Nov. 11, 2000
6969 Bayers Rd., #416
Halifax, Nova Scotia B3L 4P3
Start wherever you want, because I'm really interested to see what's the nature of activist work and social change and social justice work around Canada. How did you start and why do you do what you do?
Well, I grew up in the States, the eastern part, born in Pennsylvania, moved to central New York State. I guess we were Methodist at that time. I was turned on by role models and people like Frank Laubach in the adult literacy movement. He went around the world especially India, each one teach one, and it seemed a wonderful thing to do, this was at a very early age. And of course there was Ghandi in his early stages and Albert Schweitzer playing the organ in Africa and treating the poor and so on. I hope young people today are trying to emulate heroes. I was a very strong pacifist; somehow I got involved in that movement, it gave me kind of a mystical love for nature and the outdoors and getting into all those things. So something over all that, I guess my husband Gunnar Peterson was very much the same way. We met, I would say, at the usual university.
Where did you go?
Syracuse University and he was there. We had great plans for working on getting his masters and moving to the Pacific Northwest, it was a very adventurous life. Then the whole thing with World War II came along. Of course I do remember World War I in that a number of friends had daddies who were gassed so we had to be quiet. It was kind of an influence, which I realize more and more. The biggest thing in my life that really got me going was this civil rights, Kirby Page and some of these wonderful activists, A.J. Muste that was traveling around the country and so on, and of course the whole socialist movement. Gunnar was a conscientious objector, and was placed in a school in Maine, near Yarmouth, Maine. And so we put together a little log cabin and meanwhile we got our first baby and we lived there for 2 or 3 years during the war, in the deep woods of Maine. He would get his bicycle and go out to work in that place. I don't know anything about your background; do you know about conscientious objection? So of course it was experiences like this that lead many people to go off and work on reform. We had a little rickety radio, a staticky radio and I suppose was at the end of the war. We were stunned over the end of the war. Our place a little tiny log cabin, but it was the refuge for the guys in the conscientious objectors unit. I remember them coming down for supper one night, a very simple supper and saying yah, I heard something about a bomb that the United States dropped. It was the first one of its kind and others were saying, ah, the U.S. wouldn’t do that, they don't believe it, and we'd heard about the Germans hacking off hands and all this kind of stuff,
More war propaganda, okay. So I didn't think much about it. At first the government was very closed mouthed about this and stuff would not come out, nor did people realize about the concentration camps, there were those two things, the atom bomb and the concentration camps. We were stunned, and we decided we would work the rest of our lives to achieve social justice. And we have. And that's how I got here. So, let me see, I guess I'll jump over, we had another child, etc., but first there was the fifties, as you know, and the McCarthy hearings. You had to be a little careful about what you said and if you talked about cell groups you were immediately suspect, and so of course we were thrown right into the thick of it. While the baby was small and I must not have been more than 30, I used to go out on sit-ins with people like Bayard Rustin and Jim Farmer, people who would come up to Syracuse. It was the hub of the United States, and so there was a lot of activity, people going back and forth. We had wonderful speakers, challengers, and so I guess in there somewhere in the 50's and 60's Norman Thomas died. He was another hero.
Yes, we had Jerome later, a boy, and so in that period somewhere, Gunnar was now back teaching at Syracuse university. He loved trails and hiking and outdoor things like that, we were often camping and so on. We were asked by the American Friends Service Committee to head up the international student seminar in 50 and 51, which really exposed me to students from all over the world. We had for instance Chinese and Japanese together; this was over two summers, through the whole summer. The kids would be taken aside, they were in between studies in the summer, so they were quite willing to come and we brought professors, well known speakers and so on. Anyway, one of the fellows I met was Maynard Krueger and there was Cornelius Kruz. Of course Japan and Germany were friends, and people that wouldn't speak to each other were here, speaking in the summer, and living in social dynamics that were always quite friendly. One of them was Makoto Naggawara, who was a very lovely young person, a survivor of Hiroshima. He was maybe a shy 17 or 18-year-old. I just, he was so shy and I wanted to make him feel at home, but I was overwhelmed with guilt over what we had done and so I confessed it to him one day, and it began to draw him out. He never before had spoken about his experience. He lost all his family, some immediately; they were burned at the first and others over the years, so it was just very hard. It deepened our commitment to work for peace. So then Gunnar got a job in Chicago, and we got a house right next to the University of Chicago and so we set out you know with a little trailer in the fall of 1951 to Chicago. That opened up a whole thing. We got involved very quickly there in the civil rights movement. As I said I'd had some exposure to that in Syracuse, and then feeling a surge in the movement, we wondered what could actually be done? I never got to go down South, I was a freedom marcher but since our kids were that age I could not leave and I wished I could have gone, but I was very active in Chicago. Not so much downtown, because we were about 25 miles outside of town in suburban living. I was going mad, talking baby talk in the home and. and Gunnar had these big jobs in the YMCA and then was the head of the Chicago Missionary Society, running summer camps, bringing some children to the outdoors, and the stars, they had never seen such, with electric lights and the pollution. So that was his life and here I was at home. So I became very active in the civil rights movement. We formed the South Suburban Human Rights Council, not human rights, human relations because we didn't understand the word human rights. In my suburban area we moved mountains. The South Side of Chicago is such a fascinating place because we had very fancy neighborhoods, and we were certainly not a part of that, we lived in a very modest neighborhood, but it all was interspersed with these conflicts with black neighborhoods. It's very easy to walk across the street and find little ghettos, so I was a community organizer there, not with that label, but I was. Anyway, so that was a great experience, it was not easy; we were looked down on for doing this kind of work but were actually called out when there were riots. The friends that we had by now would sort of come and calm down. Sometimes our black friends would phone and ask us to come over and sit with them because there was trouble going on. So it was very up front stuff. So, where do I go from here? So,
Go on, I'm interested in your story.
