World Beyond War is a vital force in the global anti-war struggle, helping organize campaigns against military bases, the arms trade, and imperialist trade shows. Canadian Dimension spoke with Rachel Small, the Canada Organizer for World Beyond War, about the Canadian government’s escalating funding for the military, recent direct actions against weapons manufacturers, the relationship between anti-war and climate justice struggles, and the upcoming global #NoWar2022 conference.
Canadian Dimension (CD): Canada just announced another $5 billion in military spending to modernize NORAD, on top of the billions allocated in recent budgets along with new fighter jets and warships. What does this spending say about Canada’s current position and priorities in the world and why should it be opposed?
Rachel Small (RS): This recent announcement about the additional spending to modernize NORAD is just one more thing on top of a huge ongoing increase in Canadian military spending. A lot of that has been really marked over the past few months. But looking slightly further back, since 2014 Canadian military spending has increased by 70 percent. Last year, for example, Canada spent 15 times more on the military than on the environment and climate change, to put this spending a bit in perspective. Trudeau may speak a lot more about his initiatives towards addressing climate change but when you look at where the money is going the real priorities are clear.
Of course, Defence Minister Anita Anand recently announced that the spending will increase by another 70 percent over the next five years. One thing that is interesting with this new promised spending for NORAD is that people will defend these types of military spending increases while talking about defending “Canadian independence” and “having our own foreign policy,” and don’t necessarily realize that NORAD is essentially about the complete integration of Canada’s military, foreign policy, and “security” with United States.
Many of us in Canadian anti-war movements have been involved over the past few years in a lengthy cross-Canada campaign to stop Canada from buying 88 new fighter jets. What people will often say in defence of that program is “we need to be independent, we need to have an independent foreign policy from the United States.” When in fact we can’t even fly these complex bomber jets without relying on a military battle management infrastructure reaching into space that we will be wholly dependent on the US military to operate. Canada would essentially act as just another squadron or two of the US Air Force. This is really about a complete intertwining of our military and foreign policy with the United States.
Something that’s important to talk about here is also the broader picture of what we’re up against, which is a wildly powerful weapons industry. I think many people may not realize that Canada is becoming one of the world’s top arms dealers. So on one hand we’re investing in and buying wildly expensive new weapons systems, and then we’re also producing and exporting billions in weapons. We’re a major weapons manufacturer and we’re the second biggest weapons supplier to the whole Middle East region.
And these weapons companies don’t just respond to government foreign policy. It’s often the other way around: they actively shape it. The many hundreds of arms industry lobbyists who are currently chomping at the bit over these new announcements are constantly lobbying on Parliament Hill, not just for new military contracts but to actually shape what Canada’s foreign policy looks like, to fit this incredibly expensive equipment that they’re selling.
I think we should also note that a lot of what we’re reading about these new purchases and plans, not to mention NATO in general or the war in Ukraine, is shaped by the Canadian Forces’ public relations machine, which is literally the largest PR machine in the country. They have over 600 full-time PR staff. This is the moment they have been waiting for, for years, to push for what they want. And they want infinitely increasing military spending. It’s no secret.
They are gunning hard for Canada to buy these 88 new war planes that are not defensive weapons: literally their only purpose is to drop bombs. They want to buy new warships and Canada’s first-ever armed drones. And when they spend these hundreds of billions on these weapons, that’s making a commitment to use them, right? Just like when we build pipelines: that entrenches a future of fossil fuel extraction and climate crisis. These decisions that Canada is making—like to purchase 88 new Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets—is entrenching a foreign policy for Canada based on a commitment to wage war with war planes for decades to come. We’re up against a lot here in opposing these purchases.
CD: The Russian invasion of Ukraine is in many ways the moment that a lot of these industries and interests have been waiting for, like with the “Arctic security” discourse being used to justify further military spending. How have things changed in that respect and how is what is happening in Ukraine being used by these interests?
RS: The first thing to say is the same conflicts around the world that have been top of the news lately—and many that haven’t—that have brought sheer misery to millions of people have brought record profits to arms manufacturers this year. We’re talking about the biggest war profiteers in the world who have made record-breaking billions this year. These executives and companies are the only people who are “winning” any of these wars.
