Barbara MacQuarrie and the early days of PBI in Guatemala and El Salvador

Published by Brent Patterson on

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Canadian Barbara MacQuarrie was involved in the early days of Peace Brigades International.

In January 1990, Peace Magazine reported, “A veteran Peace Brigader, Barbara (a Montréaler) experienced arrest and three days of incommunicado imprisonment in Guatemala in 1987, and a severe bombing in El Salvador last February.”

That refers to the February 22, 1989 bombing of the Federación Nacional Sindical de Trabajadores Salvadoreños (FENASTRAS) office in San Salvador.

That article also highlights that Barbara had just been on a cross-country PBI speaking tour.

It notes, “Fresh from a tour in Ontario, Barbara continued through Halifax, Sydney, Mahone Bay, Yarmouth, Wolfville, Antigonish, Tatamagouche, New Glasgow, and Brule in Nova Scotia, Saint John, Fredericton, and Sackville in New Brunswick, and Charlottetown in P.E.I.”

As chair of PBI’s International Council in 1994, Barbara noted that one of the qualities that defines PBI is “a nonpartisan analysis of conflicts and investigative skills to explore both direct and structural violence.” She also mentions, “Our North America Project [based at 27 Third Avenue in Ottawa] continues to build lasting relationships with Indigenous peoples facing threats and harassment in Canada and the USA.”

In an August 1988 interview by Hamilton, Ontario-based McMaster University sociology professor Carl Cuneo titled Peace Brigades and Nonviolence, Barbara articulated the founding of Peace Brigades International in Canada: “It was set up in 1981 by people interested in non-violent conflict resolution. The original Gandhian idea was to have a team of people ready to go into any situation of violent conflict to mediate, negotiate, and separate the two sides as a nonaligned peacekeeping force. With more experience in the field, we realized that most conflicts today are not between two countries at war but situations of repression by a government’s military force against its own people.”

She also commented: “We don’t use the word ‘pacifism’ much; we prefer the word ‘nonviolence’, and even that is sometimes problematic. Nonviolence is a means of struggle. It doesn’t seek to pacify a situation; it seeks to confront what’s going on and to break the cycle of violence. It says this violence is not good for anyone and there has to be another way of addressing the problem.”

“I think the peace movement has to look for peace with justice – look at militarization and not just nuclear disarmament. That’s what PBI is doing.”

And in response to the question about how PBI relates to the guerilla movements in El Salvador and Guatemala, Barbara replied, “PBI doesn’t have any contact with the armed guerilla forces. If we did, we wouldn’t be allowed to stay in those countries. Because our philosophy is one of nonviolence, the purpose is not to condemn the armed movement. There are just too many reasons for it. But it’s not where we are best able to contribute.”

A fuller version of that interview is also available via Peace Magazine.

That longer version includes Barbara commenting:

“When I went to Guatemala I worked mostly with the GAM — the family members of the disappeared. I went there in November 1985, shortly after some of their directors had been assassinated. People who were the leadership of GAM felt extremely threatened. They felt we could offer them some measure of security by keeping a member with them all the time. PBI organized for the directorate to have a three-member around-the-clock escort.”

“In Guatemala, no other leaders of GAM were killed after we began escorting them. Some of the people who had accompaniment no longer do so. GAM — the group of families of the disappeared — is building up its reputation internationally and nationally. We can’t be sure how much we contributed to its strength and independence, but we were there. Historically there was a relationship. It helped.”

Barbara is now based at Western University in London, Ontario.

The university’s website notes, “Barb MacQuarrie is the Community Director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women & Children in the Faculty of Education at the Western University. She develops and promotes evidence based education and prevention initiatives involving both community-based and university-based partners.”

The February 6, 2015 Western Gazette article Western prof receives Order of Ontario notes that Barbara “worked for Peace Brigades International and El Salvador and Guatemala where she would accompany civilians fighting for social justice through nonviolent means. The presence of MacQuarrie and her colleagues protected civilians as militaries were unlikely to harm foreigners.”

Peace Brigades International is marking its 40th anniversary in 2021. PBI-Canada is helping to commemorate that occasion by posting stories and recollections of PBI’s early years to help inform and inspire our continued work.

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