WRS4. Steven Staples on Peace Quest

 

Ready to read another transcript?
Click here to return to the transcription home page

 

Project Save the World Podcast / Talk Show Episode Number: WRS4
Panelists: Steven Staples
Host: Metta Spencer

Date aired: 7 December 2020
Date Transcribed: 20 March 2021 / 16 April 2021
Transcription: Otter.ai
Transcription Review and Edits: David Millar and Adam Wynne

Metta Spencer  

Hi, I’m Metta Spencer. And today I get to talk with my old friend Steven Staples.

Steven Staples  

Hi Metta.

Metta Spencer  

Hi, Steve, how are you?

Steven Staples  

I’m terrific.

Metta Spencer  

That’s great. Wonderful. Yeah. Okay, Steve, I should say who you are. First time I ever heard of you had just founded something called the Rideau Institute. So, you ran that for what about 10 years? Steve, was that about right?

Steven Staples  

Well, the Rideau Institute was founded in 2006. And I was Founding President, a position I held for eight years.

Metta Spencer  

Okay. I, it seemed very impressive. I remember you did wonderful things. I remember a story where there was a press conference at Parliament and some Minister or somebody came out in this hall and gave this big briefing and they left the mic on. So as soon as he left, you ran over and commandeered the microphone and gave your own little speech to the world, which I thought was terrific.

Steven Staples  

Yeah, chutzpah goes a long way in Ottawa.

Metta Spencer  

I remember thinking that, you know, you actually became kind of the spokesman for the whole peace movement in Ottawa, because you had an office and you looked real, and you can look convincing.

Steven Staples  

It was never my intention, and I would never, I would never pretend to speak for anybody other than, you know, myself or my own organization. But during that time period, that was a hot time. You remember, 2006 was an important year, we found, at the Rideau Institute then — but also it was Stephen Harper’s first government. It was a minority government in 2006. And in Afghanistan, where Canadian troops were stationed, we moved from a largely peacekeeping role in Kabul to a warfighting standing with Operation Enduring Freedom. And we moved to Kandahar. So, it was a really important time for the peace movement effort in Canada. 

Metta Spencer  

Yeah. Actually, I don’t associate with you with Stephen Harper at all. Isn’t that funny? These are two different compartments in my mind. Anyway, it’s good to have you back here in Toronto, where you have changed hats or something. Because you no longer run the Rideau Institute. I guess you still have some affiliation with it. But the important thing that you’re doing now is something called Peace Quest, right? 

Steven Staples  

That’s right.

Metta Spencer  

And that’s what we’ll talk to you about today. Because I think of all the people, all the guys organizing things in Canada, you have the biggest flair for being able to make something interesting and splashy and colorful and something people want to participate in. So I hope to learn a little bit from you’re really a master with this.

Steven Staples  

I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe second only to this podcast, Metta.

Metta Spencer  

Well, we’ll see that there’s a future for this, maybe. And you’re gonna make it make it into a big event because we need to know more about Peace Quest. And this is the time to talk about it. Peace Quest was at Kingston, Ontario. Give us a history of who started it. And how come you inherited a thing of that kind, which I don’t think you were even connected with at first, were you?

