'It's not a fight we've won': Vancouver's iconic nuclear war activists renew calls for peace

Anti-nuclear weapons activists that spearheaded some of Vancouver's most iconic protests and peace marches are dismayed by the resurgence of political rhetoric surrounding nuclear weapons.

Nobel Peace Prize awarded to anti-nukes group, decades after Cold War

Over 100,000 people took part in the Vancouver peace march of 1986. In this image, thousands of people march across the Burrard Street Bridge while spreading messages in favour of nuclear disarmament. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Carmela Allevato remembers marching alongside 100,000 other Vancouverites atop the Burrard Street Bridge, protesting the threat of nuclear war.

It was the spring of 1986 — the year when Vancouver proclaimed itself the peace capital of North America.

"[It was] to call for an end to the arms race, and to redirect funds from nuclear weapons to the social good," Allevato recalled.

"The spirt, and the music, and the chants, and the hope ... it was a really hopeful time."

And while protests and activism have remained a Vancouver staple in the years since, rarely have nuclear weapons been reason shut down an entire city block.

But amid heightened tensions over both North Korea's aggressive development of nuclear weapons and U.S. President Donald Trump's persistent criticism of the deal to curb Iran's nuclear program, Vancouver's historic activists say it might be time to start marching once again.

"It's not a fight we've won," Allevato said.

The march was put on by the End the Arms Race Coalition, a collective of neighbourhoods, churches, political parties, businesses and educators. (City of Vancouver archives)

Vancouver: a nuclear weapon-free zone

Libby Davies, a former NDP MP and Vancouver councillor, has been doing her best to keep the spirit alive.

In 1983, Davies was one of several city councillors who voted to designate Vancouver a nuclear weapon-free zone. The designation was largely symbolic, but culminated in numerous anti-nuke signs posted throughout the city.

"City councillors were meant to think about pot holes and zoning," Davies told CBC News. "The idea that we were involving ourselves in a global issue was very controversial."

Activists with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) protest wearing masks of the North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, right, and the US president Donald Trump, left, in front of the US embassy in Berlin, Germany. (Britta Pedersen/dpa/Associated Press)

Davies says the City of Vancouver went on to initiate the Canadian Network of Cities for Peace and Disarmament, taking a proactive stance against nuclear bombs.

"We tried to stop the Port of Vancouver from bringing in U.S. warships that we knew had nuclear weapons on board," she said. "I even swam around one as a protest when I was city councillor."

But as fears of nuclear war subsided in the decades that followed, she says some of the signs started to disappear.

"Maybe city engineers think they can remove them," said Davies, adding that she's called the department in the past hoping to have them put back up.

"I keep my eye on them ... we're still a nuclear free zone, and that means a lot to some people in the city."

A new march?

Internationally, concerns over nuclear annihilation have resurged as a hot-buttoned issue.

On Friday, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) — a group of mostly young activists pushing for a global treaty to ban the cataclysmic bombs.

Crowds gather on Sunset Beach after marching across the Burrard Street Bridge during the Walk for Peace in 1986. (City of Vancouver Archives)

The group has campaigned actively for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons adopted by the United Nations. The treaty needs to be ratified by 50 countries in order to make it legally binding, but has only been signed by three.

Canada hasn't signed onto it, but Davies says she's happy to see ICAN receive the honour.

"This is about a sustained global movement," she said. "Nuclear weapons are still very much a threat to global peace and security, and of course the largest stock pile of weapons of mass destruction are to the south of us."

She says there's still room for Vancouver to make an impact on a global scale.

"I hope our city council would recognize that they have a very important historical role in the global movement for peace and disarmament, and that should not be lost," she said.

And she can think of one way to bring the city back to its peace-keeping roots.

"Wouldn't it be amazing if we were able to reactivate a Walk for Peace?"

About the Author

Jon Hernandez

Digital Associate Producer

Jon Hernandez is an award-winning multimedia journalist from Vancouver, British Columbia. His reporting has explored mass international migration in Chile, controversial logging practices in British Columbia, and the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Follow Jon Hernandez on Twitter: