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“It’s a Big Problem, and Not Many People Want to Fix It.” Interview with Peace Quest Cape Breton

The following transcript is an edited and abridged version of my hour-long conversation with Bhreagh McKinnon, a CBU student and a member of Peace Quest Cape Breton, who travelled to France in mid-February to attend the two-day ‘Paris Forum’ of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), subtitled How to Ban Bombs and Influence People.

ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for helping bring about the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), known simply – and fondly – as ‘the Ban Treaty.’ Adopted by 122 members – two thirds – of the UN General Assembly in July 2017, the Treaty has so far been signed by 81 states, ratified by 35, and will enter into force after 50 ratifications. It is, however, currently being ignored or ridiculed by the world’s nine nuclear-armed states (US, UK, Russia, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea) and their nuclear-dependent allies (including Canada).

Note: Bhreagh was a student in a recent course at CBU on ‘Nuclear Weapons and the Politics of Global Survival,’ co-taught by myself and Dr. Lee-Anne Broadhead. In November 2019. I interviewed another young Peace Quester, and classmate of Bhreagh’s, Christine Gwynn, about her journey to attend the trial and conviction of the ‘Kings Bay Plowshares 7,’ a group of Catholic anti-nuclear activists who in April 2018 ‘symbolically disarmed’ the Trident nuclear submarine base at Kings Bay, Georgia The interview was published in The Cape Breton Spectator and can be viewed here: https://capebretonspectator.com/2019/12/11/convictions-the-trial-of-the-kings-bay-plowshares-7/.   


1. Why Did You Go?

Sean Howard (SH): I know you’re very committed to the anti-nuclear and anti-war cause – as well as climate justice, anti-racism, and other issues – but what made you decide to take the time and spend the money to attend a 2-day event so far away, during a University term, in the middle of winter? Why did you go?

Bhreagh McKinnon (BM): Well, I was so moved by my nuclear weapons class. I mean, I learnt so much. and it’s so important, but it’s not something that’s talked about, anything like enough. Also, learning about the Kings Bay Seven really inspired me, and the conference was based on activism, how to get out there, and I’m so uncomfortable with doing anything in public, and I’d like to become more comfortable.  Because it’s a big problem, and not many people want to fix it. And I was in a place of privilege to do it, to go to Paris, so why not do it? 

2. The Critical Link: Nuclear Disarmament and the Fight for Climate Justice  

SH: One of the main campaign priorities for Peace Quest Cape Breton is to play a part, in our part of the world, in helping draw the Link between the two existential threats to life in earth: the risk of catastrophic climate change (and mass death) from global warming, and the risk of catastrophic climate change (and even more rapid mass death) from nuclear war. I know this Link is crystal clear to you, but it isn’t to many people, including people in the climate justice movement. So I wanted to ask how important and clear The Link seems to ICAN, and what success you think ICAN is having in building a coalition with the anti-global warming movement?

BM: I think it’s ICAN’s top priority: they talked about it a lot. Though I wish they talked to climate activists more, especially on social media, to join up events and messages. I mean, why is it climate marches and then disarmament marches?

SH: Some of the speakers were climate justice activists: in the opening  session, Fabio Bugelli from Youth for the Climate in France; and later Rebecca Johnson, my former boss, now advising the British Green Party on both nuclear disarmament and climate change issues. But you’re absolutely right, generally it’s not coordinated enough: and I’ve not seen a single joint event clearly making The Link. Beatrice Fihn of ICAN has been talking, I believe, to Greta Thunberg, but to my knowledge Greta Thunberg hasn’t yet publically embraced the Ban Treaty…

BM: No, and I don’t get it…

SH: There’s not much point in reducing carbon emissions and blowing the world up: we need both, Net Zero emissions and Global Zero weapons.

BM: The Link is there, it’s so obvious, but the general public doesn’t know. Some people don’t even know there are nuclear weapons in the world! And the climate movement is already so large, everyone knows about it. If you’re not a part of it, you’re looked at as reactionary, so why not latch onto that movement to push for nuclear disarmament too? It’s a perfect time.

SH: In the Green New Deal in the US, for example, The Link is missing, even though the amount of money you could save and use to make the world greener…

BM: It should common sense, to take money from war, things that hurt the environment…

SH: Not least because climate crises could generate conflict that could end in nuclear war.

BM: It’s common sense to me now – but only once I heard about it!


3. O Canada…

SH: You were telling me that there weren’t many people there from Canada, though one of the star speakers, Ray Acheson, is a Canadian woman, and Hiroshima-survivor Setsuko Thurlow has been a Canadian citizen since the 1950s. Were you surprised…

BM: I never met a Canadian, though that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

SH: What was the response you got when you said you were from Canada? Were people saying ‘go back and tell Trudeau to sign the Ban’?

