By Brent Patterson. Reproduced with permission from Peace Brigades International – Canada.
On March 10, 1982, Don Sellar of Southam News reported on a not-yet-public agreement between Canada and the United States for the testing of a range of weapons in this country. It was a news report that would both prompt an investigation of Sellar by the FBI and spur the peace movement into action. The agreement Sellar reported on included testing by the United States Air Force of the cruise missile in the Northwest Territories and Alberta.
Around that time, Maclean’s magazine reported: “The air-launched missile has generated intense opposition because it is a new weapon designed to carry a nuclear warhead at low altitude to a target 2,400 km away.” By late April 1983, a Peace Camp was established on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to oppose the cruise missile and its testing in Canada.
The following month, May 1983, Trudeau wrote an open letter to Canadians defending the testing. Then on June 14, 1983, the Trudeau government used its majority in the House of Commons to defeat an NDP motion opposing cruise missile testing. And on July 15, 1983, the Liberal government formally announced that it had approved cruise missile testing in Canada starting in January 1984.
As a side note, Trudeau left it to two of his ministers to make the unpopular announcement late on a Friday of a summer weekend and departed from Ottawa that evening with his children, including 11-year-old Justin, for a six-day trip across the Arctic region (where he was greeted by an anti-cruise missile protest).
By late September 1983, Stephanie Coe from the camp and supporter Karen Harrison were able to arrange to have a 10-minute meeting with Trudeau in his Langevin Block office across the street from Parliament Hill. When Coe asked about the cruise missile tests, she recalls Trudeau looked away and quietly said “Oh, the cruise?” He then defended the tests as part of Canada’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
As the camp approached its first anniversary in February 1984, The Peace Calendar described it as a snow-covered tarpaulin with only two Coleman heaters for warmth. That article also noted that NDP MP Doug Anguish gave the campers access to his Parliament Hill office to use the telephone and receive mail.
In March 1984, Maclean’s reported: “On Parliament Hill itself, three hardy protesters have camped out with only sleeping bags and a plastic tent for shelter for almost a year.” In February 1985, the Ottawa Citizen reported that four people were living in a five-metre long tent. That article noted: “Their tent canvas is insulated with layers of aluminum and styrofoam. They use a kerosene lamp for light, gas heaters for warmth, a propane torch for cooking and rely on nearby public washrooms.”
While the camp had been described as ragged and unsightly, camper Jacques Demers said, “We’re not here to be attractive. We’re here to inform the people that, after a nuclear war, it’s not very attractive either.” It wasn’t only the cold that the camp had to deal with. The book ‘Just Dummies’: Cruise Missile Testing in Canada notes: “In mid-June 1983, Canadians learned that either the RCMP or the new covert security force, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, was currently engaged in tapping the telephones of the Cruise Missile Conversion Project.” That book adds, “The other incident that had to be dealt with was that spy [Andrew Moxley] planted by the RCMP in the Parliament Hill peace camp had been exposed.”
By June 1985, Peace Magazine reported: “For over two years, the Ottawa Peace Camp stood on the grounds of Canada’s Parliament Hill. Braving the cold of Ottawa’s winters, the Camp served as a reminder, to MPs and tourists alike, of the peace movement’s opposition to cruise testing, and its commitment to a nuclear weapon-free Canada.”
That article adds, “Within the last few weeks, a concerted police action, backed by the federal Government, saw the Peace Camp physically destroyed, and its weary participants forbidden to continue their long vigil.” It explains that on April 23, 1985, the Public Works minister created a new regulation that forbids sleeping, camping or erecting objects on Parliament Hill.
Eibie Weizfeld, one of the founding members of the camp, commented, “The RCMP stood around like storm troopers while the Public Works crew ripped the tent down.” There were arrests and a second tent was confiscated the next night. A counter-protest against the eviction was organized.
Peace Magazine reported: “Later in the afternoon, after the demonstrators were gone, there were five more arrests when Weizfeld and others tried once more to erect tents and were unceremoniously thrown into waiting paddy wagons.”
The following Monday, the Ottawa Disarmament Coalition set up literature tables each lunch hour. Those were prohibited under the Public Works regulations. At one point, the table was staffed by Members of Parliament, including NDP MP Dan Heap. By May 5, 1985, the decision was made to close the camp due to lack of shelter and physical exhaustion.
In June 1985, Peace Magazine noted: “It appeared that the Government’s strategy of constant, but increasingly low-profile, harassment had succeeded [in shutting down the camp]. What the Government had not counted on, however, was a small group of Quakers who happened to be on the Hill when the Camp closed down. They immediately began a round-the-clock vigil, organizing participants into two hour shifts. After four days, these plans gave way to a less exhausting 8 am to 8 pm daylight vigil.”
“On the first full day of the vigil, a literature table was set up at lunchtime. When the Mounties arrived to confiscate the table, Margaret Dyment and her husband, Paul, held on to it, intending to force the police to arrest them in order to take the table. There must, however, have been orders not to make any arrests, for the table was torn from their hands and purposely broken without an arrest being made.”
Thirty-five years after the closure of the Peace Camp, in some ways a forerunner of the Occupy movement that gained global attention in September 2011, it is remembered for its contribution to building a world beyond war.
Editor’s Note: the tradition of protest camps in Ottawa continues today – see our recent post about the Extinction Rebellion camp here.