Steven Staples  

Well, I’ve been friends with the Peace Quest folks for many years. So, you’re quite right. Peace Quest was launched by an amazing group of people as a community initiative in Kingston. And really, it was, the idea came in about 2012, around the centenary of the War of 1812. And you remember that we still had the Harper government at the time, and people were concerned that they were going to use the centenary as a way of kind of rewriting history and glorifying war. And they knew that two years later, in 2014, would be the centenary of World War One, which would be even bigger than the War of 1812. So, the bicentennial of those 200 years for the War of 1812 and 100-year anniversary of World War One. Anyway, the point being is that people want to say we want to take a role in this — and we want to say no, we don’t want this just to be a glorification of war, particularly the First World War, which was a terrible waste of life, you know very… no gain at from all. Warring families in Europe. All the wrong reasons. Terrible, terrible experience for millions of people who, who were affected and were killed. So, Peace Quest came about as a way to kind of counter that narrative. And it was based in Kingston. As I mentioned, there was other entities set up in: Peace Quest Cape Breton; there’s Peace Quest in Saskatchewan in Saskatoon; and there were a few others. And it had four themes. One was interfaith work, policy, the arts, and peace education. So those were the four main themes. And it ran its course. It did amazing work: it published books, it had concerts, sponsored youth work, just an amazing amount of work between the period of 2014 and 2018, which was the centenary of World War One. At the end, they said, well, you know, we’re kind of done. That was that was a great campaign. But you know, we built this wonderful thing, and maybe we could have somebody who would want to take it to the next stage. Now, I had been involved in, participated in their events, and I’d been collaborating with them. And so, through a very good community-based protest, I was asked to become the chairperson of a new version of Peace Quest. Slightly different, but built on the foundations, playing tribute to history with a little bit of difference now. And it’s called Peace Quest Leadership and Education Initiative. And it still has strong roots in Kingston, strong roots in the peace-education world, but it’s a different configuration, and we’re taking the work a little more broadly and exploring new areas. So. I’m really excited about it.

Metta Spencer  

Well, yes, because I always thought of Peace Quest as kind of a local initiative. In other words, everything it did was in Kingston. It didn’t aspire to be an international movement or anything of that kind. Or even a Canada-wide one. As far as I know. It was a group of people in a local community who did amazing work. And I actually didn’t know very many of them. I think I know Jamie Swift a little bit. How many other people should I’ve known from that group? Are there other people that —

Steven Staples  

There was an amazing group: [Sister of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul] Sister Pauline Lally was a co-founder with Jamie Swift. Michael Cooke was also involved. He was actually one of the original founders of Project Ploughshares. There was a lot of people from the education community: Judy Wyatt and Ann Boniferro, Bronek Korczynski, and many other people who were involved in the arts community, in the peace community, and in education. So Peace Quest has a very strong education role in it, which Metta, as you know, I did 20 years of hard labor in Ottawa, doing big policy battles. And then before that, I was an organizer for 10 years on the West Coast in Vancouver, where, you know, we would face off against nuclear submarines in Washington State.

Metta Spencer  

It was your organization out there, because that was before we were acquainted. I knew your name, But, I don’t even remember what group you were running in Vancouver.

Steven Staples  

Back in the 90s, it was a peace group based in Vancouver called End the Arms Race.

Metta Spencer  

Oh, so that was, okay. Well, that was the main outfit in Vancouver, right? I didn’t realize. 

Steven Staples  

It was. It was a coalition of labor organizations and community organizations. And I had some wonderful, wonderful mentors and I was being trained. I was a much younger guy. And I had, it was a great experience. And then and then toward the end of the 90s, I was an organizer for Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians. And I opened up the Council of Canadians’ first office outside of Ottawa, and it was based in Vancouver, where I was an organizer for the Council and set up chapters around the province and was part of the Canadian contingent that went to the big “Battle of Seattle” and the World Trade Organization in 1999. 

Metta Spencer  

Does End the Arms Race still exist as such?

Steven Staples  

No.

Metta Spencer  

Okay. But Peace Quest does. So, let’s go back to Peace Quest.

Steven Staples  

Well, I think it’s an exciting time, actually Metta, because some groups in End the Arms Race…. I think it kind of dissolved in the early 2000s. I think it was probably about time. But as you see, organizations have lifespans, and they have life cycles. Movements have life cycles too. I mean, they may not disappear, but they wax and wane as conditions change. I’ve certainly I’m old enough now, to have seen the movement go… as you know, we all are aware that we could probably say we can see different times through the emotion of it. And actually, that’s one of the things that I’m very interested in now that I’m in my 50s. I’m a little bit of an older guy. How movements transcend from one generation to the next. It’s very important and the peace movement right now is going through a real moment, in terms of older leadership being transferred to the younger people and new peace groups are being set up now, which is really exciting, and I’m interested in education and working with young people to get their organization started, just like people helped me back in the 1990s and in the 2000s.