I had been a music teacher for a couple of years before being married and children and blah blah blah, so I loved teaching, but I began organizing tutoring groups to go into the black community. At that time blacks were quite disorganized and they didn't resent that kind of thing and of course very quickly that happened and the leadership shifted. It was kind of hard as well for whites who had worked very hard and were directing the schools, which happened to me eventually and we were just delighted. For pete's sake, this is what it's all about, it's what we're working for.
It doesn't make it any easier, though.
Yah, but before that I was teaching. I was asked to teach night school to a group and absolutely fell in love with teaching adults and teaching adults literacy and this was through people coming, well, people coming back from the Vietnam war, because that was the other big thing as I would see it. That was really carrying a rather heavy purse. People would come out to speak to us, and you know, they would call the police and they would bring spies because these people were against the war and for blacks mingling and black rights and people were afraid there might be another riot. And I must say here that one of the great things I will always remember, one of the great stories of my life was getting to know intimately Jewish friends. They had really a great sense of courage at a time when they were under pressure and they had been overwhelmed, to stand up and be counted for inter-racial dialogue and harmony and opening up their homes.
So anyway this, quickly, I organized tutoring. I go away for the summer to a little summer place where we were going to retire forever,
Where is that?
Cape Breton. I used to make my house a Mecca for tourists, but I don't do that anymore because I don't get any quiet. So I don't advertise that. I'm working on my files and I must stay at it. I’m jumping around. I have about over 80 files in the Nova Scotia archives of just what I've been involved in, I gave them to the archives when I moved the house collected over a 20 year period. I've been very fortunate, really a rich life.
So you're in,
So, the night school and working with the Vietnam brides and others. I take over the directorship of the El Centro de Opportunidad, which was a learning center, opportunities for the Chicano people. They were coming from Texas, because in Chicago Heights, and we were living there then, had the steel foundries, so people would sneak into the country and head for us. We were very aware of Mexicans and others, so, not speaking a word of Spanish, that's what I did for two years and but there was mayhem. My main job was recruiting, going out and speaking to women's groups and League of Women Voters and training the tutors and replacing them and going out and getting more. Okay, so from there, they wanted a Spanish speaking person, perfectly normal, but meanwhile I had been pulled away into doing the same thing in the Harvey Opportunities Center, in Harvey, Illinois. There was a great concentration of blacks through that area and that was very exciting. People were coming in from the south as well as very long time residents, second, third generations. And people said, English is a second language for the blacks? Yah, it's a foreign language. I knew a lot of the lingo and so on as the fight was much easier, but anyway the job there was to train people. It differed in that by this time were into the War on Poverty. But I had been saying well, that will be in the Millennium!
Here we are!
Here we are! So anyway, enough of that,
And there was research and there were programs and.
Yup, yup. But very soon, before that you were free wheeling, creative, but in came bureaucracy in all forms and going all the way downtown to go to meetings that you had to go to if you were going to be in this position. I should say in 1969, 8, we worked with, and well you know that whole period was the Kennedy’s, Malcolm X, but I wouldn't have missed the 60's for anything. Nothing makes me more angry than the mere thought of these people who either you knew or didn't know who lived in that period who say we were young and foolish, now I'm in a different world, now I'm a certified public accountant or whatever, all this stock market or whatever, it burns me up. The worst are the people that interview them and kind of say well, you were young and foolish, those days are gone, right?
