Ottawa Gun Show

Spoken words and explosive goods

Montreal’s Poets Against War get on the bus against Ottawa’s weapons fair

There’s more to Ottawa than skating down the canal, chowing down on a beaver tail at the ByWard Market and brooding over the ominous lack of litter on the city’s streets. This June 2 and 3, you’ll also be able to stock up on laser-guided missile systems, as the world’s leading gun runners show off their wares at CANSEC, the country’s largest defence and security trade show. Over the two days, a six-foot fence will surround Lansdowne Park, on the banks of the Rideau Canal, as government representatives browse different firms’ diversely spectacular methods for blowing things up.

“Most Canadians have no idea how big a role Canada plays in producing and exporting military hardware,” says Richard Sanders of the Coalition Against the Arms Trade (COAT), a group that is organizing a protest against the convention. “We consistently rank in the world's top ten weapons exporters. Between 2003 and 2006, Canada exported at least $7.4 billion to 88 countries.”

If this makes Ottawa a synecdoche for the country’s increasing militarization, it is an irony not lost on local poets. Montreal-based Poets Against War (PAW) is currently recruiting a battalion of bards to lay siege to the convention with an arsenal of metaphor, allusion and a panoply of obscure rhetorical devices.

Poetry is powerful because it puts a lot in a capsule and fires it off. The effect of a good poem can be long-term,” says poet and PAW founder Sandra Stevenson.

Stevenson’s been poetically protesting the convention since the 1980s, when it was known by the less euphemistic moniker of ArmEx. After the 1989 convention, Ottawa City Councillors passed a motion that banned arms trade exhibits in the city.

From then until 2008, the arms exhibit went indoors, or underground so to speak,” says Stevenson. “The current Ottawa Mayor [Larry] O’Brian found a loophole in that bylaw and basically overturned it. Then, in 2008, at the last minute the exhibit was cancelled, which I believe means it went indoors.”

2009 saw the first public CANSEC exhibit in the park, which was greeted by a small contingent of demonstrators. Stevenson says you don’t have to look far to find the motivation for the change in the law: “O’Brian owns a weapons manufacturing company himself.”

O’Brian is the founder of and current director at Calian, a company that supplies defence technology to governments around the world.

Fellow poet protester Hugh Hazleton sees what the group is doing as the inheritance of a long tradition of political poetry.

“Poetry is not just art for art’s sake. There’s a long tradition of socially active poetry, from the Beats in the United States to movements in Latin America and the Afro-American and Afro-Canadian communities,” he says. “It’s the same people who benefit from the silence of poets on these questions that then promote the idea of art that’s not involved with society at all.”

Even as Stevenson gets ready to bring her verse to the barricades, she acknowledges that political poetics are tough to pull off.

“The thing about poetry is it's not supposed to be cut and dried: if there's ambiguity it's fascinating. So how do you talk about unambiguous things like ‘war is bad for children and other living things?’ It’s the most difficult poetry to write.”

Nevertheless, Stevenson thinks the reality of injustice puts an onus on poets to strive to express this reality. In response to critics who think political poetry is formulaic, she asks in her poem Formula for Denial and Amnesia: “How many formulae are there/ For a person to die? / How many body parts have to be lost?”
The poets will assemble on June 2 at noon at the gates of Lansdowne Park. To participate email: For more information see COAT encourages people to send antiwar graphics and statements of peace to decorate the fence outside CANSEC. See for details.

Montreal Mirror 27 May 2010 (this is the unedited text)


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