BM: There wasn’t a question on our nuclear stance. There was a question on, ‘do you still have that Prime Minister who’s really pretty?’  And I think that’s really telling of how the world perceives us, because it’s like no one is actually paying attention to our policies: Canada’s just this nice country with a beautiful Prime Minister. Which is really disappointing.

SH: A ‘beautiful Prime Minister’ who refuses to meet Setsuko Thurlow! Who refused to take part in the Ban Treaty negotiations – the first negotiations in UN history that Canada has snubbed…

BM: Exactly, there are so many flaws…

SH: Do you think Canada could emerge as an important force for nuclear disarmament, if, say, it challenged NATO’s nuclear posture?

BM: I think 100%, except there’s a lot of factors preventing that. Canada is perceived as this wonderful country, so I think people would say, ‘Well, of course Canada doesn’t like nuclear weapons.’ It would go with our stereotype. But unfortunately Canada is like America’s little brother, it’s ridiculous how submissive Canada is…

SH: They took them on on landmines, in the 1990s…

BM: I know, and listening to what Canada did in the nineties with landmines, and even before that, is a vast difference from now. People from the nineties should be so disappointed and disgusted!

SH: Some of them are. Retired diplomats and officials, especially.

BM: That was one of my biggest criticisms of the federal election here last year, that almost no one talked about it. When they talked about foreign policy, which wasn’t often, they talked mainly about trade, the environment a bit, but nothing on nuclear weapons.

SH: I think Canada may have to follow on this. Say there’s a seismic political shift in Europe, perhaps a Green government in Germany – which isn’t inconceivable – or Scotland leaves the the UK and gets rid of British nuclear weapons…

BM: Yeah, I think Canada needs a really big shove!

SH: They do want a good reputation. They do want to get back on the Security Council. But what’s the point of having ‘little brother’ on the Council when you’ve already got Big Brother?

BM: Yet we’re a big country with an important history in the nuclear age…

SH: A history which isn’t well known. How many Canadians know how much uranium we supplied to the US military, for years and years, starting with uranium for the Bombs dropped on Japan? Or that that uranium was taken from the indigenous Dene people in the North, without their permission, and with terrible health effects? Why isn’t reparation for the Dene – and environmental remediation – part of this country’s ‘truth and reconciliation’ journey? But it isn’t…

BM: And that says all you need to know about what Canada – about what the colonial government – feels about indigenous people.


4. Waking the Sleepwalkers: How Can We Raise the Profile of the Issue?

SH: I’m sure that this was a major preoccupation: how do we broaden our base and deepen the discourse? The Forum itself – a tremendous success, very well attended – got almost no coverage, even in the progressive press, so that’s pretty disheartening. But it’s not in ICAN’s DNA to just get depressed, so what kind of ideas were there? I mean they became pretty famous when they won the Nobel Peace Prize, but the issue still hasn’t broken through.  

BM: One of the biggest things they stressed is that no matter how many negative comments you get (and they get a lot!), stay positive.

SH: And they have achieved an immense amount, just in the last few years, while you’ve been growing up, becoming conscious of the issue. Ten years ago there was no hint of a Ban Treaty…

BM: That’s the thing, they should be this force to be reckoned with, but they’re not seen as that. I mean, in the nuclear community they are, but the governments that support nuclear weapons don’t seem nervous. Maybe on the inside they are, but they’re not like, ‘Oh no, not ICAN!’ But other governments matter, too, and one of the most important things about the Ban is that a lot of countries from the Global South, a lot of smaller countries, have signed it, have stood up for themselves…

SH: Yes, and they’ve hooked up with countries in Europe that refuse to be defined by militarism, - countries like Ireland, Austria, that don’t want to become part of some military machine.

BM: I know it’s really nice to see countries in the Global North who aren’t investing in war, who aren’t playing that game.

SH: And Ireland’s an interesting case, because it’s suffered hideously from British colonialism, so it’s never going to think, ‘well, Britain’s big nuclear weapons will keep little old Ireland safe.’

BM: They’re tired of being pushed around.

5. “My New Obsession to Connect”

SH: The Ban Treaty is radical not just because of its sweeping, comprehensive provisions, but in how seriously it takes the racist and patriarchal prejudices that have so cruelly shaped the nuclear age, and which continue to threaten the planet with disaster.

BM: Yes, Rebecca Johnson kept calling it a ‘feminist-humanitarian treaty’.