Prove a point, right.
Well, there are a lot of people that are still working because of those values! Okay, so we were visiting friends up here, people who had been DP's, displaced people that we had helped find jobs and stuff like that. And they moved to Canada, they couldn't hack it in the States. So we actually said, if you ever find a little place up there, let us know. So this guy took it seriously and found us a place, 27 acres on the ocean, a little fisherman's house, dirty, 100 years old, and for 1600 dollars. That was in 1969, 1970. It would just be out of sight now! So Gunnar had a wonderful job in the Open Lands Project, saving land in the Chicago area. The prairies which now they have built up as the Gunnar S. Peterson Environmental Center, down on the prairies south of Chicago and that was a terrific experience. So from all of this, with all kinds of people, poor people and rich people, all kinds. When some of these people were developing nuclear reactors and wanted to leave wide open cooling ponds and take over the prairies for this and so on, he could get along with people like that and the government bureaucracy but especially with local people in communities. People would often come to him and say, hey this going to happen around our area, what should we do about it? Well, who are you working with, well it's just the two of us, really? So what are you doing about it? Well, I don't know, so he would help them to get organized and put together this that and the other thing and it was really all around these pockets, environmentally areas that were saved, so that was really wonderful. So he was the head of the U.S. Trails Council, and we were coming up here in the summer and he was asked to be the keynote speaker in a conference. There was somebody up here in government, the minister of recreation, I guess they called it then was there, and he was telling about the new department, he'd just been elected and appointed and he was you know,
He accepted, and you moved.
Yes, we moved here and then within a year, my husband Gunnar died. I was wondering is this the end of my life or where am I going, what am I doing? I moved here to Halifax, and that was the greatest education to live in that house with Muriel Duckworth, because it became the peace house, and the women's house. I began to realize that what had been bothering me all the time my kids were small, some 18 years in there in Chicago was that I was trying to take off of the shackles of being a woman in suburban life. I mean I was feeling the women's movement before knowing there was a women's movement and blaming myself, trying to be super mom, super wife, super on the job, I mean I was earning almost more money than Gunnar was through some of these things, sometimes two jobs at once. So the women's movement, so I liked to get out and do these things. So, well, where should I go from there, I lived in Ottawa for 6 years, I guess getting my feet wet, I became a Canadian organizer through people pushing me. Jump in and do it, a Canadian organizer of the International Women's Peace Petition, in which a women all over the world, prominent women, with a lot of petitions demanded that men give up war, get some sense, begin to negotiate and say no more war. We worked very hard and all of the petitions came to be and I ended up being the one who acquired a bus load of people going to UNSSOD II, the United Nations Second Session on Disarmament. I got to take all these petitions down and give them to the head of the United Nations.
The head of the United Nations, the Secretary General.
Yah. On the platform before this march of a million people which was absolutely amazing, stopped all traffic, and you know they've had the million man march and all of these things since, but that was the biggest and very, very exciting.
This march was in what year?
1982. So, I didn't get to go on the march on Washington, you know, during civil rights. Quite a few people, had about 2000 people from Canada went down to Atlantic City. So that was a busy time. Peace especially, and I was very active with the Quakers. I should say there was a big break through along in there in which we realized, of course people with real smarts realized long before that that there are no single issues anymore, everything is connected to everything else. I was organizing back in 83 and 84, wearing a Ronald Reagan mask, carrying the grim reaper’s scythe, I carried my signs and I got arrested for carrying the grim reaper’s scythe, you know, there was a lot of that kind of stuff out on the streets. About the cruise missile in Canada, the star wars coming along the way and all that kind of stuff, heavy peace stuff. No single issue. But in 1985 I was asked by the Quakers, because I was on the Canadian Friends’ Service Committee, to go up to a meeting in Labrador, to a meeting of a group of natives called the Innu. Not the Inuit, who are one of the so-called Eskimos, but the Innu I-n-n-u, who are probably one of the most isolated groups in the world. No longer, but I mean, had not the least conception of just how very primitive, like a south African tribe or something like that. I began working with people who had been born in tents out in the wilderness, so it was quite an experience back in 85, 15 years ago. We were working with government on how to get their message across to the average person, all this kind of thing. There were some 15 I think elders and chiefs of the Innu group, who came together for the first time to talk about the terrible effect of the low flying planes from NATO. You probably never heard about that, because you don't know that, you know, outside of the United States, North America. This was a very big thing. The low-level flying planes from NATO. By now Italy is coming under it, the U.S. had pulled out but Canada, it was NATO planes, so it fit right in with the DEW line the US maintained in Canada. There is the flow of money to pockets in Canada who were making profits on it, no question about that, but we are under the United States and we just go along with big brother next door. So these Innu all of a sudden turned around and every time it comes over you know it just shakes the very ground. So against that was the peace work, with NATO coming over here, and finally 100 feet, I mean, 300 feet above these people who hardly knew what was happening to them, and the people were frightened, children would fall down and cry on the ground. So, I was so overcome and affected by this and meeting native people who had difficulty speaking English, and what was happening to them, I began to look around. They said, go back and tell your people what's happening to our people, so I did, for 5 years I was out speaking, church groups, women, you name it. At first in the Maritimes and then they carried it across the country and by then the Innu caught on very fast and before we knew it they were off to Europe speaking. They have much more respect for native people than we do, one reason being, as you very well know, they aren't living around us, look at the Gypsies, they're a little bit more exotic because they're further away.
