Building — and rebuilding — an anti-war movement in Ontario

On Saturday, demonstrators concerned about conflict with Iran will gather in Toronto and around the world. What lessons can they take from those who protested the Iraq War?
By Brennan Doherty - Published on Jan 24, 2020
Peace protesters gather near the United States consulate in Toronto in March 2003. (Patti Gower/CP)

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On a chilly February morning in 2003, James Clark stood at the very edge of what was then called Dundas Square. Millions of others gathered in hundreds of cities around the world on that day with a simple message: don’t attack Iraq.

The then-25-year-old anti-war activist and recent arrival to Toronto expected that the local crowd might fill the downtown square. Over the spring and summer of 2002, he’d seen protests grow from several hundred to thousands of demonstrators opposed to a United States-led invasion of Iraq. Within an hour, he was pressed against the Eaton Centre’s wall as an 80,000-strong crowd surged into Dundas Square and filled nearby streets. “We’d never seen so many people,” Clark recalls.

Fast forward 17 years. Once again, the possibility of a Middle Eastern war involving Western superpowers looms large. Early in the morning on January 3, an American drone strike killed Iranian Major-General Qassam Suleimani as he was leaving Baghdad’s international airport with an entourage. The sudden attack prompted a retaliatory missile bombardment of U.S. bases in Iraq, the destruction of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iran, and heated rhetoric from Washington and Tehran officials.

Protests quickly followed. In Toronto, demonstrators led by Iranian-Canadian “No War With Iran” organizer Saman Tabasinejad gathered in front of the U.S. consulate less than 48 hours after the drone strike to denounce the possibility of war. Not only does Canada have a large Iranian diaspora population, she says, but it remains tightly connected with the United States: “Any kind of military conflict will drag Canada into it.”

Clark was among those in the crowd. While a new generation of organizers is behind a nascent anti-Iran war opposition movement, many people who opposed the 2003 Iraq War are also regrouping. “A lot of these old relationships that were built over the past 10 years still exist, even though they haven’t been that active,” Clark says. “Those networks are actually coming together to try to renew themselves now in the event that there is going to be a sustained threat against Iran.”

One of the greatest lessons Clark and other anti-Iraq War protesters learned in 2003 was the sheer power of a mass movement: the ability to bring together tens of thousands of demonstrators who might not agree with one another outside a rally but who could unite behind a single cause. “Work on building coalitions — which is hard,” says the Reverend Maggie Helwig, an Anglican pastor who started working in the peace and human-rights movement in the ’80s. "Sometimes, it means compromising, and we’re not good at compromising, because we have high ideals — and so we should. But if you want to build a broad coalition, everyone along the spectrum has to be prepared to make some compromises to hold that together.” 

Clark and Helwig also learned about the important of allowing demonstrators to protest in whatever ways they feel comfortable — not just in the streets, but also through calls to their politicians and acts of civil disobedience. “Make room for all the possible ways of being politically active,” Helwig says.

The marchers who hit the streets in Toronto and across the province — Ajax, Barrie, Guelph, Hamilton, London — came from all backgrounds. Some had protested against the Vietnam War in the ’60s and ’70s. One man the Star spoke to at the time had demonstrated against the possibility of American cruise-missile testing within Canada’s borders during the ’80s. Fifteen-year-old Nofa Khadduri, who described the horrors of war to the packed crowd, had survived the 1991 bombing of her native Baghdad during the First Gulf War. Linda Eggers, an Oakville woman, admitted that she and her husband weren’t the protesting type. But, she told the Star, “This is too big an issue to ignore.”

However, in that case, international debate over a potential U.S. invasion of Iraq had been raging for months. Ron Stagg, a professor of history at Ryerson University, says the situation with Iran appears to be different. After a tense few weeks, open hostilities between Iran and the U.S. have since died down. The looming threat of a full-blown war could draw more people into the streets, but the current situation may fizzle. “If no more happens, it’s not going to go very far,” he says. “To build a movement, you need a continuing cause.”

But for Tabasinejad and others in the Iranian-Canadian community, the ongoing effects of economic sanctions and the potential for war are constant. Her whole extended family still lives in the country. And, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hasn’t shown support for war with Iran, she says that anti-war protesters should keep demonstrating to ensure that Canada won’t change its policy tack in the future. She also believes the Canadian government should re-establish formal diplomatic relations with Iran — a step she says would improve dialogue between the countries. On top of organizing Toronto’s first protest, she’s also started an email campaign targeting Members of Parliament, including the leaders of all federal parties.

Mass movements such as the one that filled Dundas Square in 2003 are tricky to organize, but Tabasinejad believes that it’s possible to build coalitions between different interest groups. Connecting a war with Iran to other concerns — over climate change, human rights, even a stable Middle Eastern oil economy — could be one way of doing that, she says: “I think the ground is really fertile to have these conversations and bring people together.”

Demonstrators concerned about a conflict with Iran will assemble in Toronto and around the world on Saturday, just as millions did for 2003’s Iraq protests. Tabasinejad recalls that frigid day in 2003. Her mother brought her to the Dundas Square demonstration when she was 10. But Tabasinejad says there’s a key difference between Iraq War politics in 2003 and today’s situation: “I think people aren’t as susceptible to being hoodwinked again.”

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