Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Grindstone Island: Quaker Peace Education Centre

“How can we, who advocate nonviolence, actually practise it in hostile, threatening situations?”

From 1963 to 1976, Canadian Friends Service Committee operated a Peace Education Centre on Grindstone Island, on Big Rideau Lake, south of Ottawa, which attempted to address this question.

In their initial statement of purpose, the Centre’s planning committee wrote:

"We believe that the securing of a just and lasting peace should be the concern of everyone. Such a tremendous task requires all the human and spiritual resources that we can muster. The Grindstone Island Peace Centre provides opportunities to develop such resources. Through retreats, training institutes and programs of peace education and action, the centre seeks to contribute to the quality of ideas and action, and to the growth of insight and skills required by peacemakers today."

One arm of the Peace Education Centre, known as the Grindstone Island Training Institute for Nonviolence, used realistically simulated conflict situations to explore how a civilian population could defend itself from tyranny, while maintaining the values of peace and non-violence.

The most famous exercise carried out at the Institute, known as the ‘Grindstone Experiment’ took place over 31 hours in August 1965.  Fifty people in total participated in a socio-drama based on the premise that a right-wing government, backed by the US army, had occupied major portions of Canada in the wake of the secession of Quebec. The central questions to be addressed were: how can pacifists maintain their beliefs in nonviolence under the threat of armed attack? And, can nonviolent civilian defence be applied against an imposed tyranny?

The organisers had expected that the exercise might go on for as long as three days.  However, the experiment was ended abruptly after thirteen participants were “killed” while in custody. Group discussions held afterwards revealed how acts that the ‘defenders’ had considered non-violent had been perceived as threatening by the occupying forces.  The overriding conclusion reached by all participants was that, "anything that prevents communication cannot be called nonviolence."

Other programs held on the island included annual conferences for Ottawa diplomats – including one that took place on the eve of Soviet tanks entering Prague in 1968. Participants were encouraged to leave their diplomatic roles behind and join in with everything from sports to running the kitchen.

For seven years, Alan and Hanna Newcome ran the Quaker-UNESCO Seminars, on issues such as the civil war in Biafra-Nigeria, India-Pakistan conflicts on Kashmir, the struggles against apartheid in South Africa, the movement for women's rights, tensions between East and West Germany, the isolation of China from the UN, the reform of UN voting patterns, and the threat of nuclear war between the US and the USSR.

In 1972, when a five-year test suspension of the death penalty in Canada ended, a working party was held on Grindstone Island to discuss the issues this raised for Quakers.

From 1976, when the island was sold to members of the Peace Movement, until 1990, the Centre was owned and operated by the Grindstone Cooperative.  Weekend workshops would take place throughout the summer covering peace, cooperative living, energy and the environment, tools for social change, and personal and community values.

.  In 1980, a small group of Quakers and others (including Murray Thomson and Hans Sinn, who had both been closely involved with the Peace Education Centre) returned to the island to launch Peace Brigades International, an organisation that promotes nonviolence and protects human rights.

As Murray Thompson, one of the founders of the Peace Education Centre wrote in “Unfinished Business:  the Legacy of Grindstone Island”:

“If we had a million Grindstones in the world, and kept dumping people on them for ten days at a time, we'd know who was strong and who was weak, and that tenderness can be found in the most unlikely places.”

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