This is the first of a four-part series on the anti-war movement of 2003 and the role of labour. This article looks at the context and early organizing that paved the way for the historic protests of February 15, 2003.
On a sunny day in June in Calgary more than 20 years ago, a few dozen people assembled on a large patch of grass near the downtown core to talk about the impact of a decade of sanctions against Iraq. Some of them also talked about the growing threat of another war, and floated ideas about what they might do to stop it. Their meeting seemed uneventful, perhaps even boring, compared to the loud and noisy protests they had joined only hours earlier, in opposition to the G8 Summit.
As it turns out, their meeting was anything but uneventful. Just nine months later, what started off as a disparate and disorganized group of activists who barely knew each other had become a mass movement of hundreds of thousands of people. This movement was part of an unprecedented international mobilization that culminated on February 15, 2003 with the biggest (at that time) mobilization in human history—when 10 million people in more than 600 cities around the world marched against war. Although it ultimately failed to stop the US-led invasion of Iraq, it succeeding in stopping Canada and the UN’s participation and building solidarity with Muslim and Arab communities at home and abroad. This mobilization made history and left in its wake a new generation of anti-war activists.
This is the story of that movement: how it got started, how it grew and developed, what it did and didn’t achieve, and what lessons it offers. It is also a story about the critical role that labour played in the movement’s success, and why all struggles need a strategic orientation to the working class. This history is rich in lessons for activists today and shows the potential impact that the meaningful involvement of labour makes possible.
A brief history
The context in which the anti-war movement emerged was a difficult one. The events of 9/11 brought to a halt the momentum that had been building in the anti-globalization movement in the years before. Labour in Canada and Quebec had been playing an increasingly central role in these struggles, especially during the protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April 2001, but largely retreated from such large-scale mobilizations just as the War on Terror was about to start later that year.
This retreat was not restricted to the labour movement. Many struggles felt the backlash against public expressions of protest in the wake of 9/11, including the rapid rise of Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism, and xenophobia, all of which fuelled the drive to war. Opposing this backlash and the rise of racism would quickly become key tasks of the movement. By the time the invasion of Afghanistan began in early October 2001, the political terrain had become much more difficult to navigate: many (but not all) labour leaders were reluctant to support actions that might be perceived as critical of the US; very few rank-and-file networks existed to mobilize trade unionists independently of their leadership; and the nature of the War on Terror posed new political questions that activists had only begun to grapple with.
Of course, there were notable exceptions. In November 2001, the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) during its biennial convention debated an emergency motion to oppose the war in Afghanistan. Although the delegates who submitted the motion didn’t have much time to generate support for it, it nevertheless passed. Without a doubt, successes like these helped elevate and validate an anti-war perspective, but they were very few in the early days of the movement. In most instances, it felt as if activists were building a movement from scratch.
This reality meant a delayed response to the invasion of Afghanistan, in which the Canadian government, led by Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien, would play a key role. Almost a year passed before the first signs of a movement became visible, but its focus was not Afghanistan: it was Iraq.
In June 2002, Canada was host to the G20 Summit, which took place in Kananaskis, Alberta from June 26 to 27. It attracted thousands of anti-globalization activists who mobilized from across Canada to protest a range of issues, among them the War on Terror. At the time of the Summit, however, there was no consensus among protesters that Iraq was (or would quickly become) a key issue. Although the Bush administration had been quietly preparing for an Iraq invasion since the days after 9/11, the rumblings for war didn’t become audible until later that summer, just before Bush made his case for war to the United Nations (UN) Security Council in September 2002.
In the lead-up to the Summit, a small group of anti-war activists, most of them socialists who had been active in the anti-globalization movement, began to make the case for a pivot to anti-war organizing, anticipating a full-scale invasion of Iraq in the year ahead. As part of the week of protests during the Summit, they organized and promoted a meeting in Calgary to discuss the impact of sanctions on Iraq and the threat of a coming war. The meeting attracted about 75 people, including rank-and-file trade unionists from across Canada, and concluded by agreeing to a series of modest but coordinated anti-sanctions and anti-war actions in the following weeks.
The involvement of trade unionists in this initiative was critical: it established in the early days of the movement a meaningful link to labour and oriented anti-war activists to the broader working class. That link helped activists sink roots in a number of trade union locals that, as months passed, drew more and more workers into anti-war activity and pushed their union leaders to take anti-war stances. And that orientation to ordinary working people helped activists avoid falling into the trap of only engaging other activists, a common mistake on the left. In order to attract the participation of workers, activists had to organize in an accessible and inclusive manner. With this in mind, many of the small local anti-war groups that were established across Canada in the wake of the G20 Summit developed bases of unity and crafted demands that allowed handfuls of people to grow into large and representative city-wide coalitions.
While the primary focus of these coalitions was stopping the war in Iraq, they also raised two other critical demands that attempted to resist and transform a difficult political climate, and to create an open and welcoming space for anyone who opposed the war. One of these demands was to oppose Islamophobia, anti-Arab bigotry, and all forms of racism. In the wake of 9/11, Muslims had been the target of state-led surveillance and profiling, as well as random racist attacks. Activists knew that they had to oppose these attacks anywhere they happened, and to show unconditional solidarity to the broader Muslim community. In one of the first anti-war demonstrations that happened in New York City just days after 9/11, activists raised two important slogans—“Islam is not the enemy” and “War is not the answer”—which helped situate anti-racism at the heart of what would grow into an anti-war movement.
The other demand was to defend civil liberties, which also had an anti-racist component. Racialized communities were disproportionately targeted in the crackdown on civil liberties that followed 9/11 and that became entrenched in so-called “anti-terror” legislation. More critically, these coalitions literally enacted this demand in the course of mobilizing large-scale actions. The more the movements mobilized, the more they literally took up space in the streets and restored a sense of normalcy to the practice of public dissent.
