This is the second in a four-part series on the anti-war movement of 2003 and the role of labour. The previous article looked at the context and organizing leading up to the historic protests of February 15, 2003, and this article looks at their impact.
The November 2002 demonstrations were a preview of what was to come in early 2003. In January, despite freezing winter weather all across the country, both the number of demonstrations and demonstrators dramatically increased. Tens of thousands were marching in a few dozen cities. At this point, it was clear that the anti-war movement was growing rapidly and attracting more and more support from the wider public, including labour. Whereas some of the trade union leadership had initially been hesitant to join, now they didn’t want to miss out.
The broad, open, and inclusive approach that had been developed over months of organizing since the G20 Summit, when the first steps were taken to build a pan-Canadian network around the issue of Iraq, was really beginning to pay off. In particular, the orientation to labour and to the broader working class helped prepare the movement to welcome and involve large numbers of ordinary people in a common struggle against war.
February 15, 2003 was a turning point. On that day, in hundreds of cities around the world, and in protests that took place on every continent (including Antarctica), between 15 and 30 million people protested under the slogan, “Don’t attack Iraq!” The protests were so big and so widespread that Patrick Tyler, writing in the New York Times a couple of days later, said, “the huge anti-war demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”
In Canada and Quebec, anti-war actions took place in about 75 locations, while the number of participants reached the hundreds of thousands. Between 80,000 and 100,000 marched in Toronto; 50,000 in Vancouver; 18,000 in Edmonton; 8,000 in Victoria; 6,000 in Halifax; 4,000 in Ottawa; and thousands and hundreds more in countless towns and cities across the country. By far, the largest of these demonstrations took place in Montreal, where over 250,000 people marched—over half the total number of participants across the country.
The scale of the February 15 protests was evidence of the movement’s entry into the mainstream: growing opposition to the war dominated national and local media coverage in the days and weeks that followed, and the question of Canada’s involvement became the central topic in all political discussion. At this point, the movement also entered the realm of “official politics”—where its impact would be felt in Parliament and might actually affect Canada’s role in the Iraq War.
Up until this moment, the federal Liberals had privately confided to the Bush administration that Canada would likely join the war, as National Defence Minister John McCallum was actively promoting the so-called “Second Resolution” at the UN, which would have allowed an invasion to begin with broad international support. Indeed, Canada already had war ships in the Gulf. But cracks were beginning to appear in the Liberal caucus, as backbench Member of Parliament Carolyn Parrish (Mississauga Centre) began to speak out publicly against the war, including at anti-war demonstrations in Toronto and Mississauga, and threatened to lead 30 MPs out of caucus if the Liberals backed the attack.
In the NDP, which had just elected Toronto city councillor Jack Layton as federal leader, the issue of the Iraq War had dominated the federal leadership race and pushed the candidates, most of whom had direct links to local coalitions in their own constituencies, to try to out-do each other in generating support for the anti-war movement. NDP MP Joe Comartin (Windsor-St. Clair), one of the leadership candidates, made opposition to sanctions and war in Iraq the centrepiece of his campaign from the moment he entered the race. As more and more activists rallied around Comartin, it pushed Layton, the frontrunner, to follow Comartin’s lead. From that moment on, anytime Layton spoke to the media, he enthusiastically promoted the February 15 protests, encouraging the public to attend them. Critically, Layton also adopted the movement’s demand—“With or without the UN, don’t attack Iraq!”—and used his national profile to help popularize it. The effect was to increase the pressure on all federal politicians, who would soon have to decide whether Canada would join the war.
What tipped the balance of forces was the movement in Quebec. Exactly one month after the historic February 15 protests, a second demonstration of 250,000 people took place in Montreal. Two days later, on March 17, Prime Minster Jean Chrétien rose in the House of Commons to announce that Canada would not be part of the invasion (see this video). Two days after that, late in the evening on March 19 (pre-dawn on March 20 in Iraq), US forces began their “shock and awe” bombing campaign of Baghdad. The Iraq War had begun without Canada’s formal participation.
Why were the demonstrations so big in Quebec? And what was their impact on the federal Liberals’ decision to stay out of the war?
First, the anti-war movement in Quebec exists in a dramatically different political, historical, and linguistic context from the rest of Canada (which is why this article refers to movements “in Canada and Quebec” instead of “in Canada”). The existence of a sovereigntist movement in Quebec, whose main demand is self-determination in the form of formal political separation, is the result of Quebeckers’ long experience of national oppression, especially at the hands of the federal state. Events such as the War Measures Act in 1970, when the Canadian government suspended civil liberties and deployed federal troops to Montreal, affect public attitudes in Quebec in a way that usually generates opposition to Canadian state-led war and militarism.
