Does Canada need a Department of Peace?

I was one of the speakers at a public consultation held in Ottawa on November 3 by the Canadian Department of Peace Initiative (CDPI). The group has been advocating for federal government legislation to create a Canadian Department of Peace. The rationale is that the Department of National Defence is devoted to planning and prosecuting war but that we should also have a Department of Peace with a minister at the cabinet table. His or her department would be responsible for providing a peace lens in all federal government activities as well as promoting peace building activities in Canada and abroad.

Prominent supporters

Alex Atamanenko, Department of Peace Bill

The proposal is supported by a short list of prominent Canadians. They include: former Foreign Affairs Ministers Lloyd Axworthy (Liberal) and Flora Macdonald (Progressive Conservative); former NDP leader Alexa McDonough; and former independent Senator Douglas Roche. Alex Atamanenko, an NDP MP has a Private Members Bill before Parliament that would establish a peace department. He, along representatives of his party, the Liberals and Greens attended and spoke at a CDPI public forum on November 2.

On the down side, there was no one there from the governing party and the organizers admit that Conservatives have not been open to their message. There were no television cameras or newspaper reporters on hand either. Interest in a Department of Peace, it seems, is a marginal idea in Ottawa’s political and media establishment.

Warrior Nation

Professor Ian McKay, co-author with Kingston writer Jamie Swift of the recent book Warrior Nation, spoke on Nov. 2. He said there is a concerted effort to change Canada’s image from that of peaceable kingdom to one of a warrior nation. The campaign is led by the Prime Minister and involves the Defence Department, as well as think tanks, defence journals, sympathetic journalists and academics and the conservative blogosphere. McKay says they “push the war button at every turn” and are also busily revising history so that every past military event is cast as a great victory.

Senator Douglas Roche

The “warriors” dismiss the idea of a peace department and see it as misguided, woolly-headed or even dangerous. That kind of thinking annoys former Senator Douglas Roche, Canada’s former disarmament ambassador to the United Nations. Roche talked about it in an interview with me in 2008: “There is this idea,” he said, “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.”

A Big Idea

The Department of Peace is a Big Idea, one that has promise and faces challenges. Those opposed to control Parliament, its budget, and the government’s vast public relations capacity. In immediate legislative terms, using a Private Members Bill is almost certainly doomed to failure. Few such bills get to the floor of the House of Commons for debate and even fewer ever pass. They exist mostly for individual MPs to put forward matters they consider important, and their main potential value is in raising an issue for debate.

Legislative change, such as that of creating a new department of government, will have to come from the centre and likely that won’t happen while the Conservatives are in power. But governments come and go and this one will too. The Department of Peace advocates may convince a future government of the wisdom of their idea.

There have been other big ideas that seemed impossible to achieve but which were later accomplished. One was having women attain the vote in early years of the 20th century. Another was winning public health care in the 1960s. These ideas appear natural and inevitable when seen from today’s vantage point but it took many years of advocacy and movement building to win them.

The big idea here is that peace and peacemaking are vastly superior to war and conflict but what practical steps can be taken to move in that direction? One is a Department of Peace with its own minister and budget to promote peace and peace building. According to Atamanenko’s Private Members Bill, one department goal would be to create a Canadian Civilian Peace Service. That would involve having professionally trained citizens available to participate in Canada and abroad to help prevent conflict and violence. The department would also establish a Civilian Peace Service Cadet program.

Reservoir of support

There is a reservoir of support and some precedent for these kinds of initiatives in Canada. For example, there is already a group called Civilian Peace Service Canada, which is training and certifying peace professionals. In more general terms, Canada’s image as a middle- power and honest broker in international affairs is one that many people cherish despite recent efforts to diminish that legacy. Lester Pearson, Lloyd Axworthy, and Romeo Dallaire are deeply respected individuals for their work in diplomacy and peace making.

Political culture

Canada has a political culture in which it is at least possible to advocate for peace. It is significant that the NDP, Liberal and Green parties have all shown some measure of support for the peace department proposal. The official opposition has dozens of young MPs from Quebec who may well be open to the proposal and their party has a chance of forming the next government. Quebecers have shown themselves to be a pacific group of people. Public opinion there was the main reason why federal politicians resisted pressure to have Canada participate in the war against Iraq.

Intellectual support

Ideas are important. The warriors have political scientists, revisionist historians and think tanks that support their projects – and they often receive Department of Defence money to do so. But there is intellectual support for peace as well among a significant group of Canadian academics and thinkers.

Faith and volunteerism

There is support for peace and peace making among faith communities in Canada – in the traditional and smaller peace churches, but also in the United, Anglican and mainline Protestant churches. Catholics have been less vocal but the late Pope John Paul II repeatedly denounced the war against Iraq as offending the church’s just war theology.