Organizing as labour
A consequence of the involvement of trade unionists in these coalitions and other local anti-war initiatives was the development of labour-led or labour-focused anti-war groups, which took on the task of co-ordinating anti-war activity inside the labour movement, as well as raising its profile outside of it.
One early example of this was Trade Unionists Against the War (TUAW), a Toronto-based coalition made up of labour leaders and rank-and-file activists from a number of unions and across sectors. TUAC created a space for trade unionists to organize as labour within the wider movement, regardless of whether the unions to which they belonged had taken a formal position against the war, and to develop strategies to build anti-war sentiment within the labour movement itself. TUAC members shared resources, such as sample motions that could be submitted to union locals or labour federations, and planned interventions at labour conventions, where these motions would be debated and voted on. As the wider anti-war movement grew stronger, it gave confidence to union members to push their unions to take a stance against the war. In turn, as the labour movement became more outspoken on Iraq, it gave confidence to activists in the wider movement to continue organizing.
Local activity, mass actions
By the fall of 2002, more and more constituencies were getting involved in the anti-war movement: students, people of faith, cultural associations, community organizations, artists, political activists, unaffiliated individuals, and so on. In many instances, they would either organize among themselves or in coalition with others. Sometimes they did both. These smaller groups would then usually affiliate to the bigger, city-wide coalitions, which were beginning to coordinate mass actions and provided the movement with opportunities to show its growing strength. The mass actions were only possible, however, because of the sustained local activity of the smaller groups, which organized from week to week and month to month, in between the big demonstrations. They were the roots that fed the entire movement.
Trade unionists also played a critical role in helping many of these groups develop: by sharing skills from the labour movement with activists who had less experience organizing, by providing meeting space in union offices or halls, and by securing union donations to pay for the costs of organizing. Sometimes the presence of just one trade unionist in a local group could make all the difference, allowing disparate groups of individuals to tap into well-developed networks of labour activists and readily available organizing resources. At the same time, many of these trade unionists learned a lot from the new layer of activists who were flooding into activity, and helped transmit their skills, insights, and energy to the rest of the labour movement. In other words, the anti-war movement learned from labour and labour learned from the anti-war movement.
As these groups continued to grow and coordinate, their momentum was becoming more obvious. One of the earliest pan-Canadian days of action against the war on Iraq took place on the weekend of November 19 to 20, 2002 and was significant for a few reasons.
First, although the total number of cities in which demonstrations took place was only about a dozen, it nevertheless represented the emergence of an increasingly organized (if somewhat informal), pan-Canadian anti-war network, which connected the leading anti-war organizers in the biggest urban centres across the country. Within the next two years, much of this network would eventually join the Canadian Peace Alliance (CPA), completely transforming it in the process. Until then, the CPA had been a largely inactive coalition whose mandate had been to focus on nuclear disarmament in the 1980s and 90s, but in the wake of the Iraq War, it would become the largest umbrella peace organization in English Canada and the leading force in the pan-Canadian anti-war movement.
Second, the emergence of a pan-Canadian network represented much more than a mechanism to coordinate common dates for pan-Canadian protests. Critically, it showed that a similar method of organizing was beginning to emerge among all the city-wide coalitions, as well as a shared political understanding of Canada’s role in the War on Terror. This led to the development of common slogans that anticipated potential fault-lines in the movement.
For the November 2002 day of action, for example, the main demand from city to city was “Don’t attack Iraq!”—the same slogan that was widespread in the international movement. But organizers in Canada were worried about what would happen if the UN endorsed an invasion: how many supporters might abandon the movement if a war was technically legal? At the time, sections of the New Democratic Party (NDP) were only opposing the war on the basis that it might violate international law, which opened up the possibility that they would support it as long as the UN sanctioned it. And UN support was still a very real possibility, as US allies, including Canada, speculated about the terms on which they’d support a war. Anticipating the divisions that such an outcome would likely create, organizers modified the slogan to “With or without the UN, don’t attack Iraq!”
Third, the number of demonstrators in each city represented a significant increase from all the previous demonstrations. What was usually in the hundreds was now in the thousands: momentum was starting to show. The composition of the demonstrators was also significant: in addition to organized trade union delegations, sections of the Muslim and Arab communities were visibly present, as were ordinary people who were joining a protest for the very first time—some of them as entire families. Both the number and composition of the demonstrators signalled that the movement was on the cusp of a major breakthrough, and that its approach was beginning to tap into the growing anti-war sentiment across the country that had not yet found an organized expression.
That sections of the Muslim and Arab communities were visibly present—in community-led delegations—was especially important, given the racist and Islamophobic climate that was fuelling the drive to war. It also spoke to the necessity of including anti-racist demands at the heart of the mobilizations, to push back against the climate and to make the demonstrations as open and inclusive as possible. This sometimes required an additional accommodation: for example, scheduling the start time of the demonstrations later in the afternoons so that observant Muslims could attend mid-day prayers, and then travel from their mosques in organized delegations to join the protests afterwards.
Finally, the profile of the organized labour movement in the protests was also significant. In almost every city, well-known labour leaders from the local Labour Council, the provincial federation of labour, and/or national union bodies (including the Canadian Labour Congress) were included among the speakers. This had a number of effects: it built the confidence of demonstrators when they heard the official representatives of organized labour announce their support for the anti-war movement. In turn, those same leaders got a real sense of the breadth and depth of anti-war opposition in the wider public, building their confidence (and, in some cases, putting pressure on them) to expand their support for the movement.
The next article in this series looks at the historic protests of February 15, 2003 and their impact.
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