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GOOD TROUBLE: Why we occupied and shut down the Foreign Affairs Building

Mar 5, 2021

This story is an old story, of a growing military budget in Canada, escalated during the Harper years and continuing with Trudeau. This story is one example of prioritising jobs at General Dynamics over the lives of human beings now living in the direst humanitarian disaster on the planet. And we have contributed to that.

Dateline:  Ottawa, CANSEC 2016: These sorts of things take some planning:  who has what experience that can be deployed in this situation? who is going out to the arms bazaar itself at the CFB airport?  who is willing to risk this action? who of us is willing to be arrested?

While some of us were decoys with a plausible story to present at the front desk of the Lester B. Pearson Building in Ottawa and documenters of the action—others came in behind us, a large banner folded inside a briefcase. They were greeted with suspicion and made as if to leave, making their way instead over to a waiting area in the Foreign Affairs lobby. They then unfurled our message:  NO MORE ARMS DEALS—aimed at Canada’s deadly co-operation with Saudi Arabia in its destruction of Yemen and its people.

My role was to document, film the action and responses to it from and visitors alike. Still in my role, I ‘interviewed’ them loudly. amplifying the message. The minister was out of the country but his staff came to talk to them while the RCMP sorted out the complicitous; the curious asked questions. Requests to move the action outside were refused.

David Milne (left), of the three arrested, was given an additional ticket for ‘creating a disturbance’. He shouted, no doubt; he vented our rage.  Then he wept.  To read David’s testimony in court some months later, please go here

A Mixed Blessing                        

September 22, 2016

“The charges are dismissed” said the Justice of the Peace as I stood before her. The officer who laid them did not show up in court.  It was the events of May 25 in the lobby of the Global Affairs Building which led to my presence in this court.

On that morning two colleagues and I entered the lobby and held up a banner ‘NO MORE ARMS DEALS’.  Other supporters entered the lobby and acted as peaceful witnesses. We remained there between 10:30 a.m. and 12:10 p.m. when six or more Ottawa police officers warned us to leave, then forcibly removed us in handcuffs. Contrary to the Crown Attorney’s comment we behaved peacefully throughout, though I shouted loudly several times “Look over here! No more arms deals!” as security guards directed passers-by away from our protest. For my transgression I received an extra ticket, “Engage in prohibited activity on premises” along with “Fail to leave premises when directed” which my two friends also received.

When the JP announced her decision I felt relief: this ordeal had ended. Though a minor matter in the law and regarding the consequences, it had weighed on my mind for months. On the drive home, however, feelings of disappointment niggled at me.

When I stood in the lobby with the banner and shouted my outrage I knew I might face criminal charges. I accepted that risk. I had discerned and prayed about these actions. Though I shouted out for a few minutes, after a while I stopped. It had exhausted me. I began to sing “Peace, salaam, shalom”, a simple, beautiful round. Within seconds I felt tears streaming down my cheeks and my voice choked up. In that moment I felt the rightness of our actions.

It is hard to write such words but how else do I describe my experience. Months later, however, it seemed that it was all being dismissed.  I ask you now to read the testimony I could not give in court on September 19.

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The Testimony I Could Not Give

 “Your Worship, I plead not guilty to trespassing and creating a disturbance. I acknowledge that officers of the RCMP and the Ottawa police did warn me on three or more occasions between 10:30 a.m. and noon of May 25 that I should leave the lobby of the building with our banner ‘NO MORE ARMS DEALS’ or face criminal charges. An RCMP officer later warned me that if I continued to shout while in the lobby I would be charged with creating a disturbance. Nonetheless, I assert that my actions and those of my colleagues were necessary to warn government officials and the Canadian public that continuing the traffic in arms recklessly endangers Canadian citizens and brings harm to foreign citizens. Arms sales do not protect us; they endanger us.

We chose this location, Your Worship, because this is where arms manufacturers and the representatives of foreign governments meet with Canadian government officials to make arms deals. We needed to bring our protest to the centre rather than remain on the periphery.

I will illustrate with a few, brief examples that arms sales threaten the safety of Canadian citizens. Canada is a major exporter of arms to foreign countries. Our chief customer is the military of the United States of America, receiving about two thirds of our total production (reference Project Ploughshares).  The current federal government approved the sale of Canadian made Light Armoured Vehicles to the despotic, brutal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against the counsel of Human Rights Watch and other NGOs. These agencies have concluded that the Saudi regime will use the Canadian made LAV’s against dissidents who oppose the Saudi autocracy.

In the fall of 2002, 2003, and 2004 I spent time in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams, a peace and justice organization. We documented the effects of the invasion and the occupation.

In 2002 I toured the wrecked Amariyah bomb shelter where four hundred or so Iraqi women, children and old people died on February 13, 1991, when American fighter bombers dropped a percussion bomb and an incendiary bomb onto the shelter. I viewed the photos and markers left by surviving family members.

In 2003 teammates and I took testimonies from Iraqis about the house raids conducted by coalition troops. In one case American soldiers attacked and entered the home of the Talib family in Baghdad thinking it belonged to a family named Aziz, whose father they suspected of participating in the growing insurgency. Despite the error, they imprisoned for up to four months the Talib family’s three young adult sons in blistering heat and primitive camp conditions.

I also met eight-year-old Mohammed, his sisters, and their uncle and guardian at a farm house between the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. American forces had attacked their home in late August of 2003. Their mother died of wounds and their father and an older brother disappeared into prison camps, never to be heard from again. Whether they participated in attacks on American troops or not, the alleged reason for the raid, the men did not receive due process in any recognized court system and innocent people suffered grievously.

These stories are but a few of many I heard, Your Honour.

I called out, loudly and repeatedly because the security guards diverted passersby from our protest. We sought to give them information re our concerns.

It disturbs me greatly that Canadians have prospered by selling weapons used to inflict such terror and suffering on other people. I cannot help but think that at some future time Mohammed or any of his countrymen, or people in other Middle Eastern countries might plan to pay us back in kind. I fear for the safety of my own grandchildren. We must realize that our safety and well-being is connected to the safety and well-being of people everywhere.

About two hundred years ago, Your Worship, the western world began to curb and outlaw slavery. Now we must ban the manufacture and sale of weapons. You have the opportunity of taking one small step toward this noble end by finding us not guilty on legal as well as moral grounds.

Thank you for considering this testimony.

David Milne