Wartime Red-Baiting and Repression Paved the Way for Canada’s Current Suppression of Antiwar Voices

The historical repression of antiwar voices in Canada, often twinned with red-baiting, is resurfacing amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. This resurgence marks a worrying return to stifling dissent and limiting freedom of expression.

Police detain a protester during a demonstration against the Vietnam War in Toronto, Canada, May 10, 1970. (Jeff Goode / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Between June 19 and July 8, former Green Party of Canada leadership candidate Dimitri Lascaris conducted a twelve-city speaking tour across the country titled “Making Peace With Russia, One Handshake at a Time.” The tour was organized by the Canada-wide Peace and Justice Network and followed Lascaris’s visit to Russia in April.

Multiple parties have made concerted efforts to disrupt or cancel the scheduled events through a range of tactics. These included inundating venues with phone calls and mass emails, organizing in-person protests, and engaging in deceptive practices such as mass booking of Eventbrite tickets with no intention of attending. Despite the requirement of advanced tickets and the last-minute disclosure of event locations, five venues succumbed to the pressure and canceled their bookings.

In the case of the first Toronto event, it was relocated to a nearby pub due to the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) revoking the room booking at the eleventh hour. OPSEU cited the receipt of threatening messages as the reason for its decision.

The Winnipeg event faced last-minute venue cancelations twice, prompting a relocation to a third location. In Montreal, the talk took place in a park due to the venue owner overriding their manager under external pressure. Similarly, in Halifax, an alternative venue had to be secured as the office of the Saint Mary’s University president intervened and denied the space originally planned for the event.

Several public figures, such as Marcus Kolga and Jean-Christophe Boucher, as well as the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) and Ukrainian Embassy, targeted the different venues. Boucher has received millions of dollars in research funding from the Canadian military, and Kolga’s think-tank initiative was launched with US government funding. They openly called for shutting down talks about ending the horrors in Ukraine and diminishing the risk of nuclear catastrophe. These campaigns — all attempts to shut down a call for peace — echo the oppressive character of twentieth-century wartime years in Canada.

Finding backup venues and making alternative arrangements is a major burden for small, all-volunteer groups. Despite these hurdles, the events were generally well attended. But the mainstream media and leading cancel-culture critics have largely disregarded both the tour itself and the efforts of those seeking to deplatform it.

The Return of Past Repressions

The coordinated bid to shutter Lascaris’s tour falls on the heels of two Montreal community centers canceling a talk with University of Montreal history professor Samir Saul, Quebec Green Party leader Alex Tyrrell, and myself about Canada’s role in the war. At the start of the year the right-wing UCC launched a concerted lobbying campaign to shut down opposition voices, with the head of that organization openly demanding that the Toronto Public Library cancel a room booking for a June 4 event titled, “The war in Ukraine and how to stop it.”

Mainstream and legacy media have shown minimal interest in the cancel efforts. They have almost entirely ignored Lascaris’s tour, and the majority of establishment critics of cancel culture have chosen to remain silent regarding the most intense attacks on peace organizing witnessed in over half a century.

At the beginning of World War I, Canada’s federal government adopted the War Measures Act, which granted the state sweeping powers to imprison almost anyone considered a security threat. As economist Thorstein Veblen noted in the early part of the twentieth century, warfare, with its “unequivocally” regressive cultural value, “makes for a conservative animus on the part of the populace.”

Hundreds of pacifists and antiwar activists were arrested, while the Industrial Workers of the World and a dozen other revolutionary organizations were banned. Numerous publications were subjected to censorship, and public gatherings conducted in Ukrainian, Russian, Finnish, and other languages, with the exception of church congregations, were prohibited by law.

On a number of occasions veterans attacked the offices and personnel of union and leftist groups. In summer of 1918, labor organizer Ginger Goodwin was killed on Vancouver Island for opposing the war. Earlier that same year, four opponents of conscription were killed by security forces in Quebec City.

Re-Upping On Peacenik Hatreds

During World War II, hundreds of dissidents and communists, including the president of the Canadian Seamen’s Union and the mayor of Montreal, were interned under the War Measures Act. Dozens of organizations and publications were also banned. In the same fashion as during World War I, official censorship was imposed.

During the Korean War, government officials often went to extreme lengths to suppress information domestically. The Canadian Peace Congress chairman James Endicott was bitterly denounced by external minister (and later Canadian prime minister) Lester Pearson, who called his college friend a “red stooge” and “bait on the end of a Red hook.” Pearson even called for individuals to destroy the Peace Congress from the inside. Pearson publicly applauded fifty engineering students who swamped a membership meeting of the University of Toronto Peace Congress branch. He proclaimed, “if more Canadians were to show something of this high-spirited crusading zeal, we would very soon hear little of the Canadian Peace Congress and its works. We would simply take it over.”

Government attacks spurred media and public hostility. A number of venues refused to rent their space to the Peace Congress, and Endicott’s Toronto home was firebombed during a large Peace Congress meeting.

During recent wars in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya, the “conservative animus” unleashed was far less extreme, but it was certainly present. Against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton was dubbed “Taliban Jack” for calling for negotiations. At the same time, sixteen professors from the University of Regina faced strong condemnation from the premier of Saskatchewan and federal MPs. They had called on the university’s president to withdraw from an initiative established by hawkish retired chief of defense staff Rick Hillier. This initiative offered free tuition to the children of deceased soldiers. The professors criticized it, as they believed it was “a glorification of Canadian imperialism in Afghanistan.”

More recently, antiwar sentiment has, for the most part, simply been marginalized. The government and military have actively encouraged martial patriotism while simultaneously attempting to control the flow of information.

Shifting Attitudes Toward Antiwar Dissent

The qualitative shift in respect for antiwar dissent in recent decades marks a political and cultural shift spurred by protests against nuclear weapons and the US war in Vietnam. By the 1980s peace and antinuclear protests attracted mainstream politicians and won substantial gains. In one of the city’s biggest ever demonstrations, Vancouver’s mayor joined one hundred thousand marching for peace and nuclear disarmament on April 27, 1986. Two years later the War Measures Act was repealed.

During the first Iraq War many thousands took to the streets against Canadian involvement. On two different occasions in early 2003 more than one hundred thousand marched in Montreal against Canada joining the invasion of Iraq. Five years later thousands marched to mark the anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq and to call for Canada to withdraw from Afghanistan.

But over the past decade and a half, mass protests against war and militarism have dried up. Antiwar groups have become a shell of their former selves, losing much of the support they received from labor and other progressive organizations. As a result, antiwar and anti-NATO views have been increasingly marginalized within the dominant media and official politics. Over the past eighteen months, NATO critics have been incessantly denigrated as Putin apologists, “campists,” and “tankies” on social media. It is remarkable how the “with us or against us” attitude, which has contributed to the demonization of antiwar voices, persists despite the fact that Canada is not officially engaged in war, and the fighting is geographically distant. Of course, by committing $8 billion (including $1.5 billion in arms), providing intelligence assistance, promoting former Canadian soldiers’ boots-on-the-ground involvement, and expanding military training and dispatching special forces, it is arguable that Canada is effectively at war with Russia.

The scope of recent demonization and cancelation efforts harken back to a more repressive time. Without a concerted response to this spate of repression, the political climate is likely to worsen. If Canada were to formally send troops to Ukraine or if a war breaks out with China, this atmosphere will worsen considerably. Whether one agrees with everything Dimitri Lascaris has to say about the horrors in Ukraine, the bid to shut down his speaking tour should be troubling. It signifies a regression toward a more repressive era, when dissenting voices were suppressed, and freedom of expression was curtailed.