“Stop the torture—end the war,” read one colourful placard at Queen’s Park. “End the siege of Gaza,” read another.
Voicing solid opposition against the war in Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq, immense columns of demonstrators took over Queen’s Park and Bloor Street on Saturday. “From Iraq to Palestine,” they shouted, “occupation is a crime!” When the demonstration reached the heart of Yorkville, you could imagine the neighbourhood’s original war resisters seized by the haunting familiarity of the whole thing.
Two fingers in a peaceful “V” extended from a passing Mercedes. Apparently unaware of his solidarity’s inherent irony, the driver of a nearby Escalade laid on his horn, waving.
Peggy Nash and friends march at the front of the line.
Marking the approximate fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Saturday’s rally and march were organized to coincide with those held in some twenty other cities and towns nationwide. While similar demonstrations have happened in past years, this one—considering the timing—held an especially grave significance. On Thursday, the Conservatives and Liberals voted nearly unanimously to extend Canada’s war against Afghanistan to 2011. The motion passed 198-77, with only Bill Matthews, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Newfoundland’s Random-Burin-St. George’s riding, disputing his party’s position. To the demonstrators—not to mention, you know, Afghanis—it’s like the war has started all over again.
Diane Alexopolous, representing the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War, opened the day at Queen’s Park by calling out the federal opposition. “Today’s rally,” she pronounced over a piercing shriek of feedback, “is where you’ll find the real opposition to Harper’s War on Terror.” Stephane Dion’s Liberals form the supposed official counterpunch to Stephen Harper’s minority Conservatives, though you’d hardly know it from their voting record. “Shame on Stephen Harper; shame on Stephane Dion,” the assembled fired back.
Outlining a few ugly statistics like the federal budget’s $18,000,000,000 earmarked for military spending—a tenth of the total budget—and the nearly five million-or-so bullets fired in Afghanistan, Cathy Crowe of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and the Housing Not War Campaign came out with an impassioned indictment of Harper’s hawkish policies. Countering successes asserted by the government and the military, Crowe declared, “We know that by every measure, the war in Afghanistan is not a success. Poverty is up, civilian deaths are up… by every measure, things today are worse—not better. So we have to ask ourselves: do we want to continue a combat mission in Afghanistan?”
In unison, the rally answered, “No!”
“If we want to bring hope,” she said, “let’s stop with the NATO combat mission. Let’s turn instead to the United Nations, and let’s reach out towards a peace process.”
The lack of affordable housing in Canada was as much a thesis of the day’s demonstration as was opposition to the wars, solidarity with Palestine, or disgust with the Bush/Harper axis. On March 4th, following the city’s closure of over three hundred shelter beds, a homeless Aboriginal man named Robert Maurice froze to death on the streets, triggering direct action by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty at City Hall. “The police, city officials, city politicians and others refuse to accept that he was homeless,” Crowe continued, “but he was homeless by any definition.” Drawing a comparison between the displaced of Afghanistan and those of Toronto, she said, “In the Afghan winter, hundreds that were made homeless by the war have frozen to death. We know here in Canada about downtrodden people. We see people in our country begging for money, begging for food, and dying on our streets.” Amid continuing cries of “shame,” Crowe concluded: “All of this while our soldiers are coming home severely maimed and dead, returning along the so-called ‘highway of heroes.’”
Out of our massive federal surplus, billions of which has been intravenously pumped into every tank and rifle in the country, not even one percent was provided to support affordable housing.
The war against Afghanistan has been a contentious, divisive issue in both Canadian society and politics over the last few years. Torontoist spoke with Linda McQuaig, columnist at the Star and author of Holding the Bully’s Coat, a critical examination of Canada’s role in the U.S. empire. Referring to the Conservatives’ attempt to resurrect Pearson in describing Canada’s role in Afghanistan as “peacekeeping,” she says: “There is no resemblance between Canada’s role in Afghanistan and the UN peacekeeping mission developed by Lester Pearson in connection with the Suez Crisis in 1956. Pearson’s mission was a genuine effort at keeping the peace, and it helped avert a war. By contrast, the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is an aggressive use of military power that began with an illegal invasion and continues as a war to suppress a domestic insurgency.”
Summarizing the thoughts of many at Saturday’s rally, McQuaig told Torontoist: “I think Stephane Dion’s capitulation on Afghanistan is a disgrace. He has clearly caved to pressure from Harper and the pro-war wing of his own party. By doing so, he has ensured that Canada will be fighting in Afghanistan until 2011, even though a clear majority of Canadians oppose this extension of our involvement in the war.” Sixty-one percent of Canadians oppose the involvement of Canadian troops in Afghanistan past 2009.
Of course, Saturday’s demonstration was wider in scope than Iraq or Afghanistan, focusing on the so-called war on terror’s national and global fallout. Placards screamed DON’T ATTACK IRAN, responding to Bush’s repeated threats of military action against the Islamic republic—in spite of last year’s National Intelligence Estimate revealing that Iran had suspended any nuclear aspirations as of 2003. At the Israeli Consulate on Bloor Street, demonstrators demanded an end to Israel’s violent sixty-year occupation of Palestine.
Addressing the increasingly-questioned root of the war on terror itself, WeAreChange.org repeated its call to reopen the 9/11 investigations, particularly in light of 9/11 Commission chief Philip Zelikow’s cozy relationship with notable neocons like Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice. “If we skip past what got us into the war,” said Richard Harris of the Toronto chapter, “we’re not going to really fix anything.”
Trinity-St. Paul’s church, where the march ended.
There was a time when we were able to look at our role in wars as lofty and noble, even in the early days of the war against Afghanistan. 2003’s near-renaissance of Trudeau-era nationalism had us pretty happy with ourselves, what with all our talk of legalizing pot and such. We’d thumbed our noses at the States, telling them we’d have no part in their insane war. Now, as we’ve become exceedingly aware, we’ve got one of our own.
“Dion has deprived Canadians of a chance to vote on this critical issue,” McQuaig concludes, “and facilitated Harper’s attempt to bring about a far-reaching transformation of Canada from peacekeeper into combative junior partner in the U.S. military empire.”
All photos by Miles Storey.