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Ploughshares founder Ernie Regehr, who will be awarded this year's Pearson Peace Medal, is shown at his Waterloo, Ont., home on Jan. 19, 2011.J.P. MOCZULSKI

It isn't exactly the halcyon days of peace activism, when no-nukes marches pulled Canadians into the street. But you could argue that it's a movement that wears a suit now, and internationally, has reached the zenith of its power among political elites. Through it all, Ernie Regehr has been a solid constant amid the flickering fashions of Canadian peaceniks.

Mr. Regehr co-founded Waterloo-based Project Ploughshares, a church-backed peace organization, in 1976, before the peace movement became modish in the last throes of the Cold War, and stuck with it through the decades as the movement differed over complex wars in places like Afghanistan.

Now 69, the modest Mr. Regehr, respected for his expertise even by opponents, will get a bit of bling to mark that career: Governor-General David Johnston will on Friday award him the Pearson Peace Medal, last bestowed on General Roméo Dallaire in 2004.

"He's the dean of the peace movement in Canada," said retired Senator Douglas Roche, a former Tory politician and anti-nuclear activist.

Much has changed in his years in Canada's peace movement. Public fears of a nuclear world now centre on potential atomic-bomb rogues in North Korea or Iran rather than an arms race between Washington and Moscow. Activists are sometimes split on whether Western armies should be withdrawn from Afghanistan. The peace movement is fewer marches, and more master's degrees.

"It's had a very big transformation," Mr. Regehr said in an interview. "It's become a much more professionalized community in the last few decades. ... Young people can actually contemplate careers in that field. It means it's a less radical one, as well."

Some anti-war movements roared back, like demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003, but Mr. Regehr epitomizes the enduring form of Canadian peace activist, with many roots in church movements. He's been consulted by experts and governments in complex areas from nuclear arsenals to conventional arms trading and regional conflicts.

Now retired from Ploughshares but still active in peace issues, his role as decorated veteran is a long way from his beginnings with a Mennonite Central Committee assignment on the role of churches in South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. Kicked out of the country, he travelled with wife Nancy and young sons to Namibia, and was struck by post-colonial militarization.

"I became increasingly aware of the extent to which these newly independent countries were spending vast amounts of borrowed money to build up military institutions. It was kind of the theme of militarism and under-development that stuck with me when we came out of there," he said.

His first work with Ploughshares was on the conventional arms trade, and getting public attention was a hard slog. But the renewed nuclear arms race of the early 1980s changed that, and students marched. A decade later, the end of the Cold War seemed to put those fears to rest.

Now, Westerners are feeling less in control again because of fears of nuclear proliferation in rogue states. And more of the political elite back the goal of a nuclear-free world now, including U.S. President Barack Obama. Canada's House of Commons unanimously passed a nuclear-disarmament resolution in December, after lobbying by Mr. Regehr and others.

Many argue abolition of nuclear weapons is not realistic. "The least realist option is the idea that a few can maintain nuclear weapons, but the many won't want them and get them," Mr. Regehr counters. "That is delusional."

He points to incremental steps as real arms progress; he's proudest, he said, of his role in increasing transparency for exports of conventional arms and the creation of a conventional arms register.

He's travelled to Afghanistan, believing hope is not in military victory but in diplomacy and localized peace-making - but doesn't make urgent calls for immediate troop withdrawal, concerned that after intervening, Western countries have a responsibility to leave a better country, not chaos.

Acknowledging nuance is probably part of the transformation of the peace movement. Mr. Regehr says it's good when young people become politically active, but also that research is crucial. But he seems to take no credit for what the change has brought: "It's part of Canadian civic life now," he said.

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