20th Anniversary of the 200,000-person protest against the war in Iraq

Testimony of Louise Royer

On the 20th anniversary of the demonstration that took place March 15, 2003, against the Iraq war, it is fitting to remember the efforts that our diocesan Church contributed to that protest. 

Historically, the background was the United States’ retaliation against a so-called axis of evil in the wake of September 11, 2001. In that same month, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, then Archbishop of Montreal, intervened publicly to denounce the tendency on either side to use religion as a justification for the use of violence. The director of the Office for social action, Brian McDonough, invited the parish priests of Montreal to sign a petition drawn up by a Laval group and addressed to the Prime Minister of Canada "to recommend and promote to the American government the use of diplomatic and judicial means, such as United Nations institutions, to prosecute the perpetrators," "rather than undertaking costly and inefficient military strikes."

The Échec à la guerre collective, along with Entraide Missionnaire and Development and Peace, were all involved in opposing the sanctions against Iraq that were causing great suffering among the civilian population. A march in early August 2022 attracted a few dozen people. The collective continued to organize gatherings with skill and a sense of tact, beauty and humour. Suzanne Loiselle, the religious auxiliary who was head of Entraide Missionnaire, is still a member of the collective, as are others, including those from the organization Centre Justice et Foi.

In September 2002, the Canadian Council of Churches, with the backing of the President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien saying: "No to war in Iraq."  On October 21, this letter, accompanied with one from the United States Conference of Bishops, was distributed to the parishes of the Diocese of Montreal by the Office for Social Action, inviting the people of God to a demonstration to take place on November 17, 2002.

In January 2003, Pope John Paul II, during his annual meeting with the diplomatic corps posted to the Holy See, voiced a strong "No to war" in Iraq and the Holy Land. A demonstration was also held in that month in Montreal.

At the time, I was the new social action agent in Côte-des-Neiges. To show one’s opposition to war in Iraq, people were wearing a white ribbon. Before I could get them from the Montreal central council of the Central Labour Union (CSN), I was making them with the volunteers at the Multi-Caf food bank. I suggested the white ribbon campaign to the members of the borough council, to the organizations of the Côte-des-Neiges community council and to parishioners, in addition to posting announcements in public places of upcoming protest events.  Many of the candidates in the April 14, 2003, provincial election wore white ribbons, including all the party leaders. Seven of us local Catholics, including then parish priest of St. Kevin's, Father Francis McKee, visited the office of that riding's federal MP, Irwin Cotler. The political attaché made the connection with Pope John XXIII's Pacem in Terris, which she had learned about in 1963 in New York, where she was originally from. In other boroughs, including Ahuntsic with François Godbout, the movement was under way.

For the demonstrations, security staff had a meeting-room in Mary Queen of the World Cathedral. Former FLQ Paul Rose was in command of this service. The major unions were all mobilized, as well as Muslims who wanted to pray before the demonstration. All had spaces allotted to them. As local social action agents, we collected donations and took part in the noon Mass before setting out. At the February demonstration, the frontline of the march had reached the Guy-Favreau complex before the demonstrators in the rear had left Place du Canada. It was freezing cold, and people were staying inside businesses along the way before coming out onto St. Catherine Street as the march moved forward. The people were on the move!

On February 20, 2003, Cardinal Turcotte invited citizens to an evening of prayer at St. Joseph's Oratory. The poster was widely distributed and the Journal de Montréal printed it.

The campaign culminated in the massive demonstration of March 15, which was covered by the media. Two contingents, one from Papineau and the other from Peel Street, took up the whole width of René-Lévesque to meet up at the Guy-Favreau complex. Prams and placards jostled side by side. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made the decision not to enter the war. Unfortunately, it went ahead anyway, and the disastrous predictions came true. Did the war in Afghanistan produce any better results? In view of these tragedies, Pope Francis questions the theory of “the just war.” In Fratelli tutti (2020) he writes: " In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’ Never again war!” (no. 258)

After the speeches that day, a child was heard singing, “What a wonderful world.” Truly, people united and engaged for the sake of peace - it is wonderful.