A proposal that the Canadian government establish a Department of Peace has taken a step forward. Alex Atamanenko, the NDP Member of Parliament for BC Southern Interior, tabled a Private Member’s Bill in the House of Commons on November 30 that could, if adopted, lead to the creation of such a department complete with its own minister at the cabinet table. The bill, which was co-seconded by Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, is a slightly amended version of one introduced into the last parliament by retired NDP MP, Bill Siksay.
A group of about 15 members of the Ottawa branch of the Canadian Department of Peace Initiative (CDPI) watched from the House of Commons gallery as Atamanenko spoke briefly to his bill as it was introduced. He said: “The notion that there can be peace in the world may be a utopian ideal but each generation owes it to the next to make a dedicated attempt to get as close to it as humanly possible.”
Architecture of peace
Bill Bhaneja of Ottawa, a CDPI co-founder, told me in an interview “the bill addresses the problem of conflict and security in 21st century at national level. It provides the response through a new architecture of peace that will work towards developing a culture of peace and non-violent resolution of conflicts.”
The bill’s five pillars – and by extension the role of any future department of peace and its minister — would be to promote: nuclear disarmament, peace education, human and economic rights, prevention of violence and killings at home and abroad, and also the establishment of a Civilian Peace Service (CPS). It would be comprised of between 500 to 1000 peace professionals trained in the prevention, mediation and reconciliation of conflicts at home and abroad.
Peace initiative backers
There are 13 CDPI chapters in Canadian cities and about 25 prominent Canadians, including former cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy and Conservative MP Douglas Roche, endorse the CDPI’s efforts. There is organizational endorsement from about 20 church and other civil society groups, including the Anglican and United Churches, Mennonites, Unitarians, as well as groups such as Physicians for Global Survival, the Council of Canadians and the World Federalist Movement – Canada.
Internationally, there are movements for departments of peace in 30 countries and Nepal and Costa Rica have named ministers of peace and reconstruction.
Despite this support and these efforts, the Department of Peace initiative has gained only a modest ripple of media attention. In the Canadian government’s list of priorities, it likely won’t compete in importance with buying F-35 fighter jets, dismantling the long gun registry or even using the Grey Cup game to promote militarism.
Most people in politics, particularly in government, consider themselves hard-headed realists and probably they think there is something soft and weak in talking about peace building.
Former Conservative MP Douglas Roche has heard all of those arguments. Roche also served as Canada’s UN Ambassador for Disarmament and later sat as an independent in the Senate.
In an interview that I did with him in 2008, he said: “There is this idea that anyone who works in these areas is a fuzzy-headed idealist and the other people are realists, and you are marginalized for your ostensible idealism. I would argue that the realists are actually those people who recognize that the status quo is not sustainable and are looking for answers to the overarching issues of our time. These are the nuclear arms race and climate change.”
Where to from here?
Bhaneja, who is also co-chair of the Ottawa CDPI, said in an interview that he hopes re-introduction of the Department of Peace bill “will at the least provide an opportunity for a good debate in the House on the topic of conflict prevention and culture of peace as a policy priority.”
In the longer term, he hopes that the government will see the merit of the bill and adopt it as part of overhauling the machinery of government. “We feel that our prime minister needs advice in the cabinet for non-violent alternatives focussed on prevention of violence and killings rather than relying on military intervention as the main tool in a crisis situation.”
Private Member’s Bills are rarely passed into law, but it does happen on occasion. At other times, they can, with enough public support, lead to a government’s adopting a good idea as its own. Green Party leader Elizabeth May said at a November 30 news conference prior to the introduction of Department of Peace bill that even talking about it requires a “shift in consciousness.” She may well be right.