Slide Show of the event | Ottawa |
Date: Sun, 16 Feb 2003 14:46:44 -0400
Subject: Mass Sit-in At Canadian War Dept. February 14, 2003
Mass Sit In Surrounds War Dept. with Power of Love
No one is ever quite the same, Susan Sontag once wrote, when we experience
a rare reprieve from the inhibition on love and trust that society places
on us. It was just such a reprieve that about 150 people lived through as
they spent between 5 and 7 hours exposed to -35 temperatures at a silent
sit-in at the War Dept. in downtown Ottawa on Valentine's Day, February 14.
As we shivered together at the main DND entrance on Mackenzie Bridge--which
we kept closed for almost five hours-- there seemed always a sense that we
were together as a newly formed community of mutual aid and trust, taking
care of each other and watching out for the signs of too much exposure to
The action, organized by Homes not Bombs, was a colourful, deeply moving
expression of love, love of neighbour, love of opponent, love for the
targets and victims of war, love for those who make war and are divided
from the best parts of themselves.
A MESSAGE IS WELL RECEIVED And it was a message that seemed to be taken in
by a good many of our potential opponents. Many in the sky high war dept
spent the morning not working at their desks on war plans, but staring out
their windows, incredulous that scores of people would remain in what one
bystander declared must have been the coldest spot in Ottawa, the concrete
canyon between the War Dept. and the Rideau Shopping Centre. The lines of
Military Police inside the warm building could not help but nod in a kind
of fellowship greeting when we waved at them too.
Even a cynical local radio reporter, who predicted we wouldn't last more
than 20 minutes, seemed to lose her "been there, seen that" attitude as she
reported in every half hour until past noon that, despite the cold, we were
Many inside the Dept. returned peace signs, others gave thumbs-up signals.
There is a photo in the Ottawa Sun of one man high in the building looking
down, his face a combination of concern and compassion as he delivers his
own thumbs up: he appears to be genuinely affected. Like many of the images
we see these anti-war days, the photo has the air of history about it, much
like photos of concerned individuals looking out from the Pentagon windows
in October 1967, when that building was challenged in another expression of
love and resistance to the war against Vietnam. The police and RCMP
liaisons appear to have been caught up in the spirit of morning as well;
they constantly check in for fears that our group might be undergoing
hypothermia and frostbite, and do nothing to stop the 30 minute march
which, though well advertised, has no permit from the city. Although they
are there clearly in the role of "friendly" cops, there to gather
information and help the Ottawa police look good, they are also human
beings who are freezing with us and learning something about the power of
love and relentless persistence.
They are dressed in civilian clothes, and even behave like they are part of
the demo. At one early point, when liaisons from the affinity groups are
called to a meeting on a strategic question, the two officers try and creep
in on the huddle as well. We immediately drop to our knees, explain this is
a prayer vigil, and ask for privacy. They respectfully back away as we
quietly bend our heads in an air of genuflection and discuss the issue.
SOME STILL NEED A CHANGE OF HEART Of course, there are still many who need
a change of heart. One of our number, who was blocking a war dept.
entrance, stopped a colonel, who backed up and charged full force, knocking
the pacifist down. Even the Military Police found this to be completely out
of line, and told the demonstrator that he could press charges if he liked.
The transformative response caught the MPs off guard: the fellow gave them
a statement but said no charges should be laid; rather, he wanted to meet
with the colonel and discuss why the military man felt it was necessary to
bowl him over. The MPs were a bit taken aback, explained that the colonel
was "indisposed," and that perhaps someone would be in touch.
Valentine's Day at the War Dept. was the next step in an escalation of
actions against the war for some. We point out that we have marched in the
streets; we've faxed and e-mailed politicians, we've written letters and
sent them snail-mail, we've written letters to the editor, we've held
teach-ins and sit-ins, we've presented peace zucchinis, we've urged
Canadian soldiers not to fight, we've held citizens weapons inspections at
Canadian manufacturers of weapons of mass human destruction and been
arrested at two of them; we've worked on municipal anti-war resolutions;
we've organized delegations go to Iraq; we've done children's art projects
against the war; we've violated the sanctions by sending medicines and
clothing to the people of Iraq; we've held sick-ins, calling in sick to
work so we can work against war; we've seen public opposition to war grow
to encompass the majority of the Canadian people.
