Skip to main content

John Polanyi is Nobel laureate at the University of Toronto who has written widely on questions of war and peace. This text is adapted from a speech delivered on Parliament Hill Thursday

Over a thousand members of the Order of Canada have signed an appeal for strengthened Canadian leadership in the quest for nuclear disarmament. The Order of Canada exists to recognize individual Canadians who, as a recent Governor-General put it, "have helped to build…a more caring nation…" This is thought to be the first instance in which members have joined in a public statement.

They do not speak for the Order, but for themselves. They do so as a signal of these hazardous times. For the 1,000, this was a solemn decision. It will not be lightly repeated.

The hazard to which the signatories draw attention is fundamental to the Atomic Age, an age that had its beginnings in the lifetimes of some. It differs from the ages before, as much as the Iron Age did from the Stone Age. To survive in this new age, we believe, will require a huge effort of will and imagination.

The great divide that has opened in human history came about as a result of discoveries in science between the World Wars. It was made real by the efforts of the scientific community during the Second World War, hurrying to build an atomic bomb before Hitler's Germany could do so.

Canada contributed in an important way, on Canadian soil, to this first harnessing of nuclear energy. The effect on world history was immediate. Yet, seventy years later we still struggle to comprehend it.

In the summer of 1945, before there had even been a test of the new weapon, scientists working on the Manhattan Project warned of the imminent danger. This is how they phrased it, addressing the president of the United States: "If no efficient international agreement is achieved, the race for nuclear armaments will be on in earnest not later than the morning after our first demonstration of the existence of nuclear weapons."

They were right. Their warning was heeded by many in this country. Even at the height of the Cold War, despite our U.S. allies urging us to accept nuclear weapons, Canada insisted on keeping this country nuclear weapons-free. Given our membership in a nuclear alliance, this seemed an empty gesture. But it was not.

Governments fell as the country debated accepting nuclear weapons in Canada. The final decision helped define us as a nation. We were renouncing nuclear weapons in the hope that this would free us to argue more forcefully for the only policy that offered hope for survival in an age of limitless destructive power.

Canada then went on to make the same point in declining to join our allies in building a shield designed to protect the continent from nuclear attack. It was President Reagan's dream that the scientists "who gave us nuclear weapons, now … give us the means for rendering them … obsolete." However, a year later, in a State of the Union Address of 1984, he came to terms with reality: "A nuclear war," president Reagan declared, "cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in having nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?"

His words have been echoed many times in this country, and around the world. The actions needed to achieve this goal will include gestures that acknowledge the contemporary predicament.

Moderation of language is one such gesture. Nuclear powers should eschew the rhetoric of the prenuclear age, including threats of devastation.

International agreements, such as that passed this summer at the United Nations to include nuclear weapons in the list of those that are banned as being inhuman, give us cause for hope.

Canada was mistaken in greeting the recent nuclear ban dismissively. We should recall that William Wilberforce's speech in the British House of Commons, which led in his lifetime to the abolition of the slave trade, was similarly dismissed. Hard-nosed contemporaries warned that "human nature does not change," forgetting that human behaviour can.

In the case of slavery, a historic global change came purely out of moral revulsion. Where nuclear weapons are concerned, the power of moral revulsion is joined by the universal desire for survival.

Given these combined forces, behaviour in regard to nuclear weapons can certainly change. But for this to happen, we shall need a tidal wave of new thinking, to which this ripple from the Order of Canada will now contribute.