This August marks 75 years since two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing over 210,000 deaths by the end of 1945. Virtual events in support of peace and nuclear disarmament are being held across Canada for the anniversary of these tragedies. Three-quarters of a century on, nuclear weapons regrettably continue to threaten peace and security around the world.
The use and testing of nuclear weapons have catastrophic consequences for human survival. Ratifying the 2017 United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which aims to totally eliminate nuclear weapons, is a crucial step towards a safer and more egalitarian world. Nuclear war and disarmament are uniquely feminist issues. Given the objectives of Canada’s current “feminist foreign policy,” ratifying the treaty would be a key move if the country wants to assert itself as a major player in international affairs.
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In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, women survivors of the atomic bombings faced almost double the risk of developing and dying from cancer due to ionizing radiation exposure. This gendered difference was also observed after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, where girls were considerably more likely to develop thyroid cancer from nuclear fallout than boys.
Although women and girls experience disproportionate effects from nuclear weapons, they are underrepresented at forums where decisions about these weapons are made. From 2010 to 2014, only approximately a quarter of official country delegates at nuclear forums were women.
Women also play a crucial role in peace and disarmament activism. In 1962, Dr. Ursula Franklin partnered with the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace and collected samples of baby teeth to test for radioactive substances and map potential nuclear fallout patterns in order to pressure governments to ban nuclear testing. In 2017, Japanese-Canadian activist and Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Thurlow is currently calling on Canadians to support her letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which requests that Canada ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and acknowledge its role in the development of nuclear weapons and the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Canada has recently recognized that sustainable peace is only possible when women are involved in peace resolution efforts. In 2019, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed Jacqueline O’Neill as Canada’s first Ambassador for Women, Peace and Security to advance Canada’s feminist foreign policy goals. But Canada’s second consecutive loss of a UN Security Council seat in June signals that the international community may think differently about Trudeau’s declaration that “Canada is back.” Ireland, which won the seat over Canada by a margin of 20 votes, has had nuclear disarmament as a cornerstone of its foreign policy since 1968.
Canada has ratified a few key treaties that limit countries from acquiring and testing nuclear weapons. But these do not go far enough to prevent another nuclear catastrophe from happening again. While 122 countries voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017, Canada boycotted these negotiations along with the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons. Canada refuses to sign on to the treaty because of its membership in NATO, an organization that champions nuclear deterrence as a defence strategy.
Little known to many Canadians, this country played a critical role in developing the nuclear weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Canada was a direct participant in the Manhattan Project, which developed the uranium and plutonium bombs dropped on Japan. Canadian mining companies extracted, refined, and exported the tons of uranium necessary for the bomb’s success. Many members of the Dene Nation, who worked unprotected at the uranium mines in the Northwest Territories, died of cancer due to their exposure to the ore.
If the Canadian government is serious about shifting its foreign policy objectives to become truly feminist, then it must rethink its relationship to nuclear weapons — both past and present. Canada should be a leader among NATO-allied nations and take the first steps toward ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as part of its feminist foreign policy.
The world’s arsenal of over 15,000 nuclear warheads is nearly 3,000 times more powerful than the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Canada is in no way prepared to deal with a nuclear weapon attack that, within a millisecond, produces a ball of plasma more than two kilometres wide and hotter than the surface of the sun. A simulation developed by researchers at Princeton University estimated that within the first few hours of a nuclear conflict, more than 90 million people would be dead. We were ill prepared to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and we will be woefully ill prepared for a nuclear attack.
Momentum is building in the way of total nuclear disarmament. Six countries ratified the treaty in 2020 including Botswana, Fiji, and Lesotho, bringing the total up to 40 — with 50 nations required before it becomes legally binding. Canada must join these trailblazing nations spanning the African continent to Asia Pacific and commit to a world without nuclear weapons. Ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will show that Canada really is “back” in international diplomacy.
Charlotte Akin is a research and advocacy intern at the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace. She holds an MA in global development studies from Queen’s University.