Part I – Political Activism: From Strontium-90 to Refugee Advocacy

There are two very different types of political activism. One type is engaged in existing political processes – running for a political position, assisting those who run (and hopefully then make it), or campaigning for a political party of your choice. Alternatively, there are those who apply pressure on various elements of our civil and political society to effect change. Activities may vary widely, from promoting a boycott of Israeli goods from the West Bank to promoting the boycott of the boycotters, from advocacy of drastic measures on behalf of combatting climate change to arguing for universal child care, from urging prosecution of the pharmaceutical companies that promoted the sale of opioids to urging that speed bumps be installed on your street. The possible issues are almost endless.

Political activism can be local; it can be international. I began my personal involvement in political activism in the second NGO stream. In early September of 1959, after sitting around and griping about strontium-90 being spewed forth from the testing of nuclear weapons, Mac Makarchuk (who would later enter stream 1, join the New Democratic Party and win a seat in the Ontario legislature in 1967 representing Brampton) and I decided to set up a talking box similar to the ones they had in Hyde Park, London. We would use that “soap box” to make speeches to denounce nuclear testing and urge governments to sign a test ban treaty.

The threat of strontium-90 was not of the same order of magnitude as the effects of carbon in the atmosphere that is the major man-made cause of climate change. At the time, however, strontium-90 was feared, for it was a byproduct of nuclear testing resulting in a radioactive isotope of strontium produced by nuclear fission with a half-life of almost 29 years. The negative effects were measurable, for scientists had established that strontium-90 was both a carcinogen (a cause of cancer) and a mutagen that damaged a person’s DNA.  In the body, strontium-90 acts like calcium and is incorporated in our bones and teeth, much more heavily in babies and growing children. The results: bone cancer, leukemia (cancer in our bone marrow) and even cancer in the soft tissue around our bones. Even water near nuclear plants in those days was shown to have higher concentrations of strontium-90 and people living near such plants had a greater risk of contracting leukemia.

Mac and I did what we planned and learned at least two important lessons from our first attempt at speaking in Christie Pitts in Toronto. First, a deep immersion in well-established scientific evidence was important to making our case even if cognitive knowledge turned out not to be the most effective organizing tool. Second, we learned the crucial role of media in promoting our initial feeble attempts to get the public aroused to oppose nuclear testing.

The first lesson may be self-evident. In our case, the second lesson was comical. When Mac and I got to the park with our literal “soap box,” I chickened out at first and could not stand on a box and simply start haranguing the people in the park. Mac, however, was not to be intimidated. He got up on the box and started speaking. Only then did I follow. The effects in the park were insignificant compared to the results the next week when we returned to university.

Al Walker, a reporter with The Varsity, who went on to become a well-known Time magazine writer, heard about our initiative and, without bothering to interview us, wrote a front-page story headlined, “Cops Mounted on Horses Shut Down Free Speech.” In his version, those cops rushed us, threatened to arrest us and dispersed the crown that had gathered. The reality was quite different. There was no crowd. Only two people stopped to listen to our harangue. There was only one police officer on a horse. He never charged towards us. He came by and asked if we had a speaking permit. We replied that we did not and did not know that a permit was required to speak in a park. He advised us to get a permit next time and rode off.

I was furious with the total misrepresentation and stormed the office of The Varsity for which I was the drama critic. I railed against Al’s invented version of events. Al countered that if it was not for his story, there would be no Toronto chapter of the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament for, as a direct by-product of his wild tale, almost sixty students contacted me and we immediately held a meeting and dubbed ourselves the Toronto chapter of the CUCND that had been started in Britain under the instigation of Bertrand Russel. We did not know at the time that an initiative had begun to develop a national organization in Montreal by Dimitri Roussopoulos. He became the first editor of Our Generation Against Nuclear War, later shortened to Our Generation. This marked the beginning of Canadian sixties new left political activism outside the political party system focused on international issues.

Influenced by Murray Bookchin, Roussopoloulos, theoretically an anarchist, believed in and promoted extra-parliamentary opposition and not just activism. He was also a deft self-promoter. Thus, though the founding of his first chapter followed ours by two months, in his writings he claimed to be responsible for the movement, which, in a sense, he was, for we were focused on the University of Toronto and he concentrated on getting CUCND established on every campus, beginning with a national protest in Ottawa which we joined.

There was a third lesson we learned much more gradually – the need for money. In this area, the Toronto chapter excelled for, with our fund raising efforts and the support of other organizations based in Toronto – Voice of Women and the Canadian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament headed by United Church minister James Gareth Endicott – we raised enough monies to sustain not only our own university chapter, but were able to contribute considerable sums to the national campaign.

We did have a major handicap – we were far more wedded to the truth. Second, we were basically optimists and Dimitri was a born Eeyore. In his article on “Canada: 1968 and the New Left,” he wrote, “By 1963, however, despite its considerable influence and high level of activism…the movement failed: the Liberal Party of Canada, having won the elections, reversed its anti-nuclear stance and imported nuclear warheads for the Bomarc missiles—anti-aircraft missiles developed as a joint US-Canadian effort against the Soviet threat.”

This summary misrepresented what had taken place in two ways. First, we achieved our first and foremost objective. On 5 August 1963, the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (formally the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Tests in the Atmosphere, in outer Space, and Under Water) was signed in Moscow four year after we had begun our campaign. The USSR, USA and UK were signatories. Only underground testing had been excluded.

