Ten years ago today, on March 17th, 2003, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced to Parliament that Canada would not commit troops to the pending invasion of Iraq.
Only months before, in October, the Liberal PM said that Canada would be involved and he would be willing to send Canadian Forces to the battle.
Although there were other factors as well, the reversal is an example of the power of the people and was a definitive victory for Canadian progressives. Hundreds of Thousands of Canadians went to demonstrations opposed to the war. There were massive protests in Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Québec City and Halifax and even demonstrations in smaller communities like my native St.Catharines, Ontario.
Civil Society groups and unions got involved; the Council of Canadians and the United Steelworkers or CAW, for example, played major roles in organizing the opposition.
And so did the NDP. The New Democrats provided the only federalist opposition to the war in the House of Commons. Leader Jack Layton, who was elected that January, made keeping Canada out of Iraq a key leadership issue and, when he won, he identified it as one of his top legislative priorities for the party.
Today, let us reflect on what couple have been but let’s also remember that the people, organized and working together, have the ability to make a difference.
For extra credit, other important lessons to learn from this story are: 1) the “progressive” Liberal Party, which sent Canada to Afghanistan, would have sent the Canadian Armed Forces to Iraq had it not been for the public protests, 2) Stephen Harper called the decision not to get involved “a grave mistake, and 3) the NDP was the only federalist party in opposition to Canada’s involvement in the Iraq War.