Success Story for Peace

Biological Warfare Giant Battelle Memorial Institute Kept out of Downtown Toronto

TORONTO -- Those who advocate for peace in a world where war remains such a profitable enterprise often have difficulty finding reasons to celebrate. With the annual global war budget gobbling up a trillion dollars (and with politicians struggling to maintain cheerfully compassionate ways of saying 'sorry, the cupboard is bare' when it comes to funding to eliminate malaria, malnutrition, and AIDS, among many social crises), it's easy to understand the occasionally glum faces one might find in peace groups.

But there are constantly cases in which small groups of people take on the big corporate behemoths that profit from this sickness and come out with a success story. These may not change the world overnight, but they are nevertheless seeds of optimism, a currency hard to come by these days.

And as potent as a victory can be when taking on a giant corporation, even more powerful is the IDEA that you can do it -- we do have more power than we know, and it's an idea that corporate executives and elite managers are loathe to let us learn and pass on.

Numerous folks across Canada felt that momentary giddy exhilaration with the successful conclusion earlier this year of the unexpectedly short two-year campaign to force SNC-Lavalin to divest itself of its bullet manufacturer SNC-TEC, a Quebec-based war merchant supplying hundreds of millions of bullets to the Pentagon.

The fact that SNC-TEC was bought by General Dynamics, which continues to produce the bullets, is certainly a downside, but let's stop here a second and ask ourselves: Why after all these years would SNC spin off one of their most profitable arms (no pun intended)?

General Dynamics continues to produce those bullets in Quebec, so it is remarkable to hear Canada's prime minister Stephen Harper address the need for Hamas to embrace non-violence while he helms a nation that makes billions from war and hosts an annual weapons show each April in Ottawa. (For those interested in more nonviolent direct action, the bullet factory is located in Le Gardeur, Quebec, and any attempt to interfere with their operations would be a real show of solidarity with the peoples of Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places where those bullets split apart human flesh).

Meantime, a small group of folks in Toronto are enjoying another success story in their attempt to keep military corporations out of education and university research. Members of People Against the Militarisation of Life (PAML) and Homes not Bombs teamed up this past spring to demand that the new MaRS Institute (Medical and Related Sciences) in downtown Toronto end a partnership with Battelle Memorial Institute.

MaRS is a publicly funded institute which is designed to help pharmaceutical corporations turn research findings into profits. One concern about having Battelle involved was the U.S.-corporation's Pentagon contract to develop an offensive strain of antiobiotic-resistant anthrax.

Raking in billions of dollars of Pentagon money, the U.S.-based Battelle Memorial Institute, as per its own website, "delivers proven capabilities in science and technology solutions for rapid transition to the [U.S.] Air Force warfighter." They boast of things like the development of "infrared missile electromagnetic interference shielding for Air Force guided missile systems," because as we all know, no missile system should be unshielded! Among their areas of research and "innovation" are "advanced weapons ... Energetics/explosives operations ... Missile defense ... Weapons development."

What could a company like Battelle do at MaRS? Perhaps learn a thing or two to aid in biological warfare research? Battelle says it "serves the [U.S.] Army as a trusted agent, providing...unmatched core capabilities in a number of mission critical areas, from CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) and advanced weapons to missile defense and development of specialized hardware and equipment."

The entrenched relationship between MaRS and Battelle seemed a sure-fire bet last December, when the Toronto Star reported: "'The Battelle people are up here quite often,'" says Ross McGregor of the Toronto Region Research Alliance (a MaRS tenant). 'They've identified some high potential R&D venues in the world and they're interested in bringing their model to them. Canada is at the top of their list.' At the peak is U of T [University of Toronto], where an National Research Council-led Centre for Biomedical Innovation could collaborate with Battelle. David Naylor, president of the U of T, says the university has been talking to Battelle for two years. 'Battelle does contract research and manages research for many institutions, often in partnership with universities. They know how to do it.'

But it appears that Battelle has backed out, perhaps due in part to the negative publicity of monthly pickets and outreach by the peace groups. A NOW magazine report noted that in early April, a month after public protests began at MaRS, it appeared that MaRS was ready to sign its contract with Battelle. But within a few weeks, things had turned around fairly quickly, with a National Research Council official telling NOW "Battelle's expertise is now less relevant to our bio-pharma direction," leading the paper to question whether the mandate of MaRS, years in the making, had changed overnight, or whether folks had gotten concerned about public controversy.

Indeed, the ground floor office that was slated for Battelle is unoccupied, and a sign marking the office as Battelle's was removed last month.

The protests at Battelle followed on the successful campaign last year to cancel a contract between the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and military manufacturer Atlantis, another seemingly sure-fire deal which failed to withstand the light of public scrutiny and public protest.

The concerns about what goes on at MaRS remain, given the dangerous precedent of turning publicly-funded research ideas into private, for-profit products. Vigilance remains important there.

But the experience of forcing these major players to back away from their plans based on the work of a small group of individuals is a potent reminder that the seemingly omnipotent of the world are opponents whose destructive actions can be checked, if not stopped, by our collective determination.

(report from Matthew Behrens of Homes not Bombs, Toronto)