Activists say people are turning the news off - so they hit the road to connect in person

Peace Caravan members (clockwise from top left): Jase Tanner, Ellen Woodsworth, Donna Henningson, Sara Kirschenbaum, Wolseley host Marianne Cerilli, and Masa Kateb shared stories to get people engaged. Photo Terese Taylor
Peace Caravan members (clockwise from top left): Jase Tanner, Ellen Woodsworth, Donna Henningson, Sara Kirschenbaum, Wolseley host Marianne Cerilli, and Masa Kateb shared stories to get people engaged. Photo Terese Taylor

“That personal contact we have just talking to people, it’s like sparks,” Ellen Woodsworth says. “People are turning off their TVs, turning off their radios … people are exhausted.”

Woodsworth is a member of the On to Ottawa Peace Caravan crew who were hosted overnight in Wolseley on June 2nd. They were returning from a cross country journey, starting in Vancouver and greeted in several Canadian cities, to advocate for peace and share the stories they gathered along the way.

Clearly identified by Sara Kirschenbaum’s peace car, adorned with one dot for every nuclear weapon on the globe, the caravan arrived at each stop to speak, sing, create and spark the fire needed to engage people.

On May 28th, the group, along with an Eastern contingent that left from Halifax, descended on Ottawa, to take their message to parliament and protest the CANSEC military arms fair, which is held in the capitol every year.

When they stopped in the neighbourhood on their return to Vancouver, they were accompanied by two former journalists, Masa Kateb and Donna Hessingson, and Jase Tanner, a documentary film maker with Independent Jewish Voices Canada. Throughout their journey, they were joined by other artists, activists and Indigenous leaders.

Woodsworth, who is co-chair of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), said the increase in the Canadian defence budget was cause for alarm. She felt that the announcement came “without much of a ripple” and that something should be done to raise awareness.

“They announced an increase to the federal defense budget to $50 billion, and what WILPF decided is that we were going to do a peace caravan,” Woodsworth says. “We use our slogans of ‘demilitarize, decarbonize and decolonize’ to talk to people about how the federal budget could be used to address people’s social needs for affordable housing, health care, education, and to support refugees and immigrants.” Woodsworth thought that when people understand how dangerous jet emissions and arms manufacturing is for the climate crisis and how defense funding takes away from real gains in reconciliation, they would begin to make important connections between peacemaking and social and environmental equality.

Donna Henningson has been studying how people can learn to end conflict and acted as the group's resident musician. “We talked about the importance of art to engage people. It’s not just talking,” Henningson says. “Whether you’re singing ‘peace train' or ‘blowing in the wind’, [music] engages people on a whole other level.”

In Ottawa, the caravan hosted workshops to develop concrete recommendations on what can be done to build a better world.

Masa Kateb, a former journalist and Syrian refugee who acted as the group’s social media coordinator, says that one of the biggest contributions of these workshops was a focus on language. “If you’re saying it’s a defense budget, then that assumes you are in danger and you are defending,” Kateb says. “But, if you call things what they are and if everyone shifts their language, we’ll call it a war budget.”

“We had different voices at the table. We worked with what we had, and what people could generously give,” says Woodsworth. “It’s just amazing how many voices we’ve been able to give a space for and learn from.”

Patrick Harney, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Leaf