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Project Ploughshares and the myth of Canada's noninvolvement in the Iraq War

By Richard Sanders (written in 2013)

Canada’s largest peace group is Project Ploughshares.  Mandated by, and accountable to, the Canadian Council of Churches, Ploughshares receives considerable support from this country’s largest protestant religious bodies and from the Canadian government.

On its website, Ploughshares highlights many success stories from its almost 40-year history. To its credit, during the months prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Ploughshares was very active in rallying public support, leading the churches, and lobbying the Canadian government to reject military involvement in the Iraq War, whether or not a UN endorsement was received.

On a webpage called “Accomplishments,” Ploughshares chronologically highlights what it considers its most significant achievements. In its entry for 2003, Ploughshares says that it helped persuade the Canadian government from staying completely out of the Iraq War.  Ploughshares achieved this, it reports, by co-authoring a document which “influence[d] Canada’s decision not to participate in the Iraq war.”[i] Unfortunately there is nowhere on Ploughshares’ website which tempers this success story with any mention of the fact that the Canada actually did, very actively, “participate in the Iraq War.” 

Besides co-authoring this document called “Prepare for Peace in Iraq,”[ii] Ploughshares also helped gather endorsements for it from 40,000 Canadians.  The organisation also wrote a series of letters which summed up the case against Canadian involvement in the war and forwarded the growing list of endorsers to the Prime Minister Chrétien. The final letter, dated April 4, 2003, was signed by Ploughshares’ Director Ernie Regehr.  It began: “Dear Prime Minister, As the war on Iraq continues, Canadians continue to support the Government of Canada’s decision not to joint [sic] the US-led coalition.”[iii] 

Unfortunately, this letter failed to mention, let alone critique the fact, that Canada’s military was actually very involved in the US-led war.  Nor did the letter urge Chrétien to withdraw the many hundreds of Canadian armed forces personnel, including those in our Navy, Army and Air Force, who were then engaged in the war. Ploughshares also failed to request that Canada withdraw its multi-billion dollar frigates, destroyer and warplanes from the Persian Gulf where they were supporting “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” or urge the Prime Minister to halt the daily overflights and refueling of US warplanes carrying troops and weapons to Iraq.

But perhaps Ploughshares biggest oversight was that it did not suggest that the government should stop the flow to the US of billions of dollars worth of Canadian weapons or military components for assembly there into major weapons known to be bound for Iraq.  This was a major oversight because Ploughshares prides itself on being a watchdog overseeing Canada’s arms trade. The argument would have been an easy one to make, because the government’s own guidelines on military exports, as outlined so proudly by DFAIT in its annual reports on military exports, state that "Canada closely controls the export of military goods and technology to countries...involved in or under imminent threat of hostilities."[iv] If there was ever a time when the argument could most easily have been made that this was a worthless façade, this was it. Instead, Chrétien was treated to praise from the country’s largest peace group and received assurances of uncritical support from Canadians.

The 2003 summer issue of its magazine, Ploughshares published an article called “War in Iraq” which spoke of their March 27 “letter to the Prime Minister commending the Canadian government for insisting that Iraq fully abide by the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council but *declining Canada’s participation in a war on Iraq*.”[v] (Emphasis added.)

Over the years, Ploughshares has continued to disseminate the misperception that Canada was not involved in the Iraq War.  One venue for this has been its annual “Armed Conflicts Report.” Since 2003, each yearly issue of this document has contained an entry for the Iraq War. None of these reports, however, has included any mention of the Canadian Armed Forces’ involvement in the war.[vi]  Although all of these reports have included a list of “Parties to the Conflict” -- naming the government and non-government bodies that “supporting” the war -- none of these lists included Canada. In Ploughshares’ current webpage detailing the Iraq War, the organisation’s list of Iraq-War belligerents is careful enough to include mention of rather peripheral participation by Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Korea, Macedonia and Romania.[vii] 

The view that Ploughshares’ was instrumental in stopping Canadian participation in the Iraq War has raised in April 2011 during the CBC program “Sunday Edition.”  The show’s host, Michael Enright, interviewed Ernie Regehr, who had been Ploughshares’ Director in 2003.  Enright captured the duplicity and hypocrisy of the times by introducing the segment with these words:

It's a strange world we live in, where the 2009 winner of the Nobel Peace Price -- Barack Obama -- is the commander-in-chief of a military that’s waging three wars…. [And] the laureate's government greases the way for US companies to sell weapons to more than seventy countries around the world -- including Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia and Yemen.”[viii]

Enright‘s intro went on to say that “in 2003, working with Canadian church groups, Mr. Regehr and company helped convince Jean Chrétien to keep Canada out of the war in Iraq.”[ix] After discussing various issues, including Regehr’s support for the US/NATO military intervention then raging in Libya, Enright asked his final question, “You’re not trying to empty an ocean with a thimble are you?” After responding “You know, we’ve had some significant successes,” Regehr illustrated this by describing negotiations then-ongoing for a UN Arms Trade Treaty.  Then, in the final seconds of the interview, Enright added “And you got Chrétien to keep us out of Iraq,” to which Regehr agreed.