Metta Spencer  

Wonderful. Well, okay, so how are you gonna go about that? I understand you have a regular job at York University. 

Steven Staples  

I’m actually a graduate student at York. And I do research there as well. And so yeah, so I do a little bit of work. I also work with other organizations in terms of fundraising and things like that. And do Peace Quest, so I’m a pretty busy guy. Yeah.

Metta Spencer  

Yeah, yeah, sure. Well, tell me what your degree is and what you’re working toward as a graduate student.

Steven Staples  

I’m doing a Master’s of Leadership and Community Engagement at the Faculty of Graduate Studies, but it’s kind of rooted in —

Metta Spencer  

You could be teaching that course, man. And you’re taking that course?

Steven Staples  

It’s, it’s awesome. It’s awesome that I am not the oldest person in the class. I’m second oldest at 54.

Metta Spencer  

No, that’s not my point of view, it’s your experience. Because I bet you whoever’s teaching that course. You have, you could run circles around that person. I don’t know who that is. I apologize if I’ve offended. But your own background is quite stellar. 

Steven Staples  

Well, I’ve had a great opportunity to do a lot of things. But, it’s important, though, to have the theory, as you know, being an academic yourself, that’s the theory is important. And people like activists, folks like me, and many others. You know, there’s not many opportunities to do the book learning side of things. It’s really a question of trial and error.

Metta Spencer  

 Oh, come on. I’m not sure that I can remember anything from my academic career, that is particularly helpful for me now doing the work that I do. So if you can say that you’re really learning something that’s useful, please put me back in touch with my roots. (Steven chuckles) I don’t remember it with any great sense that, you know, I can refer to that as a source of, of guidance. Do you think you’re learning something that’s useful?

Steven Staples  

Oh, absolutely. Yes, thanks. Sometimes I’ve been sitting there thinking, you know, as we as we’re going through the lectures, or I’m doing some of the readings around policy development, things like that, or different campaigns that I go, “Oh, that’s why when I tried doing that thing, that time, and it didn’t work.” And it’s like, had I read this, maybe I would have done things a little bit differently. So, there’s a great, great benefit to it. But also, there’s other benefits too, Metta. I’m learning with a wonderful cohort of 30 other millennials, early career professionals, many of whom are involved in other social movements, or in education, and the insight and things that I’m learning from the next generation of activists coming up, is… that’s just as useful to me as anything I’m reading in those textbooks.

Metta Spencer  

 Oh, well that’s really good to know. That’s very encouraging. Yeah, they’re playing to me. Maybe I can sneak in and sit in the back row someday? No, I bet you don’t even hold the classes, are you? You’re probably doing it all by Zoom.

Steven Staples  

It’s all on Zoom, yes. So, which is quite interesting, because also learning the pedagogy of doing digital education is fascinating as well.  

Metta Spencer  

You were actually, a few months ago, I know you offered free lessons on how to Zoom. And you had quite a following. I attended one of them.  I still have things I need to learn about Zoom, but at any rate you gave a great course for anyone that wanted to learn how to use it.

Steven Staples  

Well, I did. In part, I was lying in bed one morning, with the silence of COVID all around us. It must have been late March. And I was thinking, what are we going to… what does all this mean for our work? You know, how are things changing? And what contribution can I possibly do in this situation when we’re all in lockdown? And so, I came to realize, as activists as a community of activists, we’re going to need to figure out a whole new way of engaging with our supporters, of talking amongst ourselves. Our essential work in peace is going to have to continue no matter what. So, I knew that we were going to have to learn a new language of digital communication in order to keep the movement going. Because movements must adapt to different circumstances. And I thought, this is just another moment of adaptation. And I think that I can probably teach people how to do this in order to keep the movement going. And I taught over 700 people through 25 workshops.