And yet the government of Canada publicly waffles while: Canadian Generals
take part in war planning at U.S. Central Command and 20 of them go to
Qatar to continue those unspeakable plans; almost 1,000 Canadian soldiers
continue to enforce the sanctions; Canada continues to supply the U.S.
military, ranking #46 on the top 100 Pentagon contractors list for 2002;
and veterans of the 1991 war against Iraq continue to die of Gulf War
Syndrome, with no compensation or assistance from their government. Our
conclusion from this has been very clear: the War Dept. needs a change of
heart, and our journey to Ottawa ends at the base of military power in this
country, the massive concrete structure in the nation's capital.
It is a journey that is made from many parts of Ontario and Quebec: Durham,
Kitchener, Hamilton, St. Catharines, Kingston, Brampton, Montreal, Hudson,
POLICE STOP THE KITCHENER BUS The Kitchener bus is barely out of town
before it is stopped by regional police who board the bus, give it a
search, including in the bathroom, and then, without explanation, get off
the bus. They never say what or whom they're looking for; perhaps it's just
a reminder that this will be no ordinary excursion to Ottawa.
The bus from Hamilton, along with its Kitchener and Toronto counterparts,
will watch videos of prior Homes not Bombs actions to give folks a sense of
what things we've done and how we've done then; there is an extensive clip
from the 1999 effort to turn the war dept. into to the housing dept., a
historic action which saw 55 arrests and a civil society built at its
entrance--an apartment with fridges and stove and couches and a bed,
daycare, community garden; clips from the ultimately successful 3-year
campaign to close to Hamilton war show; the attempts to transform
weaponsmaker Diemaco in Kitchener into Lifemaco the community builder; the
Wizard of DREO, when a Cowardly lion, brainless scarecrow and heartless
tinman joined Dorothy and other characters to transform Canada's space
warfare facility in Nepean; and recent weapons inspections at the Northrop
Grumman and Wescam war plants in Rexdale and Burlington, respectively,
which saw 11 inspectors arrested.
It gives folks a sense of their history, of the history they carry when
they too act and make history of their own. It also helps build a sense of
confidence and trust, showing how folks have found powerful nonviolent ways
of confronting lines of riot police and disarming them through persistent
efforts at dialogue and expressions of love.
It is also a reminder of how far we have come; there are only a few
anti-war veterans here who were present during a massive blockade of
External Affairs during Gulf War 1, a similarly brutal day weatherwise when
some 400 people suffered through four hours in -40 temps, roughhousing
courtesy of the RCMP, and some arrests too.
There are many more from the historic 1999 War Dept. gathering in which all
55 arrested on the Mackenzie Bridge were acquitted. That landmark judicial
decision, issued by Judge Fontana, has gone on to be used as a precedent
for other acquittals. Its spirit also seems to have contributed to our
efforts to expand the outer perimeters of dissent which cannot be
criminalized in Ottawa, for in 2003, we close that same bridge almost five
hours, with no arrests.
Indeed, while some feel thankful the police did not arrest us or try to
stop us from getting on and occupying the bridge, it's not necessarily
because the police don't want to take those actions; rather, it's because
they feel they cannot, because of the victory we won through our 1999
effort. One can see then that our choice to exercise our democratic rights,
even if it means being arrested and jailed, ultimately ensures the survival
and, hopefully, expansion of those rights, not just for demonstrators, but
CITY OF OTTAWA THREATENS MASS ARRESTS But we don't know the Ottawa police
will be forced to respect our democratic expression the night before the
action. And so there is a bit of that creative tension in the air as people
pile into the church to the wonderful aroma of big pots of soup, some of
them donated throughout the afternoon, that are warming for dinner.