Canadians have a strong tradition of volunteerism in organizations such as CUSO, Frontier College, Katimavik, the Mennonite Central committee and other groups. There are Christian Peacemaker Teams that train volunteers and send them to serve in conflict zones, including the West Bank, Colombia and some First Nations reserves in Canada. The role they play resembles that of the Canadian Civilian Peace Service proposed by the Department of Peace initiative.

On side with Einstein

Albert Einstein who once said: “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” Those behind the department of peace Initiative would agree and they are attempting to provide one practical response to that sentiment.


11 thoughts on “Does Canada need a Department of Peace?

Add yours

  1. Thank you so much again Dennis for participating in our events and providing your thoughtful insights and commentary. There is a long way to go but the journey is getting easier.


  2. While I am broadly sympathetic to the idea, I am not sure whether adding another department to the current proliferation is necessarily the best way to proceed. The pursuit of peace(through disarmament, conflict resolution, peace promotion, peacekeeping, etc.) should be a central overarching goal of Canada’s overall international policy That means that peace objectives should cut across all departments with international policy responsibilities–DFAIT, CIDA and DND–not just be confined to one. Let’s see what a “whole of government” approach to peace promotion would entail first.


    1. Thanks Gerald. I should tell other readers that you worked for years with the House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee. I would be pleased to hear what others have to say about the proposal for a Department of Peace.


  3. Thanks Dennis. It is important to continue to advocate and promote the idea of a Department of Peace. We are about to observe the sacrifices of men and women during past conflicts. After one such conflict (WWI & Russian Revolution) my parents were convinced that much evil and very little good resulted from war and its fall-out. Hostility which is germinated in war doesn’t disappear when the war is over, and distrust, discord, and conflict often continue for generations after wars. This should be a natural for persons who were raised in a Mennonite background, but even among this group there are some who would not support the idea of a Department of Peace.

    If you like, Dennis, I would like to forward your speech to a number of my own family members out west.

    Jake Enns


  4. There will be no Department of Peace in Canada so long as we have a Prime Minister and Privy Council that love war. Anyone who has had at least one eye open in recent years cannot deny the federal Conservatives’ attempt to re-cast Canada’s role on the international stage from that of peace-keeper to that of war-maker.

    It is indeed nauseating to watch Ottawa’s twisted attempts to glorify violence and death at everything from hockey games to minting the coinage of the realm. No war or battle is too small for these modern-day Romans to celebrate the shedding of blood. They are the champions of the ‘culture of death.’

    Perhaps a preliminary first step for those seeking a Department of Peace would be to send missionaries to Ottawa and attempt to evangelize the federal cabinet. No one who has ‘heard the call of Jesus’ in their lives can take any pleasure from the music of war drums or experience joy at the prospect of armed conflict.

    If the peace-makers are “blessed” and “the children of God,” one wonders what Jesus would have to say about the war-makers. It was a war-maker, after all, who slaughtered the innocents and forced Jesus and his family to flee in Egypt as political refugees. Of course, were Jesus and the Holy Family fleeing for their lives as Palestinians today, they would not be allowed into Canada because we have ‘closed our doors’ to such people. In closing those doors, we have turned out back on Jesus.

    Conservatives like to talk about family values while making war. Many great tyrants have talked this way and it leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth to realize our fathers and grandfathers went to Europe in the last century to stop a war-maker who had sold his country on the glory of armed conflict. One only hopes our government’s love affair with violence will end before they bring the consequences of such an obscene obsession down upon all of us.


  5. Thank you Dennis for reporting on this meeting. It will help to keep the yearning for a more peaceful world alive.

    I quite agree with Dallas’s contribution.– How can Canadians say that our country is a Christian nation, when our present P.M Harper is promoting patriotism and a greater military role for Canada?–Your readers may recall that when our P.M. was interviewed by a journalist some months ago. the P.M.was asked if he saw Canada as a nation of peacekeepers. His reply was that he would rather see our soldiers “as courageous warriors”!

    Is it a dream of mine that someday,–soon– Canada would have an established Department of Peace, with enough funding so that we could have available at all times a small group of charismatic, well informed peace makers, who offer their expertise to leaders where armed violence could break out, to prevent the horrors of war.


  6. Dennis, Thank you for so clearly responding to the concept and emphasizing the idea of a Department of Peace. It is frightening to know that in reality this government has a “Department of War.” I am forwarding your blog.


  7. Thanks so much, Dennis. We must not be silenced by the bullying actions by those temporarily in power, when the powerful leaders abuse the policies and laws and that were created by our Parliament and our society. Our silence will be interpreted as agreement or at least acquescence of such abusive actions by the powerful! “Die Stille im Land” or the “Quiete in the land” is the wrong approach when one deals with bullies. We must prevent war, by speaking out and voting out those who insist on abusing the power and trust temporarily granted to them by the citizens!

    Jake Enns


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