Metta Spencer  

Oh, that was a lot more than I knew of, good. Well, you know what I think in some ways, it’s really a blessing. It is not just a useful way to make up for the fact that we don’t get to do the things that we’re used to. It’s not always better. The thing is, I have a much more transnational orientation, I think Canadian activism, by and large is rather parochial. Canadians only can think of, as far as the boundaries of Canada go, and don’t really think very much in terms of being a world leader, and taking on a movement or challenge that has to be global in scope. So, but I don’t think very Canadian-ly, and I do have a lot of friends in other countries, and I want to talk to them. So, the blessing of Zoom is it doesn’t matter. I mean, you could be in South Africa, you could be in Siberia, you could be in the middle of Australia, and just participate in a conversation, as we’re doing right now. As well as you, who are right here in town as you are. So that, I think, is going to nudge us into thinking beyond borders. And I don’t see why we haven’t already, but now there’s no excuse to just be limited in our perspective to a Canadian only. In fact, we don’t even have Canadian only, as you know, I just asked you whether End the Arms Race still exists. it was a major Vancouver and West Coast movement. And I the fact that I had to ask whether it still exists, is another indication of the fact that even various parts of Canada are not in touch with each other as much as we ought to be. So, you know, I don’t know that many people in BC and I don’t know them well, of course I wouldn’t have met them mostly. But, I think, we can meet now and we should, and this does definitely mean that we can go past some of the limitations that we’ve normally had meetings in person. And some people miss that a lot. Doug Roche wrote an article for Peace Magazine lamenting Zoom. As if poor Zoom was to blame. I mean, he said, he likes to hug people, and he can’t hug people on Zoom. Well, yeah, that’s a limitation. But everything else is pretty good. I think it works reasonably well; don’t you think? 

Steven Staples  

I think for anything there’s advantages and disadvantages, and it’s still way too early to be able to say definitively, you know, in a final word of whether this is good or bad. I can certainly think of some good examples. For instance, when I’m also part of a Toronto-based group called Hiroshima-Nagasaki Day Coalition, which does an event every year down at Nathan Phillips Square on Hiroshima day on August 6, commemorating the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Well, this year, they had to move everything online, because that’s just the way it was, it was COVID. But suddenly, we realized that, wow, this audience that we used to just have a few 100 people in the square was much greater now by putting it online. So the reach of that event suddenly became part of an international discussion, which I think was really exciting. However, there is a downside too – many of those people that I trained on zoom involved, not just donors and activists, but also organizers, people in organizations. And about eight weeks ago, I did a post-survey. So, it would have been the late summer saying:  “What’s your experience been, has it been positive or negative? Do you feel that your community engagement has been impacted at all?” By and large, most individuals felt quite positive about it, they felt that things were okay. And they still felt connected. Most organizations also felt positive, but there was a definitive, greater sense of uncertainty about how effective it was. So the effectiveness of it has yet to be determined, I think. 

Metta Spencer  

Compared to what though? What would you…?  I would wonder how to judge effectiveness anyway? I mean, you know, as a former professor, I remember, you know, planting a hell of a lot of seeds in my life, many 1000s of students that was planting seeds in, and once they were out of the course, I never saw them again. So, you never have the feeling of confidence that what you were doing really had any impact, or any lasting effect. That’s true for education in general, I think. But for Peace Magazine, which I have been editing for 38 years or something like that – nobody dislikes it, nobody complains about it. How much good is it doing? I don’t know. I think you anyway have to, sort of just do it out of faith that you’re doing the best, you know what to do? You think that it ought to make a difference and you have faith that maybe somehow you are making a difference. And of course, if you get any negative feedback, you take that into account. But I don’t really have any idea how I would know, whether even this what we’re gonna do today or doing today… Is that going to do anybody any good in the world? I don’t know. But let’s do it anyway. It’s fun.

