A profile of Douglas Roche, who is about to be awarded the Sean MacBride Peace Prize, by Edmonton writer Sheila Pratt.
In the bitter cold of mid-February, Doug Roche flew to Ottawa from his Edmonton home for a meeting with federal officials. With arms control in serious setback these days, Roche decided to try to get Canada back in the game.
That trip was just a few months before his 90th birthday. Later this spring, in April, he will head to New York for the umpteenth time for meetings at the United Nations in preparation for the regular five-year review of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, the centrepiece of nuclear arms control.
The pace might seem daunting. But not for this distinguished elder statesman. For almost 50 years, Roche has worked tirelessly to make the world a safer place, to abolish nuclear weapons, to lower arms spending, to promote peace and security.
After the April UN meetings, Roche will head to Toronto for a celebratory moment—to receive the Sean MacBride Peace Prize from the International Peace Bureau, an advocacy group with 300 member organizations in 70 countries.
It’s a well-earned honour. Articulate, constructive, committed, Roche has served this cause as a Canadian Member of Parliament and senator, as disarmament ambassador, and as chair of the influential Middle Powers Initiative working for arms control.
The award recognizes his outstanding and “indefatigable work in particular as President of the UN Association and as Ambassador for Disarmament during the height of the Cold War,” says the peace bureau.
Sean MacBride, a distinguished Irish statesman, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 for work as the Secretary General of the International Com-mission of Jurists and as co-founder of Amnesty International. Roche is in good company and that might please his Irish ancestors—his great-grandfather emigrated from Ireland to Ontario in 1842.
Roche has received the Order of Canada, among many awards for his work, including from Japan and other countries. In 2011, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But Roche has never been one to rest on his laurels, and certainly not these days. The world is becoming a more dangerous place and he believes the full effort of the peace movement is needed to pull it back to safer ground. “I have not been this apprehensive since the darkest days of the Cold War,” says Roche, who marched in 1980s with peace protestors in the fearful days that preceded the cooperative relationship between U.S President Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
To his deep dismay, the treaties adopted during the Cold War to limit the spread of nuclear weapons are being dismantled. At the same time, the UN’s authority is weakened while rival powers renew their arsenals.
“The present destabilization of international relations combined with the modernizing of nuclear weapons by all nuclear powers has created a new age of nuclear anxiety,” says Roche. “I always thought the gains made in various treaties and relationships would at least hold, if they could not get better. But they are not holding. We have to go back to the 1980s and re-learn the Gorbachev-Reagan mantra: A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Anyone who knows Doug Roche also knows that, even in the most troubled of times, he keeps an unshakable hold on hope.
“I don’t buy into doom and gloom. I understand how dangerous the world is. But let’s apply our political will, brains and money to the task.”
As a young journalist, Roche was interested in development issues, Third World and international relations. But a visit to Japan in 1970s persuaded him to dedicate his life to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The scale of death and destruction in Nagasaki and Hiroshima after the nuclear bombs exploded deeply shocked him. He was seized by the idea “that humanity must find a better way.”
After graduating from the University of Ottawa in 1951, Roche went to New York to work at a US Catholic national magazine that sent the young reporter around the world. In 1965, he returned to Canada with his young family as founding editor of the Edmonton-based Western Catholic Reporter, a position he held until his second career took over.
In 1970, when Roche was on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, he looked up at the Peace Tower and wondered: “How do I get inside there?” It didn’t take him long.
Two years later, he got himself elected as an MP under the banner of Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives in Edmonton Strathcona. He won re-election four times. In 1984, Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed Roche as Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament at the UN for five years. In 1988, he was elected Chairman of the UN Disarmament Committee—an important post held only by one other Canadian, Lester Pearson.
Upon his return to Edmonton, Roche spent years lecturing at the University of Alberta, pursuing his peace work, travelling to world capitals, advocating, and writing books and articles on the case. In 1998, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien appointed him an independent senator.
Roche has two mainstays, his family and his Catholic faith. He married his college sweetheart Eva Nolan, a partnership that continued for 42 years. These days, he spends holidays visiting his four children and his grandchildren. (Eva died in 1995 and five years later, he married Patricia McGoey, who died in 2017.)
A voracious reader, Roche had collected six thousand books by the time he left the family home for smaller quarters a few years ago. He didn’t move them all.
He is also a prolific author, publishing 20 books on peace, disarmament and development, and his memoir called Creative Dissent, A Politician’s Struggle for Peace.
In 1997, Roche came up with an idea for the Middle Powers Initiative, an international network of like-minded non-government organizations working with middle power countries for nuclear disarmament.
“The middle powers group gave new hope to the disarmament cause at that time,” says Roche, who remains honorary chair of the group. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and then the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, there was a resurgence of militarism.
“It’s been hard slogging ever since,” says Roche. “But I do believe a concerted effort by the Middle Powers group could make an impression. That’s why I went to Ottawa.”
Canada, he believes, has a special role, as a strong middle power, to promote disarmament. In meetings at Global Affairs, he hoped to convince the Trudeau government to use its influence in NATO to consider reversing its commitment to nuclear arms as he ultimate security measure. In the 1990s, Roche had convinced the Liberal government and then foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy to urge NATO to make that change. NATO rejected Axworthy’s argument.
In February, US President Donald Trump announced that his country would withdraw from 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia. This treaty prohibited all missiles with a range of 500 km to 5,500 km. Withdrawing from it is expected to lead to a new arms race.
Trump argued that Russia has violated the treaty by developing a new missile. Experts urged him to deal with that issue within the rules of the treaty, with its Special Verification Commission. Instead, he pulled out and warned that the U.S. could “outspend and out innovate” any other country. (See pages 8-15 of this issue for evidence that the US had been violating the INF for several years.)
Before that, Trump had pulled out of the international deal restricting Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons. And late February, the world saw the failure of the U.S. and North Korea to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
“So Trump has a lot to answer for,” says Roche, “but the nuclear disarmament issue is bigger than him. And there is a lot happening to push back.”
In 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted at the United Nations by 122 nations—but Canada was not one of them. It will make possession of nuclear weapons illegal.
These days, the US and Russia have 1,000 warheads on high-alert status, ready to be launched. And the US intends to spend a trillion or more to modernize its nuclear arsenal.
The world now is sliding into a “backwater” of resurgent nationalism. But never underestimate the capacity of humanity “to climb upwards,” says Roche, noting the advances of human rights and the successes of ending poverty and disease.
“I met a German doctor who told me he went to the Berlin wall one day. He said to his friend, ‘That wall is so strong, it will never come down.’ But three weeks later it did,” says Roche. “So never say never. We must look beyond today and project a vision that war is futile and violence of all kinds is counter-productive. I believe that here on earth we must continue to develop God’s plan for the elevation of humanity.”
Sheila Pratt is a retired journalist living in Edmonton, as also does Senator Roche.