Appreciation, rejuvenation and commitment at Voice of Women’s peace leadership camp

VOW camp

Voice of Women peace leadership camp

It was 1960 when Toronto Star reporter Lotta Dempsey asked, “Where is the voice of women?” Canadian women were concerned about the threat of nuclear war and the health threats posed by radiation released in nuclear testing.  Hundreds of women responded to Dempsey’s columns and soon The Voice of Women was established to work for world peace.

It is August 16, 2014. Eighteen women ranging in age from their 20s to 70s gather in a tiny jewel of a church, St. Andrew’s by the Lake, nestled among trees on Toronto’s Centre Island.  We are united by our desire to increase peace in our world, and are attending the Voice of Women’s weekend Peace Leadership Camp.

Janis’s inspiring session on the origin and history of the Voice of Women reminds us that we are rather different from our VOW predecessors of 54 years ago.   There is not a veiled hat, pair of gloves or Kitten sweater set in sight.  We did not seek permission from our partners to attend, nor do we fear ridicule for daring to presume that we have the right and in fact duty to participate in world affairs. We are white and brown, Jewish, Christian, pagan and atheist, abled and disabled.

We recognize that the state of the world is different too from that of 1960.  Nuclear weapons are still a threat, but public pressure has reduced their numbers. Equality has not been achieved, but recognition of women’s rights, civil rights and gay rights have brought power to the people. Globalization has created serious challenges but also more awareness of human rights abuses which we try to correct by using social media.

Lee, who is trained in conflict transformation and third-party non-violent intervention, leads us in community building exercises, and after each one, we discuss its purpose and effectiveness.  Soon we know each other’s names and have shared transformative moments in our lives with two or more others.

We discuss why WWI is not to be celebrated.  It was pointless, bloody, almost tore our country apart, and in fact led to WWII.

I present the background to PeaceQuest, explain our four streams and thank the national Voice of Women for becoming program partners.

One group tackles the questions, “Is there such a thing as a just war?”  “Can a nation resist invasion without resorting to warfare?”  Catherine asks if we who live in safety can really answer that question.  There is a lot of expertise in the group, including Lee, and Chris, a Christian Peacemaker, who has worked with the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick to support the peaceful blockade to prevent shale gas exploration. Ultimately, the group rejects the concept of a “just war” and concludes that those in conflict zones must seek ways to learn how to recognize and defuse propaganda, see and experience the humanity of the enemy, and develop creative methods of non-violent resistance.

Two women discuss the many reasons why war is attractive is to youth, including the promises of comradeship, adventure, risk, challenge, service to others, and the opportunity to discover new places and cultures. They think about how these desires might be met in productive, moral ways, without the violence, destruction, post-traumatic stress and the tragedy of war.  Sarah, a performer with an M.A. in popular culture, proposes the development of live action role play games, designed not only to provide a sense of adventure, risk and challenge, but also to reveal the ugliness of war and the opportunity to feel what it is like to be oppressed.  I make a note to connect her with Philippe, a young man in Ottawa who has a similar idea.  Others in the larger group propose more moral alternatives to war.  Someone suggests community re-enactments of the Christmas Truce. Amber suggests orienteering, and the creation of new sports. Several others suggest training for disaster relief.

A third group engages in a lively discussion about the causes of peace: those qualities in a community, a nation and ultimately the world, which serve to create the conditions for peace to flourish. Their list of more than 2 dozen attributes is distilled to one: Awakening. They propose many concrete ideas about how to awaken ourselves and others. These include promoting peace education, delegitimizing war, cultivating a culture of peace, working for environmental and food security and encouraging a closer relationship with Mother Earth.

Sandra leads a workshop on creative civil disobedience, providing examples from her resistance to the occupation of Gaza.  Her personal story is powerful. She was a proud Zionist until she moved to Israel 12 years ago and visited Gaza and Palestine for the first time. She told us how the fishermen in Gaza have been denied access to fish, the farmers to their land, and how the taxes collected by Israel have been withheld, causing the shutdown of public services. A former high school teacher is surviving by selling bread she bakes on a roadside. The cruel treatment of Palestinian citizens by Israelis shocked her, challenging not only her sense of justice but her identity as a Jew. Since then, Sandra has devoted herself to pro-Palestinian activism, threatening her relationships with family members and causing her daughters to fear for her safety. She organized a sit in at the Israeli embassy in Ottawa.  She moved to Greece in order to purchase a boat and hire a captain to transport essential supplies to Gaza.  Sandra was arrested in Greece and the boat was stopped in Turkish waters. Her next plan to build a boat in Gaza ended when deliberate Israeli shelling destroyed the vessel just before it was completed.  Despite setbacks, arrests and family estrangement, Sandra is steadfast in her commitment to the people of Gaza.  Her smile is bright and her confidence undiminished as she tells us of her plans to participate in another flotilla to challenge the embargo and to twin Gaza with a Canadian port city.

Lyn gives a workshop on climate change and its threat to peace and global stability.  She shows the video Conflict and Climate Change and asks pairs to discuss how they feel and what questions arise.  She emphasises the need to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 and asks participants to imagine themselves 36 years hence. If climate change measures are not enacted, coastal cities will be erased by flooding, climate refugees will overwhelm borders and services, and acidification will cause our oceans to die. Germany provides a model through its adoption of solar and wind power while Canada stands in the way of an international climate treaty.  Canadian Members of Parliament have been asked to support a three point plan involving an end to fossil fuel subsidies, increased costs for carbon emissions, and the development of a renewable energy plan.  117 MPs have already signed; we are urged go to to see if our MP has signed.

Janis speaks of Voice of Women’s successful delegations and resolutions at the United Nations. Lee leads the participants in exercises exploring the concept of ‘belonging’ and provides examples of creativity in peacemaking.

Between sessions, we enjoy delicious vegetarian meals, walk, sing, listen to others perform and follow Margaret in dance.

The weekend has come to an end.  We leave with hugs, email addresses and promises to stay in touch.  I feel gratified that so many are interested in PeaceQuest and I know that we will be working on some projects together: perhaps the International Day of Peace, The Christmas Truce or Rededication of the Peace Tower.  Maybe someone will even be inspired to create PeaceQuest Toronto!!