Peace Week: A Little History
In the fall of 2002, as the drums of war heralding the invasion of Iraq were rising
in an emotional pitch through the ubiquitous media, Peace Week began as a prayer, a
hope in one mind, one heart at the University of Toronto. A member of the U of T
Campus Chaplains Association since 1998, Guru Fatha Singh Khalsa knew very well the
history of America's political and military involvement in the Persian Gulf. He knew that
half a million Iraqi children had been killed by the US-led embargo on Iraq and it irked
his soul that now the world's military super power was preparing to invade that starved
and weakened, but fiercely proud and ancient country.
Since 1986, Guru Fatha Singh had been aware of, and passively participated in
an annual event in northern New Mexico known as Peace Prayer Day. Held every
summer solstice and started by Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh spiritual leader, it was an occasion
for people of all faiths to join together in celebration of the peace that is cherished and
loved in every heart.
At the October 2002 meeting of the Campus Chaplains Association, Guru Fatha
Singh proposed to his fellow chaplains that they facilitate a Peace Prayer Day at the
university just as soon as one could be organized. All the chaplains - Catholic and
Protestant, Muslim and Jew, First Nation and Buddhist, Wiccan and Unitarian - agreed
and gave their blessings to the proposed event.
Guru Fatha Singh went home that evening, to the Sikh temple in Rexdale where
he lived at the time, with an immense sense of gratitude and eagerness to get to work.
There was a war machine humming and drumming louder every day and its horrible
momentum needed to be stopped in its tracks.
By morning, however, Guru Fatha Singh was convinced that one day of prayer
and meditation could not match the overwhelming force of the world's most powerful
army and its embedded media. He phoned Geoff Wichert, the coordinator of the
chaplains association to ask if the event might not be extended to a week. But "Peace
Prayer Week" seemed a little long at the mouth, while "Peace Week" said quite enough.
Reverend Wichert agreed and so Peace Week was conceived.
Guru Fatha Singh had participated in marches and letter campaigns to end the
nuclear arms race in the early 1980s. He had also engaged in demonstrations against
the Vietnam war in the very early 70s. That said, he had been out of touch of the
political activist scene for quite a number of years.
One name that came to mind was Dr. John Kenneth Galbraith. With a building
and a street on the U of T campus named after him, Galbraith was widely known as a
bright mind and an opponent of unrighteous wars and warring. But Galbraith had been
on the scene so long, Guru Fatha Singh had to wonder whether he still lived. He
phoned the library to find out - and was assured that John Kenneth Galbraith still lived
and worked at Harvard University at the ripe age of 93. Finally, an authoritative voice to
speak at Peace Week!
With no published email address for Dr. Galbraith, Guru Fatha Singh wrote a
letter inviting the distinguished scholar and Canadian back to his Alma Mater to speak
for peace, and mailed it to Harvard University. A couple of weeks passed, then a reply
arrived in the form of a succinct little note. In it, the eminent Dr. Galbraith wrote
somewhat mysteriously: "What a nice request from my Alma Mater, one to which I am
pleased indeed to respond... I would hope to find time in the next couple of weeks to
respond to your letter. This response should be considered by contribution; there
should be no expense or honorarium. The reward should be for those engaged in this
compelling enterprise. Faithfully yours, John Kenneth Galbraith"
Dr. Galbraith's words were like a promissory note lending credibility and respect
to a grand event that as yet existed in concept only. Armed with this charming note,
Guru Fatha Singh was able to visit the highest offices of the university seeking funding
and support, without any consideration of snub or rejection. Though, in Dr. Galbraith's
next communication, he confessed to having been "unduly optimistic, both as to promise
and health" he had in fact already made a crucial contribution to the overall success of
Every important public event needs a symbol, a logo of some sort. Not being an
artist or knowing any, Guru Fatha Singh posted an ad appealing for anyone who could
put together a logo for Peace Week at OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) on
McCaul Street. Luckily, it was only a matter of days before a soft-spoken young lady
phoned him up. Monika Stoyanova was her name. Very quickly, she caught the idea of
what was needed and came up with the beautiful Peace Week logo with the dove, Earth
and concentric rainbows we are using to this day. At the time, it felt especially good
and very affirming to have a symbol for this imaginary event.
Bit by bit, this Peace Week started to take shape as a schedule of events planned
for the first week of February. On Sunday, there was to be a multi-faith service to start
things on a humble and prayerful note. After all, when it comes to peaceful coexistence,
we still have so much to learn! Then, General Romeo Dallaire of UN Force in Rwanda
during the genocide of 1994 was scheduled to speak on the horrors of war. Next,
hopefully, Dr. Galbraith would discourse on economics without war. Then journalist
Gwynne Dyer would talk about the prospects of disarmament on Wednesday. Thursday,
Nobel laureate, Jody Williams, founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines
was scheduled to speak on "the power of one". Finally, Craig Kielburger, founder of
(You Can) Free the Children, in his first year at the U of T, was to speak at uniquely
designed Jewish ritual evening, an "Oneg Shabbat". This was arranged to meet the
concerns of our Jewish chaplain, Michelle Lackie, that Peace Week honour the tradition
of the Sabbath. Finally, a concert and celebration was organized for the Saturday
starring the cast of the musical "War", vocalist Honey Novac, the Macedono-Bulgarian
Orthodox Cathedral Saint Cyril and Methody Children's Choir, and the classical sitar
ensemble of Shabhu Das.