The air is filled with the sounds of people preparing for a party; a
stranger walking in might not have known that a good many of the people
making beautiful placards and banners were also filling out jail support
sheets in preparation for a spell of incarceration. Through laughter and
song, a large group of people, many meeting for the first time, are
beginning to feel comfortable with each other, and a growing sense of
trust, and love, begins to fill the church hall.
After dinner, we are joined in the church sanctuary by Ottawa residents who
are coming to talk about the action. We embark on a four hour scenario
meeting, a painstakingly detailed community hall that, as one woman pointed
out, is what democracy truly does look like--it takes a long time, and it
can be frustrating at times, but it is vital to try and incorporate and
respect everyone's concerns, whether we are forming a community or
preparing from a confrontation.
The meeting begins with a welcome from Rev. Karen Niven-Wigston of Wesley
United Church, who has done so much in her community to live out the social
justice message of the Gospel and who has done so much to help us be
welcomed in Ottawa at a number of churches. Outside her church, and at
Canadian Martyrs where we also stay, is a huge sign which reads "Swords
into Ploughshares, We are a peace church." These signs too have an air of
history about them.
She is followed by Mary Foster of the Iraq Peace Team, just back 24 hours
earlier from her trip to Iraq. She shares with us a Valentine from a
six-year-old Iraqi boy which she will bring to the war dept. the next am.
Mary then introduces Louise Richard, a former Canadian Forces nurse
deployed to the Gulf in 1991 and now afflicted with Gulf War Syndrome, a
passionate advocate for the rights of disabled vets and a persistent voice
for justice. She speaks of the effects of Depleted uranium not only on vets
but on all the people of Iraq, and pledges her support to the action. We
haven't even dealt with the needs of the 1991 vets, she points out, and
here we are sending a new generation into the line of fire.
We then go through the long process of every possible scenario which might
greet us the next morning. Part of preparing a confrontation, it seems, is
creating a space for accountability, so everyone taking part knows what to
expect from everyone else. If we are prepared for surprises, we won't be
broken up when they happen.
The big issues are whether we feel comfortable with one or two groups
blocking entrances to the war dept,. and then with the concept of silence.
Should we speak to the media, should we break up the silence, should we
stay silent. We break into affinity groups, we do some roleplays to show
what a physical blockade might look like when done in silence. We discuss
how we will respond if police stop out march before the bridge, and whether
we should block the whole bridge or part of it. We set up liaisons from
affinity groups so that we can call a quick meeting if something unexpected
or new arises.
We also agree our only sounds will be moments of "critical whispering" to
address a crisis. But many are adamant: we came because of the power of
silence, and we intend to keep it that way.
The messages from the authorities are mixed. The City of Ottawa faxes us a
three page warning that our march and silent sit-in violate their special
events by law and that swift action will be taken to clear us from the
streets (that's the hope anyway, we joke, for the last thing we need is to
be exposed to hypothermia and frostbite for five hours). We break into
legal support and medical teams, and by midnight most people are asleep on
the church floors. But people still come, driving all night from Hamilton,
Brampton, Peterborough, Montreal, some arriving at 5 am, just in time to
As we rise from a night on the church floor, some reporters come in to
introduce themselves. One states his station's morning DJ, normally not the
most progressive of sorts, has told his listeners that there will be a
major traffic disruption in downtown Ottawa, but that those doing the demo
are peaceful people. They will be inconveniencing you, but you should think
about what they are doing and why and, even if you disagree with them,
respect their commitment. Journalists from a variety of media quietly
express their support as well, and hope we will stay warm.
A SILENT SIT-IN BEGINS The group heads out from Main and Lees on the east
side of the Rideau Canal at 7 am and, without a permit, takes over the
streets and walks up Elgin to the Mackenzie Bridge which abuts the north
side of the War Dept. Police appear unwilling to stop the march, and simply
follow it, blocking cross traffic intersections to keep the march moving
through. When we arrive at the entrance to the War Dept., Mary Foster
speaks poignantly, passionately, of her recent trip to Iraq as part of the
Iraq Peace Team. "I met many of the people who are going to die and who
will have their children killed," she tells us as she holds up her
Valentine, drawn by six-year-old Omer in Baghdad. She says millions of
words have been said about Iraq, but lost in all this media noise are the
voices of the Iraqi people themselves--so perhaps, if we were silent, we
too, and maybe the folks in the war dept. might actually hear them.