I’m talking about the war in Ukraine, which has already forced more than six million refugees to flee their homes this year, but I’m also talking about the war in Yemen that’s gone on for more than seven years and killed over 400,000 civilians. I’m talking about what’s happening in Palestine, where at least 15 kids have been killed in the West Bank since the start of this year—and that’s just the children. There are many more conflicts that we’re not always hearing about in the news. But all of them have brought just a windfall to these weapons companies.
There’s really no harder time to be anti-imperialist than when our governments, the West, is beating the drums of war. It’s very hard right now to challenge the propaganda that is legitimizing these wars: this frenzy of nationalism and patriotism.
I think that now is when it is especially crucial for the left to refuse to think in black and white, to fit the narratives the media tells us are the only options. We need to condemn the Russian state’s horrible military violence without advocating for NATO to escalate. To push for a ceasefire instead of a no-fly zone. We need to be anti-imperialist, to oppose war, to support those facing war’s violence without also being nationalist, and without ever allying with or making excuses for fascists. We know that “our side” cannot be expressed by the flag of a state, of any state, but is based on an internationalism, a global solidarity of people united to oppose violence. Almost anything that you say right now other than “yes, let’s send more weapons so that more people can use more weapons” gets you called a “Putin puppet” or any number of worse things than that.
But I am seeing more and more people seeing through what we’re being told are the only ways to stop the violence. Last week, a giant NATO summit was held in Madrid and people opposed it with incredible resistance on the ground there. And right now people are also protesting NATO all across Canada, demanding an end to the war, and refusing to align solidarity with Ukrainians who are facing a brutal Russian invasion with the need to spend billions more on weapons to fuel a costly arms race. There are anti-NATO protests in 13 Canadian cities and counting this week, which I think is incredible.
CD: You recently participated in a really big and courageous action at Canada’s Global Defence & Security Trade Show (CANSEC) in Ottawa. How did that action came to be and why was is it important to intervene in this kind of arms fair?
RS: At the start of June, we gathered hundreds strong to block access to CANSEC—which is North America’s largest arms show—organized alongside many other groups and allies in the Ottawa area and beyond. We were really organizing in solidarity with those being killed, displaced, and harmed by the weapons that were being peddled and sold at CANSEC. As I mentioned before, we were opposing the world’s biggest war profiteers: the people gathered at CANSEC are the people who have made a fortune off of the wars and conflicts around the world where these weapons are being used, and they have the blood of so many on their hands.
We really made it impossible for anyone to get in without directly confronting the violence and bloodshed that they’re not only complicit in but profiting off of. We were able to jam up the traffic getting into the convention and create huge delays for the event to start and for Anand to give her opening address. It was at 7 am, far out from the city centre, in the pouring rain, the day before the Ontario election and still hundreds of people showed up to really stand up directly to some of the most powerful and richest people in the world.
CD: There was a really aggressive police response to the CANSEC action. What’s the relationship between police and military violence? Why do both need to be confronted?
RS: It was very clear that the police there were defending what they felt was their space and their buddies. It’s primarily a military weapons show but police are also major clients of CANSEC and buy a lot of the equipment being sold and hawked there. So in a lot of ways it was indeed their space.
At a broader level, I would say that the institutions of policing and military are always deeply connected. The first and primary form of warfare for Canada is colonization. When it historically became harder for the Canadian state to pursue colonization through militarized means, that war has continued almost as effectively through police violence. There isn’t even a clear-cut separation in Canada between the police and the military in terms of intelligence, surveillance, and what equipment is used. These violent state institutions are constantly working together closely.
I think we can look right now in particular at the ways that those taking a stand at the climate frontlines across Canada, especially Indigenous people, are being regularly attacked and surveilled not only by the police but by the Canadian military. I think it’s never been more clear the way that militarized police forces in cities across the country are enacting terrible violence, especially against racialized communities. It’s important to note that many of these police forces literally receive military equipment donated from the military. Where it’s not donated, they’re purchasing military-style equipment, they’re getting and giving military training, they’re learning military tactics. Canadian police often even go abroad in military operations as part of military exchanges or other programs. Not to mention that the RCMP was founded in the late 1800s as a federal military police force, and its military culture has remained a central aspect of it. Globally we’re working on several campaigns right now to demilitarize police.
World Beyond War itself is an abolitionist project. So we see ourselves absolutely as a sibling movement to other abolitionist movements, like movements to abolish the police and prisons. I think all of these movements are about really building a future beyond state violence and coercive state forces. War does not come from some innate human desire to kill each other: it’s a social invention perpetuated by governments and institutions because they directly benefit from it. We believe that like other social inventions built to benefit certain groups of people, like slavery, it can and it will be abolished. I think we have to nurture a really strong ongoing alliance with other abolitionist movements.
BREAKING: Activists block access to the opening of #CANSEC2022 in Ottawa, North America’s largest weapons & ‘defense’ fair. “These war profiteers have raked in record profits from the conflicts that have brought death & misery to millions this year.” pic.twitter.com/0qsST5YPue— World BEYOND War Canada (@WBWCanada) June 1, 2022
CD: World Beyond War and other groups like Labour Against the Arms Trade have done really courageous direct actions. I also think of Palestine Action in the UK, which recently achieved another huge win with their second permanent shutdown of an Elbit site through incredible sustained direct action. What lessons can we draw from these kinds of international efforts?
RS: Absolutely, it’s so inspiring to see what the Shut Elbit Down folks are doing. It’s wonderful. We think that a really key point of focus for our movements and anti-war organizing in Canada needs to be looking at what is happening here that is supporting the violence that we see on the ground, sometimes on the other side of the world. Often, we look at those being harmed at the frontline of wars and the connections are obscured between how that violence begins often enough in our cities, in our towns, in our spaces here.
So we have been working with allies to really focus on what can direct action and on the ground organizing against the war machine here look like? When you look into it, you realize that, for example, the billions of dollars in LAVs—essentially small tanks—that are being sold to Saudi Arabia, weapons that are continuing the war in Yemen, are made in London, Ontario, and are being transported in my case almost right by my house on the highway in Toronto. When you start to see concretely the ways that our communities, labour, workers are directly involved in this arms trade you also see incredible opportunities for resistance.
For example, we have come together with folks to directly block trucks and rail lines shipping LAVs on route to Saudi Arabia. We’ve painted LAV tank tracks on the buildings that MPs who have approved these purchases work in. Wherever we can, we directly block the flow of these weapons in solidarity with the people on the ground in Yemen we work with, but also making these invisible relationships visible.
A few months ago, we dropped a 40-foot banner from Chrystia Freeland’s office building that said “blood on your hands” to highlight what these sanitized political decisions that come out in these fancy press conferences actually translate to on the ground. It was part of a coordinated #CanadaStopArmingSaudi day of action marking the seven-year anniversary of the war in Yemen that saw incredible actions across the country, most carried out with local Yemeni communities. Luckily, the anti-war movement has just so many decades of examples of people doing incredible action—at nuclear weapons facilities, at arms manufacturers, on the frontlines of violent conflict—to directly place their bodies on the line. We have a lot to draw on. I should also say that behind all of these direct actions is the very unglamorous work of people doing research, spending untold hours in front of spreadsheets and combing internet databases to get the information that then lets us be in front of those trucks with the tanks.
CD: How does militarism relate to the climate crisis. Why should climate justice activists be opposed to war and imperialism?
RS: Right now, across movements in Canada, there is a bit of an increasing awareness around some of these connections between climate justice movements and anti-war movements which is really exciting.
Firstly, we should just say the Canadian military is just an outrageous emitter of greenhouse gases. It’s by far the largest source of all government emissions and conveniently it’s exempted from all of Canada’s national greenhouse gas reduction targets. So Trudeau will make any number of announcements about the targets for emissions and how we’re on our way to meeting them and it conveniently excludes the federal government’s biggest emitter.