To publicize the whole thing, a simple black and white schedule was put
together. Varinder Dhanota, a most generous acquaintance of Guru Fatha Singh with a
fledgling web-site design business, offered to make a site at no cost - and so he did -
complete with a map of the campus in order to navigate to the various events.
By mid-January, all everything was moving ahead amazingly. More than $10,000
had been committed by various offices of the university, including the Steelworkers'
Union. But the bills kept mounting up, over $30,000 and counting - and who was going
to pay them? That was when the chaplains' good friend Susan Addario, the head of
Student Affairs at U of T, sat down with a handful of us and, after having a good hard
look at our budget, arranged some fund-raising magic. She seemed to know where on
campus there was unspent money to be found. Thanks to her for helping us in a
That was it - or might have been it, except that General Dallaire suddenly had a
serious eye ailment requiring surgery and Dr. Galbraith, despite all our hopes, conveyed
his regrets over not being able to come. Susan Addario and the chaplains quickly pulled
together a student panel moderated by Toronto human rights phenom Zanana Akande
on "The Roots of Prejudice". In place of Dr. Galbraith, we were fortunate to pick up
Stephen Lewis, special UN envoy just back from his crusade against AIDS in Africa. At
more than 700 people, Stephen Lewis turned out to be Peace Week's most popular and
one of its most passionate speakers ever.
Peace Week ended its grand concert February 8, attended by perhaps 25 people.
It was rather anti-climactic after all the great presentations of the previous seven days.
Perhaps if there had been beer served...
What Guru Fatha Singh and many others engaged in Peace Week, did not know
was that the next the biggest anti-war demonstrations on the planet in some 30 years
were about to take place. And so it was that seven days after the end of Peace Week,
about 10 million people in dozens of countries around the globe filled the streets to
show their love of peace and their revulsion for the invasion by the so-called "coalition
of the willing" of the sovereign nation of Iraq.
Then, on March 20 the war broke out. Missiles launched from afar destroyed the
elegant Baghdad skyline as we watched sickened on TV. America's answer to the
original "shock and awe" event, the attacks of September 11, 2001, went from bad to
worse to worst.
Six days later, on March 26, we came to hear that Jody Williams, one of our star
speakers, had been part of a group arrested for protesting the war across the street
from the White House. In her talk with us, she had been frank in her assessment of the
intentions of the US administration, an assessment garnered from years of close-up
observation and negotiation. Now, she was putting that knowledge into conscientious
With the war machine rolling on relentlessly, Guru Fatha Singh gathered a team
of dedicated conspirators for peace. They included Dr. Paul Hamel of Science for Peace
at U of T, Lara Barker of U of T Students for Science for Peace, medical student Andrew
Pinto, Lutheran Reverend Herbert Harms, Anglican Reverend John Beach, and Hoi Ning
Chang of the Student Christian Movement. Together, everyone decided to press on,
much as the war was pressing on, not to give up, but to continue the Peace Week effort
with another event, this time in the month of November to coincide with Remembrance
Day (US Veteran's Day), to honour and remember all those of the past who have given
their lives or had then cruelly snatched away from them in times of war.
During Peace Week II, we expanded on an experiment we had tried on the
Wednesday evening of our first go-around. Before each evening presentation, we
offered a short artistic performance with the idea of engaging the audience spiritually as
well as intellectually. We once again recruited General Dallaire, who had recovered from
his surgery. This time, he was in fine form. Dallaire spoke Monday and turned out to
be by far our most popular speaker this time. Tuesday, we included the Remembrance
Day service at the Soldiers' Tower, adjacent Hart House in our program for the first
time. Through the week, we experimented with afternoon talks and presentations, but
to an underwhelming response. More promising was Lara Barker's initiative of having
noon-hour films at Hart House with a knowledgeable speaker on hand to provide some
depth and facilitate discussion. We also started a one-day Peace Fair, the idea being to
arrange some exchange of information about what peace groups are doing on and off
campus. That first Peace Fair had just one booth: CUSO (Canadian University Students
Overseas). Another idea was to have an exhibit of children's art to showcase the
essential charm of the innocent, who increasingly are the biggest casualties of war.
Once again, the concert, even with a Juno award-winning jazz artist Richard Underhill,
failed to draw a crowd.