SH: And that has roots in the landmines ban, the cluster bombs ban, and other modern disarmament agreements: but to have the Biggest Weapons of all talked about like that is itself a big deal. One of the sessions, in fact, was titled Fight the Power!, dedicated to challenging the “established narratives” of “the military, the patriarchy, big businesses, and colonial powers.” I think that’s exactly the right approach, but I also know some experts and even campaigners who feel uncomfortable with that kind of language, those kind of linkages. I’m not talking about many people, but there is some pushback and scepticism. So why do you think, in order to Ban the Bomb, we do indeed need to talk about all ‘this other stuff’ as well? Isn’t the movement ‘biting off more than it can chew’?  

BM: Well, for me, this school year, it’s become my new obsession to connect every issue. Because when you look at something like nuclear weapons only on the surface level then you won’t completely find or solve the problem, because the problem is rooted deeper. It’s a real problem that the US government thinks so little of indigenous groups that they test nuclear weapons on their land, and then do nothing about the terrible harm they cause. That’s an issue: why wouldn’t you link that? And if you do, you have another community that’s supporting you, indigenous groups all over the world, and that lets you build a fuller and more fruitful argument. And the Bomb does affect everyone and everything! It’s a feminist issue, because when Strontium-90 from nuclear testing is absorbed into the body, a mother’s breast milk is poisoning her baby!

SH: And all the hideous birth defects, the ‘jellyfish babies’, from radiation…

BM: And on the spectrum of ‘security’, when feminists want to help their community, they don’t want to do it by disadvantaging another community. But the ‘masculinized’ view of power says, well, if helping your community means disadvantaging, hurting another community, that’s OK.

SH: Power over, rather than power with. And there’s economics, with the US planning to spend at least $100,000 a minute for the next ten years on these things…

BM: Trade, economics, race: it links to everything, and if you only look at it on the ‘top’ level of the weapons, you’re diminishing the power of your argument, you remove or deny the human factor, and that’s how you get things to change, by using empathy.

SH: I mean specialists have a role to play, in constructing good treaties, ensuring adequate verification…

BM: 100%: we need facts and statistics, but we need more. Rebecca Johnson had a sign: ‘No Jargon!’ She meant ‘nuke speak,’ just using facts, statistics, euphemisms, acronyms. I think that’s what turns people off from learning more about it. You can’t understand everything the scientists are saying, because not everyone has a degree in that, and you shouldn’t have to…

SH: Well, most climate justice activists don’t understand all the science, but they know enough to know the future of the planet’s at stake. People used to say ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid!’ But now, It’s the Planet, Stupid! And it’s the same with the Bomb…

BM: Exactly. It’s a single problem – a single planet – but it’s multi-faceted.  

SH: And the peace movement has always been like that! Women have always been at the forefront of efforts to stop war, from before the First World War. Feminism has always been a part of it. Anti-colonialism has always been a part of it. Anti-racism: look at Martin Luther King, one of your heroes. He talked a lot about the Bomb, and war, but that’s been written out…

BM: And purposively written out, so the public can’t make the links. Because imagine the community you’d have backing you if it knew Martin Luther King supported nuclear disarmament. I mean, it’s very hard to be an activist, it’s very stressful: you only have one lifetime, and you have to be educated very well in the topic you’re trying to fight governments on. But a lot of activists are open to learning about more issues, about how they all connect – so that I feel that the people who say that’s ‘too much’ are ignorant of what it takes, of what’s involved in getting involved! That might be kind of harsh, but why wouldn’t you look at race, why wouldn’t you look at gender?

SH: Peace education is important in this regard. Tiny numbers of people at High School learn…

BM: I don’t think peace education even exists, honestly.  

SH: And when you suggest it, it’s called ‘propaganda,’ ‘brainwashing’: ‘you can’t reach kids about the Bomb!’

BM: You’re criticized, you’re demonized, you’re ‘too radical’. You’re too emotional, that’s the big one!

SH: That’s the gendering… You grew up partly in Texas, right?

BM: I spent fourteen years there.

SH: You know how much militarism there is in the culture, glorification of the Warrior…

BM: Oh my Gosh yes! I spent five years learning about Texas history from a colonial perspective, and I remember sitting in a class with a majority of Mexican students, and we were learning about how the Mexicans came across the Rio Grande and the white people were forced to fight to defend their land, and all the Mexicans in the class were like, ‘what?!’

SH: So Mexico invaded itself?

BM: Uh huh! I just read something about how many years it’s been since Texas ‘left’ Mexico. Texas didn’t ‘leave’ Mexico: part of Mexico was colonized. So there’s no peace education because it’s from the perspective of the colonizer.