Second, a provincial election was underway in Quebec at the time, in which the Quebec Liberal Party (QLP) was poised to defeat the Parti Québécois, which had held power for nine years. Federalists in Quebec were worried that, if the federal Liberals joined the Iraq War, it would scuttle the QLP’s chances at forming a government. In light of the size and scale of the anti-war movement in Quebec, Iraq was prominent as an issue in the first half of the election. At one point, the leader of every Quebec party was wearing a white ribbon to symbolize their commitment to peace. The possibility that a decision to back the war could affect the outcome of the Quebec election likely played a role in Chrétien’s calculations.
Third, Quebec’s labour movement, especially public sector workers, had been part of large-scale mobilizations in early 2003 in support of Quebec nurses and to oppose cuts to healthcare spending. Many of those mobilizations rolled into the anti-war protests that were planned for February 15 and, a month later, on March 15. Because of the experience of national oppression in Quebec, including the fight for linguistic rights in the workplace, its unions have a more developed tradition of engaging issues related to national sovereignty, self-determination, and anti-imperialism, and therefore moved quickly to join and support the emerging movement against the Iraq War.
Chrétien’s announcement caught many in the anti-war movement by surprise, in light of Canada’s nearly unbroken record of supporting US-led interventions throughout its history. For this reason, and to avoid painting the Canadian state in pacifist or progressive colours, the decision to stay out of Iraq should be read against the long-standing foreign policy goals and practices of almost all Canadian governments, including the Chrétien Liberals. Indeed, this decision was largely a symbolic one, as Canada continued to support the broader War on Terror—in particular, by taking a lead in the Afghanistan mission—which allowed US war plans in Iraq to proceed as intended.
It should also be noted that, while Canada took a lead in Afghanistan, it was also enthusiastically participating in the post-9/11 crackdown on civil liberties, which overwhelmingly targeted Muslims, Arabs, racialized communities, immigrants and refugees, and other vulnerable groups, and which included practices such as deportation to torture, secret trials, solitary confinement, entrapment, and racial profiling. Those practices continue to this day, some of them entrenched in Canada’s so-called “anti-terror” legislation, and show the necessity of situating an anti-racist analysis at the heart of all anti-war mobilizing. It would have been impossible to build a movement against the war had activists not vociferously opposed these practices and defended communities under attack. That sometimes meant finding a way to join or support anti-racist, pro-civil liberties initiatives that responded to events such as the desecration of Qur’an in Guantanamo Bay, the publication of the Danish cartoons, or the debate about faith-based arbitration in Ontario—even if their connection to the issue of war wasn’t immediately obvious.
This qualification about the Liberals’ decision to stay out of Iraq is important, however, in order to avoid engaging in nationalist myth-making about Canada as a peace-loving and peace-keeping state, and celebrating the Liberal Party of Canada as a champion of peace. The historical record on these matters is clear. Even more importantly, this qualification allows the anti-war movement—including the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people across the country who, for months on end, organized and marched to stop the war—to take credit for its own success in preventing the Canadian state from formally and officially supporting the Iraq invasion, despite the best efforts of the Liberals to make it a multilateral initiative. This was no small feat, and its lessons deserve to be generalized widely. But how the movement learns and shares those lessons really matters.
From Iraq to Afghanistan
In the days and weeks after the war began, generalizing the movement’s success became an urgent task. Not surprisingly, the failure to prevent the invasion had a demoralizing and demobilizing effect on many of those who had marched against the war, including leading activists. There was a temptation to dismiss outright everything that had happened in the months leading up to the war as essentially a waste of time, despite the movement’s success locally and on a national and international scale. At that time, it was crucial to counter these arguments with an interpretation of events that built the confidence of activists, both for the work they had completed and for the work that lay ahead of them. Now that the war was turning into a full-scale occupation, the last thing the movement needed was to pack up and go home.
In addition to opposing the occupation of Iraq, activists in Canada faced another urgent task: forcing the Canadian government to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, the other key front of the War on Terror and what would become Canada’s largest and longest military mission. Although the movement against the Iraq War wasn’t yet one year old, the lessons that it generated would serve activists well in the years ahead, and not only on Afghanistan, but on other anti-war and anti-occupation fronts: Palestine, Haiti, Lebanon, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and others.
The next article in this series looks at the anti-war movement’s lessons around anti-imperialism and anti-oppression.
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