Ploughshares’ website reports that 53.5% of its $1.4-million annual income in 2010 came from grants.[x] According to Ploughshares’ annual reports, the Canadian government is among the organisation’s most consistent financial supporters. For example, all of the past seven annual reports that Ploughshares has online, acknowledge the receipt of grants from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).[xi] 

Although Ploughshares’ does not reveal the value of these annual government grants, CIDA and DFAIT have a “proactive disclosure” policy which lists NGOs and private contractors to which they have disbursed money.  Their disclosures show that Ploughshares received at least $1.3 million in government funding between 2005 and 2011. About $570,000 of this came from CIDA for work between 2006 and 2011.[xii] CIDA has been criticised for the political and economic factors which influence its selection of which NGOs receive a share of the almost $4 billion that it has spent annually.  For example, CIDA supported the 2004 coup in Haiti and the subsequent cover up of human rights atrocities against prodemocracy forces there during the dictatorship it helped installed, by its selective funding of NGOs in Canada and Haiti. (See sidebar.)

Ploughshares also received at least 13 disbursements from DFAIT totaling $725,008 between 2005 and 2011. [xiii] DFAIT is the government department responsible for overseeing and permitting over $5 billion worth of “legal” military exports from Canada per year. For decades, DFAIT has also been responsible for much of the propaganda promoting Canada’s involvement in various wars. Many will see the irony in Canada’s largest peace group being so closely tied and financially dependent upon the very government departments and agencies that it is supposed to be criticising.

Ploughshares is also a “partner” in the “Security and Defence Forum” (SDF) of the Department of National Defence.[xiv]  As such the national office of Ploughshares has had interns’ salaries paid for by DND.  DND pays $35,000 to interns to work in select institutions. 

Ploughshares, however, describes its relationship with the government in altogether different terms.  On its webpage Ploughshares concludes its self-description with a section called “Our unique contribution.” It states that “Government officials and politicians in Canada and abroad have come to expect high-quality and accurate research, as well as forthright presentations of concrete policy options. The views of Project Ploughshares are listened to and sought out by decision-makers.”[xv]  Meanwhile, it will come as no surprise to some that the government “decision-makers” who promote Canada’s involvement in wars, coups and the export of weapons to the US and other warring nations have not “sought out,” “listened to,” let alone financed NGOs whose research condemns the Canadian government for complicity in international crimes against peace and humanity, or which expose the spinning of government myths to cover up these crimes


[iii] Letter from Ernie Regehr to Jean Chrétien , April 4, 2003.

[vii] Armed Conflicts Report, Iraq

[ix] “University Cheating - The ‘Ethnic Vote’ - Ernie Regehr,” April 3, 2011.

[xii] Ploughshares received a CIDA  “contribution” of $498,960 between 2007 and 2011, for a project called “Building Peaceful Communities in the Caribbean.”

Another CIDA “contribution” of $73,500 to Ploughshares between 2006/07 and 2007/08 is described as “Support to Governance Research.”

Ploughshares is also listed as one of the “executive agencies” involved in a UN Development Programme project in the Sudan to which CIDA contributed $1,678,280 between 2002 and 2011.  The other agencies included the World Bank Institute, International Crisis Group, Canadian Parliamentary Centre, Oxfam Canada and the Centre for Conflict Resolution.

[xiii] DFAIT

Here is a list of DFAIT contracts and contributions to Ploughshares:

A $15,000 contract described as “Management consulting.”


A $16,950 contract described as “Management consulting.”


A “contribution” of $160,440 to “provide CARICOM states with a platform to consult with regional stakeholders to develop and strengthen Caribbean input into the Arms trade treaty negotiation process.”


A “contribution” of $65,013 to “support two expert roundtables to explore and elaborate legal and technical details of a potential Arms Trade Treaty.”


A $89,438 “contribution” for “a workshop on implementation of the UN Programme of Action in the context of developing key elements of an instrument to combat the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects for the CARICOM sub-region.”  (Emphasis added.)


A $15,750 contract described as “Management consulting.”


A $16,310 contract described as “Management consulting.”

Contract Value:$16,310.00


A $10,250 contract described as “Management consulting.”


A $57,120 “contribution” for “a workshop and study on implementation of the UN Programme of Action in the context of exploring and developing key elements of an instrument to combat the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects for the CARICOM sub-region.”  (Emphasis added.)


A “contract” for $53,000 for “professional services not otherwise specified.”


A $60,000 “contribution” to “produce several expert studies on existing agreements, issues and best practices related to the transfer of small arms around the world.”


A $150,000 “contribution” “to help Canadian youth gain international career-related work experience and develop skills that will lead to sustainable employment with an international focus, while supporting the priorities of both the implementing organisation and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.” [Note: Ploughshares’ government contract to groom Canadian youth for careers “with an international focus” had to match “the priorities” of DFAIT.]


“professional services not otherwise specified” worth $20,000


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