A Year Against the Hamilton War Show
By Andrew Loucks, a part-time, history and philosophy student at McMaster University
The bombing of Yugoslavia was a very frustrating time for Canadian peace activists. We quickly realized the limitations of Canadian "democracy" when Washington said BOMB!, the Canadian cabinet said YES! BOMB!, and Canadians could do nothing about it. We could only watch as the media lapped up the government script. Some "progressives" merely reversed the good-guy, bad-guy analysis and, perhaps most painfully, others cheered the forces of war as if the controllers of fatally violent institutions had finally got one right.
The bombing of Yugoslavia left thousands dead, civilian infrastructure decimated and an environment polluted with industrial toxins and depleted uranium (DU). It left an internal crisis raging and the shreds of international law pulped. In Hamilton, we protested with vigils, just as we had reacted to earlier bombings of Iraq. After the bombs stopped falling on Yugoslavia we began to realize the practical wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words: "We must concentrate not merely on the eradication of war but on the affirmation of peace." It was in this context that some of us decided to become more proactive and begin marching down the path to peace, instead of waiting for "the Man" to lead us to war before attempting the near impossible task of diverting him.
Meanwhile, organizers of the Hamilton International "Air" Show (hereafter referred to as the war show) had been at work for months compiling an almost endless list of sponsors, sending out media releases and securing participation from some of the most deadly aircraft on the face of the earth. Its 25th anniversary, 1999, was special for the war show and the enthusiasm showed. One media release read, "passengers arriving at Hamilton airport should be excused for thinking they have landed in the middle of a modern military fighter base." Other media announcements boasted about the appearance of NATO aircraft that had just bombed Yugoslavia.
Such a pompous, callous display of military hardware fresh from unleashing its devastating power upon another country was too much for us to tolerate. Though the bombing had stopped, it made no sense to be silent.
As the war show approached, Murray Lumley drafted a letter to war show organizers, asking them to cancel the event to allow the smoke to clear from around Canada's guns and to show sensitivity to Hamilton's Serbian-Canadian population and Kosovar refugees. The organizations that signed Murray's letter became the 1999 Father's Day Coalition for Peace.
Randy Kay helped build the coalition and published an article in Hamilton's alternative weekly exposing the war show's charitable status, its reliance upon public grants and its recruiting function for the Canadian military (see Press for Conversion!, issue #37).
Murray and Randy visited the war show on the Fathers' Day weekend to record the show's militarism. While Randy hosted the Blue and Green Show on McMaster University radio, Murray had no media credentials to escape the $15 entrance fee. And so, the Dundas Independent Video Association (DIVA) was born. DIVA produced a documentary entitled "Target Audience: Children, War and the Hamilton International Air Show." "Target Audience" shows the predominantly military aircraft display, a mock helicopter ground assault and "Kiddie Commando," a children's military obstacle course that the war show boasts "is based on actual training requirements."
War show organizers declined a meeting with the Father's Day Coalition and failed to recognize, let alone address our concerns. Murray and Randy returned to the war show with signs, a banner, a prayer and eight others. We paid $15 each to enter but before doing so we stopped at the Canadian Serbian Council/Centre for Peace in the Balkans "Peace Tent," which featured written and pictorial accounts of the devastation wrought by NATO forces just weeks earlier. The Peace Tent was negotiated with the Hamilton police and war show organizers, who reneged on their initial offer to allow activists at the tent free access. The war show placed the Peace Tent outside the main gathering area and leafletters were forbidden from approaching war show patrons. Peace Tent volunteers were forced to stand alongside an airport access road as most patrons drove by, yelling racist comments from time to time.
Feeling rather isolated and out of place, we made our way down the rows of death technology to one of modern time's most lethal "perfomers," an A-10 Thunderbolt II, also known as the "Warthog." A-10s bombard ground troop installations, tanks and bunkers with a vast array of munitions, many of which are coated with DU, a by-product of the nuclear energy industry. DU shrapnel pierces amour and can poison people with its minute particles. On impact, DU ceramicises at very high temperatures. These tiny shards can become lodged in human tissue, causing poisoning, cancer, leukemia and other illnesses. It is strongly suspected that DU has caused the increased cancer and birth deformity rates in Iraq and "Gulf War Syndrome" suffered by many veterans.
In a very uneventful manner, Randy Kay, Daniel Knapp and myself stepped just inside a small nylon chord roping off the A-10. We unfurled our signs and banner. Murray read a prayer to a stunned crowd before joining us in protest. We refused requests to leave from A-10 pilots and the Hamilton police. We were eventually arrested for trespassing along with Wendell Fields, whose crime, like ours it seemed, was holding a sign. We baked in the paddy wagon long enough to hear the pilots call for, and receive, a round of applause for the arrests.
After our release, Murray published his prayer in Hamilton's major daily, the Spectator. This prompted many letters to the editor.
As fall approached, we began preparing for our October court date to hear the trespassing charges. Under the impression that standing in front of a plane with a few signs did not constitute a crime or provincial offence, we sought instead to put the war show on trial. Unfortunately, the court date was postponed until December, when charges were suspiciously dropped on an irrelevant technicality.
Early in the new year we began rebuilding and expanding the Father's Day Coalition for mobilization around the 2000 war show. Southern Ontario's Homes Not Bombs network decided in January to converge on the war show in June. Organizations from the 1999 coalition, such as Burlington Association for Nuclear Disarmament and the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade signed on to the 2000 "Call to close the war show."
Our first contact with the war show in 2000 came in February, when we again appealed to organizers to either transform or close the show. The war show board's chairman, Wayne Thompson, responded by refusing our call for public dialogue and stating his hope that the military would recruit many youth at this event. Several individual coalition members wrote letters to Thompson explaining their views and calling for public dialogue.
The Hamilton-Wentworth Region's Grants Committee met to recommend that Regional Council give the war show another $100,000. Randy, Murray and I attended this meeting but were denied permission to speak, despite support from some members. We next attended Regional Council, asking members to vote down the war show grant. Again, despite some support, including a passionate speech from the mayor of Dundas, we were unsuccessful. For yet another year, the war show was publicly funded.
In addition to receiving public monies, the war show has registered charity status. It also attracts many sponsors -- from Bell Canada to Hamilton restaurants and media corporations. Our response to these disturbing facts was to initiate letter-writing campaigns, challenging sponsors for their war show support and the Customs and Revenue Agency for its decision to grant the war show charitable status.
Later in the spring, and in a more light-hearted effort, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Betsy the cow and others gathered to leaflet outside war show headquarters in Hamilton. They highlighted that it is inappropriate to promote militarism in children. We also sought to engage our communities in discussions about the war show with public forums in Hamilton and Burlington. Though war show officials were invited as featured guests, they chose to avoid dialogue once again.
Although, as expected, we did not close or transform this year's war show, we did build on our efforts over the past year and we will continue our peace-affirming struggle against the cause of war.