Fifty-five years ago today – October 12, 1957 – a cable was sent to his residence from Oslo, but ended up at the wrong house. It informed him that he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He had no idea. Four hours later a reporter called him requesting an interview regarding the honour and for the very first time Lester Pearson learned of the award. He said later that day that he was both shocked and honoured.
Those seemed like simpler times looking back on the era, yet they were anything but. We watch the developments in Syria or Libya and harbour a certain trepidation that things could suddenly explode. But think what it was like during the dangerous early days of the Cold War when Britain, France and Israel planned a secret invasion of Egypt. When America, the Soviet Union and the UN caught wind of it and forced the invaders to abandon their plans, the world stood on the brink of something it feared. When Pearson suggested an international peacekeeping force to stand in the gap, a way out of the dilemma was discovered – thus Pearson’s Nobel Prize a year later. Many times during my sojourn as an MP I would visit the lobby of the Foreign Affairs building in Ottawa just to see the that medal on permanent display. There wasn’t one time I didn’t come away inspired.
Those were the days when Canada had a remarkably respected diplomatic corps and when we fought for an international policy separate from the powerful influences of both Britain and the U.S. – our two key partners. I understand that those days are now in our past, but what say we make a daring move in this direction once more by pushing for the Nobel Prize next year to be awarded to one of the most remarkable groups to ever throw their weight behind peace.
I speak specifically of the women of Sudan – north and south. Canada has invested plenty of resources in ending that conflict since the days of Brian Mulroney. The truth is that many in our successive governments never believed the day would come when north and south Sudan would settle for peace instead of maintaining Africa’s longest running civil war. So much has been made of international influence, the male leaders of both south and north, and the intervention of other African luminaries, that few know of the profound influence of Sudanese women on both sides of the border.
The idea for pressing their case for the Nobel Prize is not mine, but found its origins in the remarkable research work of Margret Verwijk. Senior policy officer at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Verwijk worked in the Dutch embassy in Khartoum for years and likely knows the deep influence of Sudanese women better than anyone else.
“Women were tired of war,” she says. “My research demonstrates that their struggle for peace was not in vain. Their contributions and demands reflected longer-term interests. For example, improving women’s economic situation and their political participation. Their struggle and efforts did not stop at the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.”
My wife and I, along with the teams we take repeatedly to Sudan each year, can confirm Verwijk’s finding from our own experience. At almost every level women from the north and south continue to be frustrated by the never-ending penchant for violence often shown by military leaders and march in defiance of such an outcome. The Sudanese women, as with any war, are always the ones remaining behind to pick up the pieces of shattered societies. We have discovered that it is their ability to take up the responsibility for survival of their communities that has changed the channel in Sudan: violence is no longer the preferred option. The very women who were the primary victims of civil war have now become the champions and guarantors of peace. Once the war ended they could have just gone back to their mud hut tukuls, attempting to carry on with the remnants of their lives. But instead they opted to remain engaged because they understand well enough, following centuries of experience, that the end of war does not guarantee the permanence of peace. They hold up more than half the sky; they shoulder most of the hope for a sustainable future.
Gone are the days when we viewed women as mere victims. They are interventionists, administrators, guarantors, mediators, entrepreneurs, advocates, fearless visionaries, and the fundamental grounding for the future of both north and south.
Groucho Marx used to joke that, “only one man in a thousand is a leader of men, the other 999 follow women.” It’s not a joke in Sudan; it’s largely a reality. Of course men still dominate the major leadership roles, but women fill in the rest, thereby giving their communities the grounding of peace.
Successive Canadian governments for over two decades have assisted in laying the foundations for this remarkable transformation. Canada provided women leadership training. CIDA constructed women’s micro-enterprise centres. The travel for women to attend peace conferences in places like Nairobi, Kenya, was funded by Canada.
This country is invested in the future of both Sudans by resourcing women at numerous levels. We should now take it one step further and push for their nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Such a precedent is neither outlandish or beyond possibility. Yesterday was officially the International Day of the Girl. The year should be topped off with a Nobel Prize for those very women who are paving the way for all those girls who are about to expand the envelope of peace.