Beyond that, if you look deeper, there’s the devastating extraction of materials for war machines. Everything that’s being used on the ground in a warzone started at, for example, a rare earth element mine or a uranium mine. There’s the toxic mine waste that’s produced at those sites, plus the terrible destruction of ecological systems caused by war initiatives themselves. At a very basic level, the military is just incredibly ecologically destructive.
But also, we’ve seen how the Canadian military is used to attack those who are taking a stand at the climate frontlines within Turtle Island but also all around the world. In many cases, Canadian militarism globally doesn’t necessarily look like Canadian troops on the ground but it looks like weapons, funding, diplomatic support for militarization in defence of Canadian resource extraction projects. In Latin America, it’s extremely notable the ways that Canadian militarism is mobilized to “securitize” Canadian mines and in some cases sets up entire militarized zones of countries to protect those mines. That’s also what Canadian militarism looks like.
For climate movements to succeed, we need to get beyond just talking about military emissions but also ways that the Canadian military is used to suppress dissent, to defend the fossil fuel industry at all costs, and the ways that Canada is investing in a militarization of its borders. A recent report from the Transnational Institute found that Canada spent an average of $1.9 billion a year on the militarization of its borders while only contributing less than $150 million a year on climate financing to mitigate the impacts of climate change driving the forced migration in the first place.
It’s clear what the state’s prioritization is in terms of militarizing borders to keep migrants out versus tackling the crisis that’s forcing people to flee from their homes in the first place. All of this, of course, while weapons cross borders effortlessly but people are not able to.
CD: The global No War conference is coming up. Why is this conference happening and, relatedly, why is it important that we take a global approach to our struggles?
RS: I’m really excited about this conference: #NoWar2022. The theme this year is resistance and regeneration. Frankly, it seemed like a time when we needed to really not just lean into hope as an abstract idea but the way that Mariame Kaba talks about it of “hope as hard work, hope as a discipline.” So we’re really focusing on not just what resisting the military-industrial complex and war machine looks like but how we also build the world that we need and recognize the incredible organizing happening all around us that’s actually already doing that.
For example, we’re partnering with folks in Sinjajevina in Montenegro who have this incredible on the ground struggle to block a new NATO military training ground. We’re digging into both how do you stop and shut down military bases but also how have people around the world then converted those sites to use them for peaceful means, for sovereign means, for Indigenous land reclamation. We’re looking at how you both demilitarize the police and implement alternative community-centred models of protecting your community. We’re going to hear about examples from Zapatista communities, for example, that have kicked out state policing for many years. How do you both challenge mainstream media bias and propaganda but also create new institutions? Folks from The Breach will be presenting on that as a new exciting media initiative that started within the past year.
I think that it will be really exciting in that way, to actually hear from the people who are building alternatives that we can lean on and grow. We switched, like many other people, to an online conference a couple of years ago at the start of the pandemic. We were very upset to do that because to bring people together, to be able to have direct actions together, was a core part of how we organized in the past. But like so many other groups, we were blown away that people joined live online from more than 30 different countries around the world. So it truly became a gathering of international solidarity.
When we’re talking about opposing these incredibly powerful institutions, the military industrial complex, they get together and they bring their people and resources together from around the world to strategize on how they grow Lockheed Martin’s profits, how they export their weapons everywhere, and it does feel very powerful as an anti-war movement to be able to come together in our own ways. The opening session for this year’s conference features one of our board members who’s calling in from Kiev in Ukraine. Last year, people spoke from Sanaa in Yemen and we could hear bombs falling around them, which is terrifying but also really powerful to come together in this way and cut through some of the media bullshit and hear directly from each other.
CD: Any final thoughts?
RS: There’s a George Monbiot quote I’ve been thinking a lot about lately in terms of how we counter media spin and unthink some of the common sense we’ve been told in the media about how we protect ourselves. He wrote recently: “If ever there were a time to reassess the genuine threats to our security and separate them from the self-interested aims of the weapons industry, this is it.” I think that’s true.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books) and Drinking Up the Revolution (Repeater Books). You can follow him on Twitter @james_m_wilt.