6. SOS: Young Person to Young People…

SH: What is your message to people your age who perhaps have never thought much (if at all) about nuclear weapons: who don’t think they pose much of a threat, at least not compared to other threats: climate, debt, etc. Why, when there’s so much to worry about, should they worry about this?

BM: Because we’re all going to die! I mean that’s the simple answer.

SH: If we don’t get this right, there’s nothing else…

BM: And I came out of the conference with a new confidence, where now I want to talk about it, now I want to sit here and do this interview, take every chance possible to talk about nuclear weapons. I want to tell my friends about it, and I really want it to be known at climate marches that this is an issue. I mean, there’s lot of people saying, ‘I don’t want to have kids’ because of the environment, but it’s the same threat, or worse, with nuclear weapons.

SH: And it’s not like these things are leftovers from the Cold War, stuck in some room somewhere, safely locked up. They’re on alert, an alert that could be triggered by hacking, malfunction, misjudgement… And new ones are being built, and they’re spreading, with nine states now but more wanting to ‘join the club.’ And that’s why some people previously in favour of keeping them, like former US Republican Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, are now in favour of getting rid of them. Not because they’re making all the connections you are, or ICAN is, but even from a narrow, ‘national security,’ ‘cost-benefit’ perspective, they’re just horrified at the risks: the terrible truth that, as we speak, there are increasingly active preparations to fight and win…

BM: ‘Win’…

SH: Right, a nuclear war!

BM: You need to break the cycle of war, not invest in it…

SH: Good for the stock market.

BM: As we say in the climate movement, there’s no economy on a dead planet. Or during a nuclear winter...

SH: In my experience, when young people find out about the threat – find out, for example, that Canada is part of a Nuclear Planning Group in NATO – then their indifference can suddenly switch to indignation. ‘Why was I not told this before? Why is this never on the news?’ And I think that kind of disgust is something campaigners can use…

BM: That’s what happening with the climate marches. And it could be the same with the Bomb, because once the youth grab on to something as existential as this, they’re not going to stop. I mean, we’re not going to stop on climate policy until we get what we want. Or we die!

SH: If India and Pakistan have a bad nuclear day… 

BM: If one the leaders is feeling cranky: if Trump decides to poke at North Korea again. It’s ridiculous how easy and quickly…

SH: And that’s the other issue: what kind of democracy are you?

BM: The power is behind the curtain. ‘Democracy’ is on the curtain. But when you pull it back… And you can see that by comparing what candidates say before they get into office, and what they do when they’re in office. Even President Obama, which was so disappointing…

SH: He wouldn’t even adopt a No-First-Use policy!

BM: It’s becoming increasingly obvious to Americans, especially Americans on the left end of the spectrum: we’re all being fooled.

7. Highlights and Inspirations

SH: Final question: what surprised and inspired you most?

BM: My favourite panel was Fight the Power!, with Ray Acheson and a Russian woman, a peace activist called Faiza Oulahsen. That was the most important one for me, because it really out into perspective what happens when activists stand up, because Faiza knew she was facing years in prison, in a labour camp in Russia. That kind of courage is the only way change is going to happen. But it’s not a question of not being afraid…

SH: In the end, what are you more afraid of…

BM: Should I be more afraid of the planet dying and me dying, or should I be more afraid of being in prison for a year, or something worse. I’m not saying I would go that far…

SH: How important is it to you that when these brave people say, ‘Fight the Power!’, they mean non-violently?

BM: Martin Luther King is a massive inspiration to me. I love him so much, and he’s proved that you can be non-violent and create real change. If you just go out to the street and start violence you won’t hurt the government, you’ll let the government hurt your cause…

SH: You’ll be ‘terrorists’?

BM: Exactly. You can still create trouble, be a pest, really disrupt, without violence. And I mean, the Kings Bay Seven cutting a hole in a fence and walking around the base is the complete opposite of violence, and they’re being treated like they did the worst crime ever!

SH: When they were trying to stop the worst crime imaginable!

BM: Yes! So I would really like to be a ‘pest’!

SH: The good news is, there’s a whole spectrum of ‘pest’ behaviour! Including taking your money somewhere else, not banking with a bank that invests in nuclear weapons. ‘Don’t Bank on the Bomb’: that’s not just peaceful but legal, and if enough people do it…

BM: It’s important to find your ‘comfort level,’ work out what you can do, how to use your privilege.

SH: Well, that’s wonderful. And good luck in your career as an anti-nuclear ‘pest’!


*All photographs by Bhreagh Mckinnon

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