Steven Staples  

Well, I’m totally with you there, I’m not one to rule out yet. Doing a video is a tactic. You know, I’ve been involved in enough policy debates, and know that sometimes when we engage with trying to address an issue, and move it in a certain way, we have our own idea of how that’s going to unfold, how, what does, how is that story gonna play out? Right? And so many times, though, it doesn’t work that way. And you arrive at your endpoint, you achieve your win, but from a completely different direction. And you kind of go, “Oh Cool, I think we’ve won, have we won?” I mean, that’s one of the things.

Metta Spencer  

Are we there yet, Daddy? (laughs) 

Steven Staples  

Things happen all the time in unexpected ways and we can’t predict it. And so sometimes you’ve just got to start different initiatives. But asking really good questions. And this is one of the things that I’m particularly interested in. I don’t like to leave things totally… [unclear audio]… I need to know that when I have such limited resources, and when you’re in Ottawa, when I was running the Rideau Institute, I had so limited resources, I didn’t have time to do things wrong, I really felt like I didn’t have the latitude to make mistakes, I had to really get it right. So, in order to be effective. So, I need to do my best educated guess, in using data, using analysis and mixed with some intuition, as well, to get a sense of what is going to work. So now we’re talking about: how do we create the next generation of activists? Well, how does that happen? And this is what brings us full circle back to what I was mentioning earlier. How do social movements transcend from one generation to the next? All of the big social movement have had to do it, whether it’s slavery, or women’s rights, or all these things?

Metta Spencer  

I don’t believe in any of it. I have a completely different take on how, and the issue… I’ve never been in an organization that didn’t have at some point, and often every day, conversation about “how do we get young people into our movement?” As if without young people coming in is the end of the story? No. Young people if they’re going to do anything, they’ll do it on their own, they want to do their own, that’s what being young means, trying to get away from Mommy and Daddy, and do something independently. So, movements, like, you know, the climate-change movements that are youth-led, are really youth-led, and bless their hearts — go for it kids — terrific, — if we can support you, we will — but it’s yours. That’s great. Let them do it. They are not interested in joining an organization full of old people. However, that doesn’t mean that’s the end of the story. How do we get our replenishment of members? From other old people or other people, rather, who are about to become old. The best time to recruit somebody to the peace movement is when they turn 65 because then they’re about to retire, and they’re going to have lots of free time. And they have lots of smarts and lots of background and lots of information still in their heads, and some of them can still run around the block. So that’s the time you want to get somebody into your movement. And that’s where I get all of the people who work with me. Everybody on the editorial committee of Peace Magazine has gray hair. That’s because that’s when they’re ready to enter the peace movement again. Young people will join, maybe, will look around for a year or so. But they’re going to go on and do something different. And then when they get to be 65, then they’ll come back or they’ll come off to a different kind of organization. So, I think this thing about having to say we have to pass it to the next generation or it’ll die. That’s nonsense. We just get the next batch of old people. There’s always a funnel of old people coming through. So, you know, hang in there in a few years, Steve, you’re going to be ready for me to recruit you! (chuckles) 

Steven Staples  

I look forward to that day.

Metta Spencer  

Tell me, let’s go back to talking a little bit about Peace Quest before we end because I want to hear your aspirations. What are you going to do with this outfit now that you own it?

Steven Staples  

Well, I don’t own it, we have a board. One of the things we’ve done, it was really kind of a kind of campaign structure originally. I had a four-year lifespan, certain set… a very specific goal. That’s really a campaign, as opposed to an organization, I would say. And so now we’ve kind of gone back, we’ve registered it, we have a board, we’re trying to put it together in sort of more firm footing, building on the basis that was there. Going forward, it’s still very new. But I think certainly I’m interested in the education aspect. And seeing where peace education fits. I look at the peace movement right now in Canada and even internationally. One thing, I don’t want to create another organization or be part of another organization that’s just duplicating things that other people are doing, and probably doing better than me, than I would. So what are the areas? Where are the gaps right now in the peace movement? And when I talk to people, when I ask their advice, education does seem to be one of the areas where we do not have a strong presence, whether it be working with teachers, whether it be going into schools, if we talk Kindergarten to Grade 12, or even in some cases, doing mentorship and early career-coaching for young professionals. At the Rideau Institute we did have a fairly robust internship program. And that’s continued on, and we have interns all over Ottawa, in organizations all over Canada, even after just a fairly short time of less than 10 years. But I’m interested in K-12 because I actually am a teacher, and I was trained as a teacher. And so, I’m interested in looking at what we can do in terms of focusing on that peace education. There’s also going to be some policy work. I also see adult education as part of that and advocacy and organizing. So, there’ll be those elements as well. But I think those are the two areas where there will be certainly some kind of campaigning and organizing. But also, I want peace education to be an important part of it.

