An Interview with Bruna Nota
by Marijke Vander Klok
On a cold morning near the end of November, I had the privilege of meeting Bruna Nota at her home in Christie Gardens. Bruna Nota, a long-time member of the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, she was also the international president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF – www.wilpfinternational.org) and participated in the 1995 United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women. Bruna greeted me in the lobby with a hug and, over the course of the next hour and a half, shared stories of her peace activism and community involvement, both in past with VOW and within her current community in Toronto. “It’s on the eighth floor, do you mind taking the stairs?” she asked before taking me up to her apartment. I tried to keep up.
Born in Italy, in the Piedmont region near Turin, Bruna spoke the regional dialect with her family at home before she learned Italian in school. Continuing in her education, she learned French, German, Spanish, and lastly English. “So my accent is very much of mongrel accent,” she joked, but this was never a hindrance in her work with the UN where she has discussed language and debated terms, critically analyzing agendas on a line-by-line basis in order to build the best possible wording for each issue and resolution in context.
Born just before the start of World War II, Bruna recalled one of her earliest memories of being wrapped in a blanket by her mother and spending the night under a bridge as the city was bombed. Living in a region that was alternately occupied by partisans, Italian, and German forces, her childhood was strongly altered by the war around her. Her father, conscripted to Mussolini’s army, had fought in Libya and Ethiopia. Through his past experiences he impressed upon his children the terrible injustice of war, and resolutely believed that negotiation with all people was possible. “My mother was much more compliant,” Bruna told me. She was an active member of the Catholic church, and felt more comfortable embodying a role society had set out for her as a good Christian, mother, woman. At the same time, however, she involved herself in political elections of the region, and was known by neighbours as a nurse and healer for the community. Bruna cited her parents’ influence as shaping her views and values as an individual. “They taught me that there is never anybody above or below you. You are just as good as anybody else. So we as children could not look down on anybody or be cowed by anybody above… And those kind of values for me – respect for human rights and conflict-resolution and how inappropriate it is to just go and grab resources from others; all of those values were very much ingrained in me.”
Bruna joined VOW in the early 90s. After working in Montreal for a number of years, she had returned to Toronto looking for something to get engaged with. She certainly hit the mark with VOW when, working alongside Madeleine Gilchrist and Colleen Burke among others, she took a leading role in reviewing the Peace (called Armed Conflict) section of the Platform for Action and making a detailed language review for the UN World Conference on Women in 1995. This position involved, at their own expense, attending preparatory sessions, travelling to the conference itself in Beijing, and participating in follow-up conferences and reviews that continued to 2000.
While attending the conference in Beijing, Bruna found herself a part of a community of NGOs camped out in a nearby village, Huairou. It was in this small, separate space that the invited organizations were permitted to discuss and demonstrate.“At one point, we were 200, 300 people walking in circles, we were like lions in a cage!” Bruna said of a protest against the nuclear testing China was then engaged in. Bruna led the group out into the city, despite the security’s mandate that forbid the NGOs from leaving their enclosure. Finally they were confronted by one security guard whom Bruna remembers to be “the tallest man in China.” She refused to be intimidated, however, and with a stroke of inspiration told him that they intended to march on the steps of the auditorium within which they were designated to demonstrate. The security guard saw that the steps in question could be considered part of the allocated auditorium, and he guided them to the new location that gave the protesting women some space to spread out and reach a wider audience. This little victory through open dialogue represents a real triumph for Bruna and the women she worked alongside; a small-scale success that shows how positive change can be achieved through peaceful negotiation.
There are also disappointments in the work toward peace and disarmament. In particular, Bruna expressed her frustration at the present political climate in Canada. While once members of VOW were working in New York with UN delegations, invited to daily briefings with the Canadian representatives and providing advice on language and peaceful negotiation, they are now unable to work so closely with the Canadian government. But the road to peace is always a journey, never a destination. It starts simply with your own conflict with yourself, Bruna explained to me; you have to fight it and work on it every day to provide a basis for external growth and peace. “You need infrastructure, you need justice, you need fair taxes, just a kind of pedestrian solution. It is not big speeches that are going to make things happen – it is when everybody has the essentials to start with and certain possibility to grow within their family, within their skin, within their country.”