By Yohannes Edemariam
“Scientists tell us that the world of nature is so small and interdependent that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rainforest can generate a violent storm on the other side of the Earth … Today, we realize, perhaps more than ever, that the world of human activity also has its own Butterfly Effect — for better or for worse.” This is what United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan told Philip Guerevitch of The New Yorker last week.
And, for better or for worse, activists from Ryerson and many other universities in Canada are flapping their wings, trying to effect winds of change in a world that seems to be on collision course to a war in Iraq.
The peace movement at Ryerson has been growing steadily over the last few months. In mid-November RyeSAC passed a controversial motion to officially oppose any military action against Iraq.
Joyce Thian is a second-year journalism student at Ryerson. She is a member of the Ryerson Activist Coalition, a RyeSAC affiliate group that has been in the forefront of the anti-war movement on campus.
She says that although the number of people who actually come out to rallies is still relatively small, she is encouraged by the number of students she has seen wearing the anti-war buttons that have been circulated by RyeSAC.
“I think [the movement] is going to make a difference,” she says. “If you sit back and don’t do anything that’s definitely not going to make a difference — you have to put yourself out there.”
In late January, Students Against Sanctions and War on Iraq (SASWI) held an anti-war conference at the University of Toronto. At the conference, the coalition of students from Toronto campuses committed to mobilizing Canadian students and organizing a number of anti-war activities, such as petitions and protests.
On March 5, at the south-east corner of Yonge and Dundas Streets, three to four hundred students from Ryerson, the University of Toronto, and York University joined high school students, labour activists and other peace advocates, to protest a possible U.S.- led war against Iraq.
Holding banners and plaques, they chanted, “No more war! No More war!”
An emcee with a megaphone then led them in a call and response: “When I say ‘war’, you say ‘no’!”
“War?,” he yelled — “No!” screamed the crowd.
Earlier that day two student protesters were arrested at York University after they set up a roadblock. RyeSAC president-elect, and current Vice-President Education Ken Marciniec immediately sent out an e-mail on the Ryerson anti-war list-serve urging everyone to go to the protest and show solidarity with the two arrested students. The protest on Yonge Street went smoothly and without such incidents.
The gathering was part of the Pan-Canadian Day of the Student Strike and Action, organized by SASWI. The protest was part of an internationally-coordinated effort by students that included post secondary campuses in Brazil, Greece, France, Spain and the U.S., among others.
Armed with a megaphone and a quiet but confident voice, Ryerson student Lara Museitif was the master of ceremonies for the large crowd. In the frigid winter weather, she read a supportive letter from recently-elected NDP leader Jack Layton, and introduced speakers from groups such as the Canadian Union of Public Workers (CUPE) and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). The small crowd roared in appreciation at every chance.
Wearing a red scarf and a blue winter jacket, Museitif addressed the crowd. “I am against the war for strictly humanitarian reasons,” she said. “We don’t want millions of people dying.”
Denise Hammond is the community service coordinator for RyeSAC and a member of SASWI.
Standing in the cold, and in the thick of the small but colourful crowd she said, “I think we have already sent a strong message.”
Later the students marched to Nathan Phillips Square, where they laid down on the ice together in the shape of a large peace sign. The photo and an accompanying story were printed in the Globe and Mail the next day.
RyeSAC’s anti-war activities are mostly limited to organizing protests, putting up posters and lobbying government officials using petitions. There are already plans for students to protest outside the U.S. consulate on the first day of bombing.
That day may not be far off, as increasingly it is being indicated that the United States will attack with or without the approval of the UN Security Council. On Friday the UN ChiefWeapon’s Inspector Hans Blix told the council that there were signs of Iraqi compliance and that the inspectors needed more time to clarify the situation.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, U.S. President George W. Bush used a prime-time television-news conference to prepare the U.S. for war, making it clear that his administration were not relying on UN approval.
“When it comes to our security, we really don’t need anybody’s permission,” he said.
And while the U.S. says that they are leaving Saddam Hussein time to fully disarm, the path to a peaceful resolution appears to be closing off. U.S. and British soldiers have already maneuverered to within easy striking distance of Iraq. Last week, a CBC correspondent described the scene at the Iraqi border in Kuwait as “a sea of Black Hawk attack helicopters.”
Anti-war sentiments have been growing world-wide; on Feb. 15 millions of people marched through the streets of the world’s major cities (and some smaller ones) in protest against the potential war. Not since Vietnam has there been such public outcry against a U.S.-led war.
After its anti-war conference in late January, SASWI agreed to endorse a plan to boycott classes on the first two days of the war and hold campus-wide educational sessions to inform students and encourage debate.
But such debates might include people with sympathetic views with the Bush administration’s position on Iraq. Many might argue that after Sept. 11 America has the right to protect itself from a dictator who has repeatedly declared himself an enemy of the United States.
Hussein is accused of some brutal atrocities including using biological weapons on his own people — in total more than a million Iraqis are said to have died at the hands of his regime.
This past weekend a Ryerson student sent an e-mail attachment to Ken Marciniec and other members of the school community. The attachment — which the student prefaced by writing “worth some thought” — was an unsigned opinion piece by an Iraqi exile published in the Christian Science Monitor.
The writer quotes the secretary-general of the Arab League as saying a U.S. Invasion of Iraq would “open the gates of hell” — to which he replies, “Good, because we would like to be let out.”
Marciniec immediately wrote back stating that he and many other protesters and activists had repeatedly lobbied government officials to pay more attention to violations of human rights around the world, but that their pleas often received no response.
“Hussein is a brutal dictator!” he wrote, but then posed some questions: “Will the ‘smart bombs’ distinguish between those responsible for the torture state and those who suffer from it?”
In an issue closer to home, some Ryerson students who oppose the anti-war motion passed by RyeSAC argue that the student association should devote its limited resources to dealing with issues that directly affect students.
Marciniec thinks that a war would affect students and says that the government should be spending money to improve education in Canada instead of in support of war.
“We’ve got cracked tiles in the hallways [and] we’ve got leaky roofs all over the place,” he said. “That goes to show that as Canadians we have a political decision to make — do we want to fight a war … or do we want to fund education.”
“We can get six Halifax-class frigates for $3.4 billion, or we could eliminate tuition fees at public colleges and universities throughout Canada,” he said.
Maj.-Gen. Bufourd Blount, commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Division stationed in Kuwait, told The Washington Post last week that the bombs could start falling any day now.
We’ve got everything we need,” he said. “We’re just waiting on the word, the decision from the president.”
At the protest on Yonge Street Emily Sadowski, a part-time student at the University of Toronto stood on the outskirts of the crowd.
“To me, peace is intuitive,” she said, explaining the simple reason she decided to participate in the rally. “I am not just going to go on with my day-to-day life.”