Metta Spencer  

Okay, good. What about post-secondary education?

Steven Staples  

Absolutely. So, that’s a bit of a different kettle of fish. But I think there’s certainly opportunities for experiential education for people involved in looking for early career work. My view, Metta, maybe is a little bit different than yours. I mean, certainly, you know, the over-65 crowd is essential and important, everybody’s important. But my view is to really bring in the next generation:  jobs are key.  We need to find people jobs in the peace movement. We need to teach them how to fish, not just give them fish. And I know that was important for me, and we all kind of draw from our own experience. But I had a job and I learned on the job. And I became, you know, it became a profession, not a volunteer, not a hobby. If you look at other movements, like the environmental movement, there are 1000s of people who go out and earn a paycheck every day trying to protect the environment. Well, we need a lot more people earning a paycheck every day trying to work for peace.

Metta Spencer  

Absolutely. My grievance is that, I mean, I ran a peace and conflict program at the University of Toronto, I founded it and ran it for 15 years before I retired. And then of course, they retired the program because there was only me, and that was okay with me, because I knew that if they kept it going, they would get somebody who really didn’t know anything about it. And it wouldn’t be a very good program. So, I’d rather have it die. But nevertheless, my point is I kept on teaching afterwards. For several years, I kept giving a free course on nuclear issues: nuclear power and mostly nuclear weapons. I felt it was very distressing that there wasn’t a single course at the University of Toronto on nuclear weapons. I’m not sure what you could take on nuclear power, but I think probably in, you know, engineering and places like that you could take courses. But as it stands now, the University doesn’t offer courses on nuclear weapons, never has, and as far as I can tell, never intends to, which is really, really sad. Because, you know, that’s something that a student should even be able to major in, much less — you know, just get one course in. So, you know, I think that may be one of the things that we could do by way of fostering real peace education is to lobby universities and even community colleges and other institutions of post-secondary education to give courses on nuclear weapons and the nuclear threat. I don’t know how to do that. But if you know of any way, let’s talk about it. What do you know about that? 

Steven Staples  

Actually, there are quite a few Peace and Conflict programs in Canada, they are not… really, I mean, working in the peace movement myself for many years, I never felt very connected to those groups. And I was kind of surprised, actually, to learn that there were so many out there. So, I think that’s certainly an area you want to look at. You mentioned post-secondary education, whether it can be linked up with social movements. I do know, there’s some work being done at the University of Cape Breton on nuclear weapons. So, you find pockets of these things. 

Metta Spencer  

That’s really quite rare

Steven Staples  

Maybe Zoom has provided us an opportunity to reach out and find these courses. And, what they say, we can amplify them, now using the technology. That’s really exciting.

Metta Spencer  

Well, it’s terrific. I’m just delighted that you’re doing this, Steve and we ought to have a conversation like this once a month to find out what you’re doing and what everybody else is doing. Because you… we both have our fingers to the pulse of various peace groups in Canada. And I wish you all good luck and good wishes for the success of Peace Quest and we’ll stay in touch. All right.

Steven Staples  

Thanks, Metta. I look forward to seeing more of your [Project] Save the World programs. You’re doing great education work, you’re a real inspiration.

Metta Spencer  

Thanks so much, Steve. Take care. Bye.