In which we resist the urge to “start panicking”

PeaceQuest volunteer Judi Wyatt stands at the corner of University and Union street speaking with a student. Judi holds a symbolic copy of the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty in her hands.

By Jamie Swift

Originally published on on October 11th.

“What’s up?”

We’ve all heard the greeting query from friends. And we usually come up with a bland bromide.

Last week, however, I came up with a zinger.

“Nothing much, really. Did you hear that we won the Nobel Peace Prize?”

Utter nonsense, but still an attention-getter. A few weeks back in this space I described how a small group of PeaceQuest volunteers set up a tall banner symbolizing the United Nations treaty banning nuclear weapons. Armed with sharpies, we buttonholed students at Union and University, urging them to sign the #bannukes “treaty.”

The Trudeau government has refused to sign the treaty. Or even participate in the U.N. process. So we joined the international effort to empower citizens to speak to their governments by signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

We weren’t alone, because nearly 1,000 Order of Canada recipients had rejected the government’s doomsday logic. Good company, that.

Then, a couple of weeks later, the morning news announced that the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Good company, again. ICAN had helped to organize the initiative that got our PeaceQuest Kingston group out onto the street corner.

I knew that our public stand in favour of the elimination of the unthinkable weapons of mass destruction would have virtually no chance of influencing Ottawa. After all, the Trudeau government is colonized by militarist and alliance logic. But playing even the tiniest part in an effort that just won the Nobel Peace Prize was validation.

When you’re standing in the public square, asking total strangers to do something as simple as sign a banner or take a pamphlet, you often feel a bit, well, timid. Or out of step with the mainstream, as people stream by minding their own business. It’s up to you to make your cause their concern.

PeaceQuest volunteers on Queen’s campus stand on either side of a giant symbolic “Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty” which is signed in marker by passers by.

Even though you know that the cause is just, the issue vital, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to make common cause for the common good by approaching strangers. When the response is cool, you can get the sidewalk blues.

Is this different from people offering religious tracts? Or being paid to pass out pizza offers? I’d like to think that there is something different about getting involved in the politics of the common good. By standing out in the public square, that day, we were interrupting others’ private reveries, encouraging them to think, and then make a political statement, even a minuscule one like signing a photo-friendly banner.

There is more to politics and sustaining democracy than merely voting. I recall spending 20 years of Fridays standing in front of city hall as part of an anti-poverty vigil offering a little pamphlet to passersby. After a while, I noticed that they had three responses.

Some people took the leaflet, often with thanks.

Others would say “No thanks” or “I’m good.” (I hadn’t asked them for self-appraisal but at least they’d responded.)

And then there were those who just ignored us, as if we weren’t there. This must be the way panhandlers feel, especially when so many of us studiously avoid making eye contact. The implied message to vulnerable people who’ve made what must surely be a hard decision to sit on the sidewalk with a tin cup is that they are invisible.

So back when we stood on that city hall sidewalk and passersby would deliberately ignore us, I’d sometimes mutter to myself, “I’m not here.”

It was a bit like that on the busy corner on the Queen’s campus. Most students ignored us. Others said, “No thanks” or, startlingly, “I’m OK with nuclear war.”

But dozens signed. More young women than men, and a high proportion of Asian students who perhaps feel more affected by the possibility of nuclear annihilation.

Dozens signed. And most of those who did sincerely thanked us for helping them demand that our government participate in the UN treaty process to ban nuclear weapons.

It was a good day in the public square.

And an important one in worrisome times. The well-informed Republican chair of the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Corker, has remarked that the erratic Donald Trump has to be constantly babysat, lest he cause “World War III.”

After which the Canadian Press reported that a highly placed military source had confirmed Corker’s frightening account. Three of the crackpot president’s key handlers, all former generals, apparently need to regularly contain things. Asked by a Canadian Press reporter what would happen if these men — certainly no peaceniks — left the White House, the source said: “Start panicking.”