Foster closes by reminding us of the unspeakable atrocity of war to explain
why we will be silent, and within seconds, the only remaining sound is the
wind whipping through the area and the chatter of nervous journalists,
dumbfounded that no one is granting them interview requests because our
verbal statement has already been made, and now the statement made by our
silent, determined bodies will have to suffice.
One TV journalist, being followed by a couple of journalism students making
a documentary on the news, complains that "this is TV, for god's sake, what
am I supposed to do? I suppose I can surmise this is an anti-war
demonstration, but how I am supposed to cover this in a visual medium" The
media will not control the message getting out today, we will, and the
reporter's complaint seems pointless, as the visual imagery of the silent
group, including the amazing placards and banners which display our
message, speaks volumes. As does the fact that some 50 of our number are
prepared to be hauled away by morning's end and placed behind bars to stop
After a half hour of silence, a small group moves toward the main entrance
of the War Dept. and stands in the doorways, impeding access. Two lines of
Military Police stand at alert on the inside of the warm building, but take
no action. Ottawa police, in scarce numbers, look on, but take no action.
Eventually, chalk comes out and the hoarding around the front of the
building is decorated with anti-war pleas; body outlines are painted on the
bridge so people in the tower can see images like those likely to be seen
if Baghdad is incinerated by the "shock and awe" strategy planned by
Canada, the U.S. and U.K.
The idea of a warming centre in the Rideau Centre and in OC Transpo
shelters comes to naught as all doors are locked. Everyone from toddlers to
people in their 80s is forced to stay out in the cold for two hours, until
seriously concerned police convince the Rideau Centre to open its
doors--significant security is there to guard the palace of commercialism,
just as the war dept. is there across the street to guard the palaces of
The morning goes on, painfully slow, painfully cold, but if anyone were
asked how they were doing, the response would be the same: this is nothing
compared to what the people of Iraq have faced and continue to face. After
almost three hours of silence, we consense that we need to break our
silence to have a community meeting on the bridge to decide what to do
next. There is a proposal to escalate the blockade of the doors, which has
grown to the Laurier bridge entrance, and one to march on Parliament Hill.
Much discussion ensues, with some choosing the blockade, some choosing the
march, some choosing to return to the church. In the end, the majority of
people choose to walk off the bridge shortly before noon, while a couple of
groups continue blockading entrances until 2 pm.
As we warm up at the church, many sit transfixed before the radio broadcast
of the UN report delivered by Hans Blix and the Security Council's
response. The broadcast refers to our demonstration and the millions
planning to march on the weekend, and there is a sense of hope: we are
contributing to the growing impediments to an escalation of this war. We
discuss our plans to carry on the resistance, at military bases, at the
upcoming CANSEC weapons show in Ottawa, in the courts as our weapons
inspectors go up on numerous charges, and in solidarity with the
disappeared of Canada who are behind bars because of their Arabic and/or
Middle Eastern heritage and Muslim faith.
Folks board their buses for home and catch up on some much needed rest. As
many prepare to join the largest mass gatherings for peace in human history
to take place the next morning, it feels like we are part of a growing
community of resistance which has gone through a challenging patch and
committed itself to going forward, together.
To join upcoming Homes not Bombs actions, contact us at PO Box 73620, 509
St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto, ON M6C 1C0, firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like to contribute to the costs of our all-volunteer organized
action (food, buses, photocopying, etc, for which we took a bit of a bath),
please forward donations to Homes not Bombs at the above address.
(report prepared by Matthew Behrens)
For more information, contact:
Homes not Bombs
PO Box 73620,
509 St. Clair Ave. West,
Toronto, ON M6C 1C0
Images of the rally in Slide Show