Photo: Takver/Flickr

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...