Kids Play With Assault Weapons and Guided Missiles, War Planes Thunder Over Toronto, and a Small Group Calling for the Demilitarization of the Ex Takes Flight

photos from the CNE Recruitment Centre and today's protest available at


TORONTO, SEPTEMBER 4, 2006 -- The crowd of artists, actors, and other unionized cultural workers was taken aback when they were stopped by armed police officers from entering the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) grounds at the end of today's Labour Day parade. They would only be allowed to enter, they were instructed, if they popped the hundreds of colourful balloons they were carrying.

Of all the law enforcement duties a police officer must carry out, forcing citizens of Toronto to pop their balloons is surely one of the most vague and inexplicable, as the offence of "unauthorized balloon cartage for nefarious purpose or otherwise" is found nowhere in the Criminal Code nor in the Provincial Offences Act.

But Toronto's finest were serving and protecting the United States Air Force, whose war planes were shortly scheduled to take a break from dropping bombs on human beings in Afghanistan and Iraq to roar over the skies of Toronto. The war planes are part of what is billed as an annual family entertainment extravaganza sponsored by the Tim Horton's donut chain and their charitable foundation, whose motto is "helping children gain a positive view of the world."

For all of their thunder and "shock and awe" power, however, it appears that these flying angels of death are vulnerable to -- balloons. A particular area underneath war show airspace is thus designated balloon-free, forcing the thespians to entertain a rather Shakespearean moment: "when we prick thee, do you not pop?"

And so the sound of many balloons popping was heard before the group was allowed to enter the grounds (though some balloons acted independently and broke free.) But even before the last of the balloons was popped, the sounds of terrorism filled the air: sounds familiar to the people of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Greece, Iraq, former Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan, among far too many others.

How would the people of Lebanon react to this glorification of war? They heard similar roars this summer before bridges and apartment buildings were blown to smithereens, and before thousands of their loved ones were murdered.

Would we think it appropriate to have a family fun day celebrating the "awesome aerodynamics" of Katyusha rockets, thousands of which terrorized Israeli citizens this summer?

And let us not forget that it may have been screaming war planes that were the last sounds heard by the Canadian soldier killed today in an aerial U.S. "friendly fire" strike in Afghanistan.

For many people in Toronto who are refugees from war zones, such sounds must re-create a trauma they had hoped to leave behind when they came here seeking refuge. One wonders how many took cover today, unsure if the shriek of jets would be followed by the sounds of bombardment, the screams of wounded, the silence of the dead.


In an effort to demilitarize the CNE war show and celebrate the many Canadian civil aviation achievements, a new coalition, WING (War is Not a Game Committee) came together this August. The group wrote to the CNE asking that the air show be cancelled, noting that the 1999 Montreal air show was cancelled because organizers felt it was too soon after the horrific bombing of Yugoslavia by Canadian, U.K., and U.S. jets for them to be flying over Montreal as "entertainment."

The CNE organizers never responded, and so it was that members of Christian Peacemaker Teams, Homes not Bombs, the Toronto Catholic Worker, and Country Music Fans Against War came together for a prayerful circle at 1 pm in Parkdale today, trying to share a moment of solemn silence amidst the sounds of war. But it was difficult given the man-made thunder that filled the skies.

The group then headed out, passing out flyers along the jam-packed streets and trying to dialogue with war show fans and spectators. Some in the audience are the die-hard enthusiasts obsessed with the technical innovation involved in making and flying bombers. That technical detail is all that is presented in air show memorabilia; there's nothing mentioned about the human misery these machines have been used to wreak around the globe.

Other spectators view the war show as pure and simple entertainment. And why wouldn't they? From the Toronto Star to the weekly "alternative magazines," the war show is listed in the "entertainment" section, along with concerts and films. So why would anyone give it a second thought? It's a free or cheap way to keep the kids occupied the day before school starts.

We hope some of these spectators will be open to our message: that we should not celebrate planes that have recently dropped bombs on people. Some of them do get the message, giving us the thumbs up. Some say they know first-hand what these planes can do, and a number of families, upon reading our leaflets, actually recognize that something is wrong here, pack up their kids, and leave.

But for many, as we walk along the boardwalk with our huge banner and colourful placards, we prove an annoyance, a distraction, a receptacle for verbal abuse. We are questioning something we have been taught is sacred, something that we have somehow mixed up with the notion of freedom.

And it's no wonder. We are bombarded with patriotic songs that are played as the warplanes fly overhead, constant perky pep talks about our way of life being defended by these monstrous creations, and daily bafflegab from media and politicians alike that drone on about Canada's distinct "values," as if we have something innate about us that no one else possesses.

How is it, we ask, that freedom comes by dropping 2,000-pound bombs on defenceless Afghani villages? How can we measure our "freedom" by the number of Afghani people Canadian soldiers kill?


Today is not a day, unfortunately, for lengthy dialogue. Rather, it is a day to seek out hope in the odd conversation with individuals who look at us and, with a curious smile slowly spreading over their face, say something like, "I never thought of it that way."

The WING group walks the full length of the waterway, passing by thousands upon thousands of spectators jammed along Lakeshore Boulevard, and holding up banners and placards so those in the VIP seats can see as well. It is one group of VIPs who offer us the most physical threat, jumping like mad dogs at the fence that separates us. One of them grabs a senior's placard and tears at it, leaving a large hole that looks like a shark bite. Both this senior citizen and another of the WING group are then treated to a double dose of phlegm from a couple of angry men who retreat well behind the "safety" of the fence.

A barrage of catcalls ensues, from "Why don't you just go join the Taliban?" to "Kill all Muslims." Canadian soldiers staffing the booths from which such catcalls emanate smile but say nothing.

We continue our slow walk for close to three hours, receiving many supportive honks as we walk along the Lakeshore away from the central viewing area. We recognize that today's efforts are only a beginning, one that will need to address not only the annual invitation to U.S. war planes that make up the majority of the "show," but also the ugly ground display that served as a recruiting booth at this year's Ex.


Past war shows have featured an obstacle-course "game" called Kiddie Commando, but this year's CNE featured the real thing: kids were able to pick up, hold, and aim assault weapons, sit on tanks or inside armoured personnel carriers, win dog tags if they show themselves capable of pulling the device that launches mortar fire on an artillery piece, hold mortar rounds, sit inside warplane cockpits, and marvel at guided missiles and a Gatling machine gun. Huge posters advertise upwards of $8,000 in free tuition if they sign up with the forces.

What good will those lectures be tomorrow in grade nine classes about not bringing guns to school when the CNE has presented assault weapons as part of the family fun experience? What's the point of teaching elementary kids the benefits of peaceful conflict resolution when they can join an organization that teaches how to kill, and that the one with the most force wins?

The effort to civilianize the annual air show and to eliminate military recruiting and other forms of violence-promotion at the CNE promises to be a lengthy one. Anyone interested in working with us can contact or (416) 423-5525

(report from Matthew Behrens of Country Music Fans Against War, a founding member of WING)

PS: Yesterday in Cleveland, five people were arrested for protesting the war show there. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the group had been protesting "the use of warplanes for entertainment." The article notes that the group held a banner that read, "War is not entertainment, these planes kill." They were standing next to an A-10 Warthog, the same kind of plane that killed a Canadian soldier yesterday in Afghanistan with "friendly fire."

For a photo of this action see