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MAHONEY: Writing the book on peace - at age 96

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

By Jeff MahoneySpectator Reporter

The Hamilton Spectator

Sat., Feb. 18, 2017

Article was updated Mar. 01, 2020

He's 96 now and Ray Cunnington likes war perhaps even less than he did when he was 19 and he certainly didn't like it then.

Think of the 19-year-olds you know. Maybe, like I do, you have a child that age. Can you contain, in your idea of the tolerable, their eligibility for conscription? To fight a war, a hellish war already in hellish progress? Against Nazi Germany? Required not just to be ready, so freshly alive, to die ... but also to kill? And to kill someone, maybe 19, like themselves, with whom they have no personal quarrel?

Ray knew even as a child something was wrong, at the very root, with a culture that embedded bullying and violence in the building of "character" in youth.

"I wondered why corporal punishment was considered the correct and necessary path to manhood," Ray writes in his new book, "Towards Less Adversarial Cultures."

"I did not think it fair that grown men should hit young boys."

"The young have a natural sense of fairness," Ray says to me, and his eyes, still bright with that original vision, seem (like much about him) a corridor to all the ages he's been, to the nearness of the lad he was, keeping the man he is always young ... and on point.

He wears shirts of colourful paisley and purple sunburst and wears his hair in a kind of modified Prince Valiant, without which he can't be imaged. These are not a protest against what's expected of a man nearing 100 but the natural flowering of a prime of life that he appears, at every stage, just to have reached.

"I've always considered myself as carrying a peace banner quietly inside," says Ray, of the seeds in youth of his activism in later life.

So, at 19, already repulsed by cultures of violence, Ray did not wait to be conscripted. He volunteered. "One part of me wanted to be a conscientious objector," he recalls, "but I didn't think it (languishing in prison) a useful thing. But I also didn't see how killing Germans would help. I'd been told if I volunteered, they might give me a choice."

And they did. He became a nursing orderly in India, serving from 1941 to 1945. Never carried a gun.

"I came home (London, England) and thought we'd be allowed to rebuild the city in a new way, and I felt the world had to change and of course it changed only a very little."

After the war, he was an actor in London. "But I got that out of my system. I don't think I was very good," he says modestly, "but it helped me understand something of human nature."

He and wife Joanne (almost 70 years married) moved to Canada, partly because there's no conscription here and they'd just had a son (now a Hamilton doctor). Ray worked in film, theatre, advertising, teaching and ultimately counselling and human relations, including work with prisoners on domestic violence.

Through his career, Ray encouraged peace awareness (supporter of Einstein and Russell's Ban the Bomb movement; participant in peace caravans in the 1980s, for instance). But it's since retirement that he stepped up in a prodigious way. He was a founding member of the UN Culture of Peace Hamilton and helped develop the Peace Dollars program.

He's worked with Environment Hamilton, the Gandhi Festival, McMaster Centre for Peace Studies to make the city a safer and (with the city's Peace Garden) more beautiful place. In 2015, he won the prestigious YMCA Peace Medal.

The new book, distillation of a lifetime, is 90 pages of elegantly simple clarity and, to my mind, unassailable wisdom. And its timeliness could hardly be more emphatic.

Page 69: "Though democratically elected governments may be less willing to use violence than dictatorships, the act of casting ballots does not eliminate the possibility of putting someone ruthless in power."

The book's ease of access is all the more impressive for the complexity of cultural understanding and breadth of history that Ray has kneaded smooth for the reader.

From Ray's window you can see down to the rush of a beautiful creek slicking over stones on a bright cold morning, and I ask if it ever totally freezes. He answers, no.

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