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Reminiscences by Kell Antoft

Kell Antoft, O.C., was a navigator in the RCAF stationed in England during the WW II. Later he became Director of the Institute of Public Affairs (Henson College) at Dalhousie University. Here he recounts the experiences of four former airmen in Halifax in the 1980’s, starting the group which is now Veterans Against Nuclear Arms. His appointment as a Member of the Order of Canada rewards his career as an educator and a volunteer for the Cancer Society and the Katimavik Youth Corps.

edited from his remarks at the VANA Banquet, May 26, 1995.

The early eighties were filled with tension and foreboding about the future of our little planet. In the seats of power south of the border, the language of MAD -- mutual assured destruction -- was being replaced by propaganda to sell the strategy of winnable nuclear war, provided that the "good guys" got in the first licks. Remember some of the PR of the era? "Atom bomb shelters in your basement" or, if you couldn't afford the cadillac version: "just dig a hole in your backyard and stock it with canned foods and boiled water". Or about "Peacekeeper" missiles constantly shuttling around on a railway maze in a giant shell game? Or the even more amazing Star Wars program, with laser beams, electronic umbrellas, and outer-space nuclear minefields?

The hysteria fuelling the Cold War could only be compared to the kind of cynical ranting that Berlin used to mobilize the Third Reich into World War II. In 1982, voices of reason, whether in the East or West, were denounced as those of cowards, appeasers, peaceniks, or even traitors.

Those of us who had served in the armed forces during the 1939-45 bloodbath, and had reflected on the experience, could sense an even more disastrous adventure in the making, this time with the added calamity of atomic and hydrogen weaponry. It was to us that Giff issued the challenge: we who had been there could hardly be accused of cowardice, appeasement or of treason. If we spoke out, perhaps we could inject a note of sanity into the debate on where Canada should stand on issues fundamental to human survival. Each of us had turned out for peace rallies, signed petitions and written letters to editors, but we had spoken as ordinary members of society. Perhaps it was time that we abandoned the indulgence of keeping military memories deeply buried.

It started modestly, but earnestly enough. From asking what we as veterans could do, Giff, Hugh Taylor, Lloyd Shaw and I arrived at the idea of an open letter, a letter from veterans pleading for Canada to turn away from a repeat of errors, which this time might mean the end of human existence. So we four each undertook to sound out other veterans: friends, colleagues and distant acquaintances who might join us in putting our convictions on paper.

The response to this initial canvass was a heartening revelation. We were not alone. Many other veterans living in Canada, ranging from the lowest to the highest ranks of military service, men and women, not only from Canadian forces but from those of Britain, the United States and even Germany, signed and helped pay for our original advertisement in the Halifax dailies and subsequently for a full page ad in the Legion magazine. In the process, we struggled for a name to describe what was to become a movement. Initially we settled on VETERANS FOR NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT. At the last moment, to appease a hesitant admiral, we inserted the word "multilateral", to signify we were not taking ideological sides in the Cold War. So we became VETERANS FOR MULTILATERAL NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT, a name that we struggled with for the next two years.

From the start, Giff urged that we remain an informal circle of concerned veterans, that we not get burdened with organization, structure, constitutions and by-laws. I think that we were all enthusiastic about this concept, since we had all had careers that were burdened with organizational tensions, paper trails, and interminable meetings. For a while, we thought that we could find a niche within the Canadian Legion from where we could reach other like-minded comrades. Giff and I joined a Halifax branch of the Legion, attended several of the regular monthly meetings, where we attempted to introduce a motion calling attention to the anti-nuclear pronouncements of prominent Second World War leaders. We were soon disabused of this somewhat naive approach. From then on, we recognised that we must build on the very positive interest that the Canadian public was showing in the growing ranks of veterans who endorsed the campaign against nuclear arms. But we wanted to include resistance to other forms of offensive weaponry, and indeed war itself. We still thought we could do it as a movement rather than as a formal organization. We would announce to our fellow veterans and to the world that we wanted to spare our children and our children's children from the curse of wars. Those who shared our fears and our hopes could join. We might ask for a bit of money for some research and for publicity, but we would not ask for any further commitment of time and energy.

But during the 1980's things kept getting worse instead of better. You will remember the even darker days that followed the change of administration in the United States in the 1982 election, and our own turmoil in Canada as we became ever more deeply implicated with the military doctrines of our southern neighbour.

We learned three important lessons in this period. Firstly, that there were hundreds of veterans throughout Canada who looked to our little group in Halifax for leadership in the search for a more peaceful role for Canada. Secondly, we found many allies in other organizations and supporters in all three parties in Parliament. And thirdly, that to create effective links really required effective organization, careful research, analysis and communication, as well as that most essential ingredient, money.

So gradually the comfortable informality of the organization faded. Giff, just entering retirement, threw himself pretty well full-time into the task of creating the network of VANA branches across Canada. We continued to meet monthly at Lloyd Shaw's office overlooking Halifax harbour, but now on a more formal basis, with Lloyd's Secretary, Judy McCollough, taking on the task of keeping minutes and accounts. Lloyd became fund raiser and treasurer. Hugh Taylor undertook a research function and later, as he moved west, became our important link with our growing membership in British Columbia. Then, as we were no longer exactly welcome in continuing to hold our press conferences in Royal Canadian Legion premises, we acquired our own offices in downtown Halifax. Other energetic and knowledgeable leaders joined our Board of Directors after incorporation as VANA. And, of course, we recruited Mary Kitley, first as our secretary and subsequently as our Executive Director.

Once we established the basic framework, VANA became a powerful factor in giving substance and credibility to the Canadian peace movement. Our position papers, based on careful research and extensive contributions from the experience of VANA members, have been influential both in mobilizing public opinion and in moderating public policy. Our emphasis on a Canadian role in peacekeeping has confounded some of the Colonel Blimps in the military establishment, but has earned us respect among an important segment of policy makers. Our demand for stricter control of the arms trade, while still not a total success story, has at least blunted some of the more blatant proposals for Canadian exploitation of the weapons markets. By sticking to the areas in which we could claim to have some competence and experience, we avoided the fate of those peace organizations who seemed often to embrace various causes for which they were only vaguely prepared.

I want to touch on what VANA has meant to me, and reflect on what I see as the remaining challenges in whatever time is left in our lives. Central has been the privilege of knowing Giff Gifford and Lloyd Shaw, two remarkable men whose vision and courage, whose boundless energy has inspired all who were touched by their lives. I have had the sad task of delivering funeral eulogies for both of them. Without Giff and Lloyd, VANA would not have had the place in the life of Canada that it has come to occupy. We would all have been less than we are.

The ravages of time have shown that we are not as immortal as are the principles that have united us. We have come to recognise that Peace in our world remains an elusive ideal. We owe it to our grandchildren and to future children of humanity to pass on our awareness of the evil and futility of war. With our remaining breath, the world must learn that soldiering for peace does not mean weapons of mass destruction.