||Volume 19, Number 4, January/February 2007
From war toys to peace art
by Larry Kuehn
The media star of the show in the buildup to the World Peace Forum in Vancouver was the project called "From War Toys to Peace Art." In the weeks leading up to the end of June 2006, kids turning in their war toys captured symbolically the whole idea of the transformation that is necessary for peace.
The energy behind the project came from two people—Sam Fillipoff, a retired teacher, and Susan Ruzic, an elementary teacher in the suburban Coquitlam school district. Both were active in the organizing of the International Peace Education Conference that was the education component of the overall World Peace Forum.
The World Peace Forum attracted some 5,000 people from nearly 100 countries to the many different conferences within the forum. Groups included labour, faith, women, indigenous, mayors, and youth as well as sessions with a focus on regions—Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. So much was going on that it was difficult to make choices of what to attend.
About 500 teachers took part in the education conference. The same number of students took part on the day that had a focus on youth activities, including talks by Debra Ellis (see an interview in the Nov./Dec. 2006 issue of Teacher) and Silken Laumann speaking for Right to Play, an international NGO of athletes that focuses on play to enhance child development in areas of disadvantage globally.
While all these activities and talk would have an impact on participants, it was the war toys project that leaves a lasting physical legacy—artwork created from the war toys, a plastic version of "they shall beat their swords into ploughshares."
This wasn’t the first example of symbolizing peace by transformation. In Mozambique, for example, several years ago CUSO ran a program of trading arms for other goods, an AK–47 for a sewing machine or a plow. This was part of the process of demilitarizing society after a long and vicious civil war. The weapons were transformed into sculptures which served as an ongoing reminder of the importance of finding non-violent ways of sorting out social and political differences.
In Cambodia, an art student took an AK–47 and created a beautiful bird sculpture. In Oakland, California, an elementary school exchanged toy weapons, violent DVDs, and video games for books and pencils.
The BC version of the project put together a number of these elements, along with some original touches. Susan Ruzic got one of the toy stores in her community to be a collection point—and to give the students a voucher that could be used as a discount toward a non-violent toy. Ruzic and Fillipoff worked with the UBC Museum of Anthropology to display the artwork created by Bill Thomson for six months. The museum even arranged workshops for students who would bring toys and take part in creating their own artwork.
For Fillipoff, the project was an expression of his own cultural background as a Doukhobor. The Doukhobors were a religious group in Russia that in 1895 had renounced compulsory military service. They gathered everything that could be considered a lethal weapon and burned them until they melted into slag.
As a social movement committed to peace and non-violence, the Doukhobors were persecuted. However, they refused to fight back. An international support movement managed to get permission for them to leave Russia. In 1898 the Canadian government granted permission for them to immigrate and gave them an exemption from participating in military service in Canada. They initially settled in the prairies and then moved to the Kootenay area of British Columbia, where Fillipoff grew up.
When Fillipoff made the suggestion of the toys into art project, one of the teacher committee members, Susan Ruzik, picked up on it. She found an artist and a toy store as partners. Then she invited students at her school to a peace assembly and told the kids about the project. The kids loved the idea, and so did their parents. Hundreds of war toys were turned in and converted to art works.
Fillipoff and Ruzik did not stop with this success. They are trying to make this an Olympic project, focused on the Winter Olympics to be held in Vancouver and Whistler in 2010. The United Nations has adopted an Olympic Truce Resolution, calling for a truce in violence during the Olympics. This is another opportunity to grab on to a high profile event and use it as a way of focusing on the values and practice of peace.
They have also created an 80-page lesson aid package for teachers interested in carrying out their own "Acts of Transformation from War Toys to Peace Art." It contains lesson plans, background resources, and links to other sources of related information. A copy of the full package is being sent to all schools and it is available from the BCTF Lesson Aids Service through the web site www.bctf.ca.
Larry Kuehn is director of the BCTF’s Research and Technology Division.