Second, unbeknownst to both Dimitri and myself at the time, though the Liberal Party under extreme pressure from the USA agreed to allow the Bomarc missiles to be armed with nuclear warheads, a move we opposed, I learned twenty years later that the arming of the Bomarcs with nuclear warheads had been irrelevant. When I chaired a commission looking into the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, Brian Cox, a professor from Queens University, made a presentation to us that demonstrated that the arming of the Bomarcs with nuclear weapons had been a ruse and a distraction. We had been correct. Nuclear-armed Bomarcs were useless. But while we were all focused on these missile batteries in Sudbury, the USA had armed all its missiles along the Dew Line in the far north with nuclear warheads and we, and, according to Cox, the Canadian government, knew nothing about this.  

Thus, we succeeded in our primary objective. And we failed in our secondary one, but what we did not know at the time, the failure was a total side-show. The lesson: activists may be policy wonks, they may develop a terrific bank of scientific knowledge, but they may also be woefully ignorant of the secret proceedings that may be far more important than what seems to be the case on the surface.

However, I became convinced sixteen years later in the movement to encourage the private sponsorship of Indochinese, which began in 1979, that we had all absorbed an even more important lesson that was not widely recognized at the time. We had learned how to organize. We had absorbed a generic lesson that could easily be applied to other issues. That was probably the most important positive by-product of the nuclear disarmament movement.

We had learned that:

  • developing expertise was crucial
  • the role of the media in spreading the message was vital
  • money is always needed in non-parliamentary advocacy
  • advocacy does not have to be defined as opposition.

The last lesson I had learned in getting changes made to the National Housing Legislation to facilitate the funding of student cooperatives. We needed to get politicians in leading positions, the policy mandarins and enough of a small segment of the public onside to prove that there was significant demand for the changes desired. For rational arguments and even political alignment with civil service convictions were insufficient generally unless accompanied by a demonstrated public demand.

In the case of the organization of the movement promoting the private sponsorship of refugees – in 1979 the Indochinese refugees – contrary to the interpretation of the media, the movement was far less of an advocate directed at the government than a public education advocacy movement directed at the larger public. For when we organized the first meeting on a Sunday afternoon in early June, we had come together to advocate that the government become much more generous in the number of Indochinese refugees that would be admitted to Canada. Ron Atkey, the Minster of Employment and Immigration, was our Member of Parliament. We gathered together to write an advocacy letter to him.

Word evidently got out about our planned meeting. A few minutes after we started, there was a knock on the door. Two gentlemen introduced themselves as federal civil servants. One was the Director of Resettlement for Ontario and the other was in charge of public relations for the Immigration Department. They had heard about the meeting and asked if we would mind if they attended. We were very startled (civil servants appearing uninvited at a private house on a Sunday!), but had no objections to their joining us.

After fifteen unproductive minutes of 19 people trying to write a letter to Ron Atkey, the two government officials asked if they could have a few minutes. We quickly agreed – if only for relief from the pettiness of writing a letter as a collective enterprise. They informed us of a sentence in the Immigration Act that allowed the private sponsorship of refugees. Not one of us was aware of that provision. They asked if we would consider that type of activism as witnessing. Within minutes, we agreed that such a move would be far better than writing a letter. In the next hour, we decided to organize fifty private refugee sponsorships in our riding and thought we could accomplish the task in the next 2-3 months.

I had invited one of my graduate students to attend the meeting as a matter of interest and so we could meet afterwards while I was in town to work on his thesis. I did not know he was a stringer for The Globe and Mail. The next morning at 6:30 a.m., I received a telephone call. (I am at my desk early.) The woman on the phone said she was from, if my memory serves me correctly, Battle Harbour, Newfoundland. She asked how she could help Operation Lifeline. I asked, “What is Operation Lifeline?” She was surprised I did not know and read to me a full-length column by Dick Beddoes that had appeared in The Globe and Mail that morning. Dick had given our initiative a name, printed my name and phone number at the bottom and suggested that people get in touch if they wanted to help.

That is when my New Left training in horizontal rather than vertical organizing kicked in. Though the story was totally misleading in numerous ways, I ignored that, asked the woman for her name, address and phone number, and named her the Head of the Battle Harbour chapter of Operation Lifeline. She protested that she had no experience in doing any such thing. I told her how to organize a core group and within days would send her a package of information on how to organize a private sponsorship group.

The phone never stopped ringing literally for weeks. Volunteers showed up at the door unannounced. Within ten days we had achieved our goal of fifty sponsorships from our riding, and, at the end of two weeks, tallied up that we had organized 66 chapters of Operation Lifeline across the country based on a federal constituency system. Serendipity played a role. A lawyer who had been in graduate school with me was one of the persons who showed up at the house that first afternoon when he was unable to reach me by phone. He had accumulated an enormous amount of information and expertise because he had been trying, unsuccessfully to that point, to get his United Church to sponsor a refugee family. Within 24 hours we produced a 60-page pamphlet on private sponsorship, thus solving the problem of expertise.

One final point. None of this would have been possible without the enormous help of the media, not just with Dick Beddoes’ initial column, but with the extensive newspaper, radio and TV coverage. On the other hand, the media never, not once, gave up their conviction that public pressure had forced the government to increase the targeted number for the intake of refugees. The truth was that the government was ahead of the public in this case and needed a partner. Operation Lifeline, and others like us, such as Project 4000 in Ottawa, were responses to the political will at the centre and reinforcements for translating that will into deliverables.

Next: Part II: Political Activism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

With the help of Alex Zisman


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