The Voice of Women|
Canada decides its nuclear future while women speak out against weapons
In the early 1960s, as the world seemed to teeter on the brink of nuclear war, Halifax mother Peggy Hope-Simpson expressed the fear and anxiety that enveloped a generation of Canadians.
|Politician and social activist Thérèse Casgrain founded the Quebec branch of the Voice of Women. (National Archives of Canada PA-178177)
"I was having nightmares of being in the water with my children and I knew that I couldnt hold on to all of them, and I always would wake up in a sweat, just in terror."
Hope-Simpson and other Canadian woman would be voices of restraint as the country moved closer to arming itself with nuclear weapons and joining the ranks of Cold War nuclear powers.
In the fall of 1958, at the height of the Cold War between United States and the Soviet Union, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker agreed to accept 56 Bomarc missiles from the United States and deploy them in North Bay, Ontario and La Macaza, Quebec.
Canada soon discovered the type of Bomarc missiles they accepted were designed to hold nuclear warheads. At the time Canada was a non-nuclear country.
The Canadian public was deeply sceptical about the wisdom of Canada becoming a nuclear power. In May 1960, Toronto Star columnist Lotta Dempsey, urged women to join together in opposition.
"I have never met a woman anywhere who did not hate fighting and killing, and the loss of husbands and the terrible tragedy of children dead, maimed or left homeless and hungry. Here lies our strength."
Her idea caught fire. Mavis Wiley was one of hundreds of Canadian women who wrote Dempsey letters of support.
"If you are going to scream loud and hard about the world situation right now, let me join you. But let us not scream alone, let us urge the women of the world to join us."
A month later in Toronto, an anti-nuclear organization called the Voice of Women was born. Jo Davis was a member.
"Many of our members, for example, are young mothers who have never joined anything before, and who are now becoming vitally interested in world affairs through Voice of Women."
Chapters emerged everywhere. Peggy Hope-Simpson helped launch the Voice of Women in Nova Scotia.
"We were just ready to go. Someone said it was like mushrooms springing up across the country overnight, everywhere women just saying ok, heres the agenda, lets get to it."
Thérèse Casgrain, the long-time feminist crusader, carried the banner in Quebec.
"If Canada acquires nuclear weapons, we will become nothing more than an American satellite...We feel that Canadian public opinion must rise up against this."
Maryon Pearson, wife of the Leader of the Opposition, became an honourary member. Her husband, Lester B. Pearson, was leading the fight in Parliament against nuclear weapons in Canada.
The Voice of Women was joined by other voices around the country; individuals and peace groups, who urged Diefenbaker to refuse the warheads.
By 1962, Diefenbaker was still wavering on the issue of Canada's nuclear future.
At the same time Diefenbaker faced tremendous pressure from American President John F. Kennedy to accept nuclear warheads.
In October 1962, Cold War tensions peaked when the Soviet Union secretly introduced offensive missiles into Cuba aimed directly at North American. Kennedy brought the world to the brink of war when he demanded the missiles to removed in what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Six days later the Soviets retreated from their plan and the world breathed a sign of relief. And Canadian peace activists stepped up their work.
Thérèse Casgrain was the new national president of Voice of Women.
"We have been a hairs breadth from war. Facing the ultimate crisis forces us to re-evaluate what is important in life, what do I stand for?"
|In 1958, at the height of the Cold War between United States and the Soviet Union, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker agreed to accept 56 Bomarc missiles from the United States. Ottawa later discovered the missiles were designed for nuclear warheads. (National Archives of Canada, C-006779)
Diefenbaker finally announced his decision; Canada would keep the Bomarc missiles but without their nuclear warheads.
Diefenbaker was ridiculed for his decision. Some Canadians said it was like the country had a gun with no bullets. Diefenbaker was also accused of reneging on commitments to Canada's allies.
Sensing a shift in the political climate, Pearson did a startling about-face. The Leader of the Opposition now demanded that the government respect its commitments.
"It can only do this by accepting nuclear warheads."
Peggy Hope-Simpson couldn't believe it.
"Oh, we had invested a lot of trust in Pearson ... I was very dismayed, then I became angry and upset that he would do this. And then came this feeling of betrayal... that was a terribly bitter feeling."
Buffetted on all sides, the Diefenbaker government fell in 1963. An election campaign was fought on the issue of nuclear arms. After a turbulent campaign, Pearson won but only with a minority.
In the spring of 1963, Pearson met John Kennedy in Hyannisport and there he agreed to allow nuclear weapons on Canadian soil.
The first nuclear weapons arrived in Canada on New Year's Eve 1963.
Canada's dance with the Bomarc missiles lasted until 1971. By then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had phased the missiles out of service.
Renamed the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, the organization continues to work on issues locally, nationally and internationally related to peace, social justice, human rights and development.