This time, in the search for funding, the Peace Week volunteers learned for the
first time of the Franz Blumenfeld Peace Fund. In 1982, Hans Blumenfeld had
established the resource in memory of his brother. Franz's experience as a German
soldier in World War One so dismayed him that he wrote his mother, "You know that I
have always been opposed to war, but now that I have experienced it, I have decided to
devote all my life to work for peace, if I ever come back." Franz Blumenfeld never came
back, but his spirit and the generous contributions of the fund begun in his name,
enlivened consecutive Peace Weeks.
A few weeks before Peace Week II, we experienced a crisis in the chaplains
association when it came out that a film showing alleged atrocities committed by the
Israeli army were going to be shown during our lunch our program. The film, our
Jewish colleagues assured us, was biased and anti-Semitic. After some hurried
consultation, the film was replaced by a charming work of Palestinian and Israeli
children called "Promises". The damage had been done however, this time Peace Week
went on without the financial support of the Campus Chaplains Association.
Organizing Peace Week was an ongoing experience of learning, innovation and
adaptation. From Peace Week II we took the lesson that most people like to come out
to take in famous personalities. We continued to integrate the Remembrance Day
ceremony in our program. The prelude performances were generally well received, so
we continued to experiment with different artists. Cellist Jen Lee and her accompanists
continue to be our perennial favourites. We decided to keep the noon-hour films, to
drop afternoon events and do a better job of organizing the Peace Fair next time. We
tried gathering and exhibiting children's art again for Peace Week III, but dropped it
thereafter. Too much organization required. The idea of ending with a concert sounded
good, but we were obviously having limited success in organizing them.
Unlike the first two events, Peace Week III was a whole year in the planning.
We also gained the assistance of a number of hugely helpful and talented people. David
Andrew Kim came on board and solved the problem of the anticlimactic concerts we had
been having. Instead, in association with the campus group, War Child at U of T, he
was involved with, he proposed we have a benefit concert on the last night of Peace
Week. It turned out to be a hit. Sarah Kim and Veronica Howard took the Peace Fair
and actually made it work in the palatial Great Hall. Janet Chow and Kay Rogers
together strategized and carried through the publicity effort. Not least in any respect,
Arlene Stein helped enormously in introducing Peace Week to the Hart House Social
Justice Committee and opening many doors for us at Hart House.
Peace Week III was challenging because, having arranged our star speaker,
Lloyd Axworthy in December, organizers found out much later, in June, that the ever-
popular Naomi Klein would also be available to speak - for a price. It bent the Peace
Week budget all out of shape, but in the end, thanks to generous last-minute support
from SAC (Students Administrative Council), we were able to host both of these
engaging speakers and still come out with a balanced budget.
The third Peace Week, held in November 2004, was when we first found out
about another event by the same name, at the University of Guelph. McMaster U was
also hosting a kind of Peace Week. The U of Guelph was no slouch in the program
department. They had Axworthy speaking during their Peace Week a few weeks before
ours, in October. They also had Alexandre Trudeau screening a film of the bombing of
Baghdad he himself had shot at the start of the war, the year before.
Peace Week IV was graced by the nicest posters and handouts yet, thanks to the
contributions of Abouzar Nasirzadeh and his sister. We also had a couple of massive
banners, one outside the Robarts Library entrance and the other in the Sid Smith
building foyer. These were artfully put together by Sonya Devellis.
Our fourth Peace Week had a wonderful start to it in the participatory Dances of
Universal Peace, hosted by Mark Hathaway and Caroline Tremblay. For a third
consecutive year, Lara Barker put together an awesome presentation of films and
commentators, perhaps the most gripping of which was "The Aftermath of War". She
also arranged for the U of T's own Nobel laureate, John Polayni, to speak before another
film about why the militarization of space is such a dangerous idea for everyone. This
was also Anna Jaikaran and Corina Wong's first year of involvement. Both of them
showed themselves to be bright and highly capable planners and contributors.
In 2005, Peace Week was privileged to host a couple of dazzling speakers. We
caught Denis Halliday, witness to the embargo and genocide of the Iraqi people,
winding down his several years' tour of instilling outrage at the war crimes committed
and compassion for the victims in campuses around the world. Margaret MacMillan gave
one of her last public lectures at the U of T before moving to Oxford U. She spoke on
the echoes of the Paris 1919 treaty in our violent present circumstances.
Then, on the evening of Remembrance Day 2005, Peace Week facilitated a panel
of three brave souls who practised putting their bodies in the way of physical violence to
help keep the weak and defenseless from harm. One of the groups involved was the
Christian Peacemaker Teams. Our contact with them was James Loney. Not long after,
James Loney would be making headlines in Baghdad as he was kidnapped with three
other peace makers and held in mysterious isolation for four months, then finally
rescued in March 2006. Jim Loney has agreed to join us again this year. He will speak
Wednesday, November 8 in the Great Hall of Hart House.