Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

31 Hours: the Grindstone Experiment

From 1963 to 1976, Canadian Friends Service Committee ran a Peace Education Centre on Grindstone Island. It included the Training Institute for Nonviolence, exploring how a civilian population could defend itself while maintaining the values of peace and nonviolence.

Their most famous exercise, the ‘Grindstone Experiment,’ took place over 31 hours in August 1965. Around fifty people participated in a socio-drama based on the premise that a right-wing government, backed by the US army, had occupied portions of Canada following 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 participants included four umpires, six ‘occupiers,’ and 30 adults and six children aged between two and fifteen, who acted as ‘defenders’. Only the organisers, (who included Nancy Pocock and her husband, Jack) and those acting as occupiers knew in advance what was planned. The defenders were briefed on arrival, and given time to prepare. The organisers thought privately that the exercise might go on for as long as three days. In fact it was terminated after only 31 hours.

At 3 pm on the next day, the six occupiers arrived on the island. The 'weapons' at their disposal were obviously all simulated (indicated in quotes, e.g. ‘guns’ and ‘tear gas’). The effects of using them were determined by the umpires.  Other acts, by occupiers and defenders, were carried out for real.

The occupiers announced that the defenders were in temporary custody.  They took over control of the food supply and told the defenders that they must apply for ration cards. The defenders decided to refuse cooperation.  Only children would fill in the ration cards and the rest would either fast or scavenge what they could.

The defenders had varied attitudes to how civil defence should be approached.  Some adopted what they saw as an attitude of friendly non-cooperation, seeking to achieve a degree of understanding with their captors.  Others, who took a more combative response, undertook minor acts of sabotage such as the destruction of a radio antenna.

One consequence of these mixed messages was that the occupiers quickly came to distrust any friendly overtures and to interpret sabotage as preparation for a full-scale rebellion that must be prevented.

Following the destruction of the antenna on the second day of the occupation, relationships between the defenders and the occupiers deteriorated rapidly.  A planned shared meal was cancelled, removing what could have been an opportunity to achieve a degree of understanding, and a training session in passive resistance techniques was met with a ‘tear gas’ attack.

The defenders delivered a manifesto, intended to establish a peaceful, parallel community to that of the invaders.  Among other things, it stated their intention to ring a bell on the hour every hour as an act of protest against the occupation.

The occupiers saw the manifesto as a sign of imminent insurrection.  Shortly after, as they struggled to re-establish their authority, they announced a ‘shoot to kill’ policy.

At 9 pm, one defender rang the bell and was ‘shot dead’ by the defenders.  An hour later, several of the women approached a security detail of the occupiers and began speaking to them quietly.   At this point, the commander of the occupying forces seemed to lose control of the situation. Several women were ‘shot’; there was a mass confrontation with the defenders; more defenders were either ‘shot’ or ‘gassed’ – and at a few minutes after ten pm, the umpires called off the exercise.

All the participants then spent more than three days discussing what happened. Neither side had wanted a showdown.  Both believed that their actions had been rational and non-inflammatory.  However, discussions revealed how often acts that the defenders considered non-violent were perceived as threatening by the occupiers.  Both sides were also guilty of interpreting the actions of the other in the light of preconceived expectations.

The overriding conclusion reached by all participants was that, "anything that prevents communication cannot be called nonviolence."

The summer workshops at Grindstone Island continued for several years, and the Grindstone Experiment stands as a seminal influence on the teaching of non-violent direct action.

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