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Winning social justice victories means bringing power to the table

Canadian PoliticsSocial Movements

Activists mobilize to prohibit nuclear weapons, October 22, 2020. Photo by Aude Catimel/ICAN.

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
―Frederick Douglass

To win any social justice victory of import you will invariably ruffle some feathers. The individuals who dominate Canada’s main nuclear disarmament organizations don’t appear to understand that.

Last week, Canada joined the United States, Israel, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau in voting against a resolution calling on Israel to “renounce possession of nuclear weapons” and sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). 153 countries backed the call. Beyond isolating Canada against the world, opposition to this resolution contradicts the Trudeau government’s recent claim that its “commitment to the NPT has been unwavering.”

During the same session it voted against Israel joining the NPT, Canada opposed the 130 states calling on countries to support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Six weeks ago, the Trudeau government voted against another resolution backing the TPNW.

The Trudeau government has long been hostile to the initiative. Canada was one of 38 states to vote against holding the 2017 UN Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, Leading Towards their Total Elimination (123 voted in favour). Trudeau then refused to send a representative to the TPNW negotiating meeting, which two-thirds of all countries attended. The prime minister went so far as to call the anti-nuclear initiative “useless.” Since then his government has refused to join the nearly 90 countries that have already signed the treaty.

On December 7, 130 countries reaffirmed their support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, with the notable exception of Canada. Image courtesy the United Nations.

At the same time, the Trudeau government has reinforced Canada’s ties to the nuclear-armed NATO alliance. Canada participates in the NATO Nuclear Planning Group and contributes personnel and financial support to NATO’s Nuclear Policy Directorate. Nuclear weapons are officially “a core component of the alliance’s overall capabilities.”

Amidst the Trudeau government’s pro-nuclear policies, prominent disarmament campaigners have criticized me for challenging the Liberals’ position. After publishing an article titled “The hypocrisy of the Liberals’ nuclear policy” regarding Liberal MP Hedy Fry’s last minute withdrawal from a webinar on Canada’s refusal to sign the UN Nuclear Ban Treaty, a leading anti-nuclear campaigner emailed me. He didn’t send congratulations on breaking into the corporate daily The Province, but rather called my piece an “ad hominem attack.” After listing Fry’s purported anti-nuclear weapons achievements, he wrote:

She cares deeply about the nuclear weapons issue, has for decades, and is a friend and ally in the global campaign to advance nuclear disarmament. So too, Canada’s new Ambassador to the United Nations, H. E. Bob Rae, whom you also attacked quite brutally I thought, in an earlier piece. Besides being patently unfair to these individuals, how does this serve our shared cause? I would urge anyone who thinks that we can win the hearts and minds of decision makers or decision influencers by beating them publicly and very personally with a metaphorical bat, to please reconsider. These are good people who deserve better. And we need all the help we can get.


Two months ago, another mainstay in peace circles called my response to former Conservative MP Douglas Roche’s praise of Bob Rae an “ugly attack against our own.” In an article I published on my personal blog titled “Antiwar forces need to challenge Trudeau government, not praise it” I criticized a column Roche published extolling Canada’s new ambassador to the UN. Rae, of course, is directly responsible for Canada’s votes against the TPNW and Israel joining the NPT (not to mention a slew of anti-Palestinian votes).

In criticizing Roche’s piece I wrote, “the movement is far too focused on insider lobbying” at the expense of “social movement mobilization.” At some point in a successful social justice campaign, of course, backroom lobbying and selective praise of government officials can be useful—but not when it’s taking pro-NATO positions and opposing nuclear disarmament resolutions.

The anti-nuclear movement should not feel any responsibility to defend Liberal officials. It certainly doesn’t require government flatterers. Quite the opposite. It should whip up anti-government sentiment and highlight the Trudeau government’s rank hypocrisy on nuclear arms. While they claim to support nuclear abolition, an “international rules-based order” and a “feminist foreign policy,” they are opposing a widely endorsed UN Nuclear Ban Treaty that directly advances these stated principles.

Winning social justice victories isn’t about making nice with the powerful. Rather, it requires bringing some power to the table. Fortunately for the anti-nuclear movement its latent power is a broadly supportive public. To turn that into policy, activists need to rile up public opinion and channel it politically. If that upsets some important people that’s a reflection of their priorities, not our tactics.

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.

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