So, I guess what I'm coming to here is, that within a year I said to my friends and other people, I have to tell you that I am dropping my peace work. I'm not organizing, I am switching to native work because in Canada this is the idea whose time had come. I mean we have laws in the books about native people, Supreme Court decisions and so on, but nobody did anything about it until people contacted and did. So we never had that surge up here with native people, but we've had a lot of activity. And so right across the country, that's what we've been working on. I was asked to be first the representative on the board of the Aboriginal Rights Coalition and I was instrumental in starting a big group here in 1995, in the Maritimes, which is still going on, which was responsible for the observers at Burnt Church. So I'm very active in all of that, I take care of course all the money. I've done a lot of stuff, been arrested and put in jail and whatever. But time is catching up with me! I can't do what I used to, so I was not one of the observers, I was just collecting money. So, enough of that. So, another thing that I must mention of course with all these native things, and I've been camping with the Innu up in Labrador, you know where that is? It is a world away.
Go to Newfoundland and take a left.
Right! What an experience going up the coast, with help from the Innu and Inuit, up along that coast, take the mail boats, a marvelous experience. As I said, I'd been camping with them. About 1990, it was August, when
And that stand off, the Oka. I was living alone, and I was very involved. There was a great blood bath and police were ruthless and natives were standing firm. We were working with native people here who were going there, loading up their cars with food, and it was a siege. It was very lucky as I could see that it ended without terrible loss of life. One officer was killed, but the native people have always said it wasn't them, it was one of his own, cause they were spread out in the yard. But of course there were so many people. Anyway, so here was the outcome and that ended peacefully and it has finally come to a resolution after 10 years. So I came back in the fall to Halifax. They were having the Gulf War, and some people had gotten together and had organized a vigil down in a little town with church people. The way we went about it, we had chairs for every weekend, and I was so upset about December and the vigil that I said, I don't know what anybody else is going to do, I am going to make a sign and go down and for one hour every day I'm going to stand in front of the library with this sign. So I did and after a couple of days, you know, at first you're looked upon as a nut of course, but after a couple of days people began coming. So for 87 days, right through the war until it was over, and it was over soon, which was lucky, because we were getting pretty tired, but we had a lot of demonstrations and vigils down in front of the library. We had lots of handouts, you've got to have stats to hand out to people, and you know Halifax is the military bastion of Canada. We did have some of the military's wives walking back and forth, at first they wouldn't look at you, they'd walk to the other side and so on, but sometimes they would come back and say, I don't want my husband to find out, but I'm for you. So that was a great downturn, you know how in peace work, or whatever, there are ups and downs, and that was a big, big downer. You knew you were going to lose, you knew it was going to be the roar of the missiles on CNN and all that. But then we picked up, we kept working. The other good thing I want to mention is that in 1995, we had the G7 Summit that was held in Halifax and some of us determined we were going to let our the other side be known, so we began meeting, and that was another highlight. In the end of it, you know, Halifax went all out, my gosh, all this hoopla and so on, cordoned off the downtown, you couldn't go near where the big guys were meeting and so on. So instead of a G-7, we were going to have a P-7, in other words, a people's summit. It was one of the first people's summits, now they're doing them all the time, these alternative things. It was a great success and we were moving around the clock and had some wonderful people working with us and I was able to bring Ovid Mercredi, the chief of the Council of the First Nations in Canada here for a rally. I mean, he was coming anyway, but I organized this rally. I was in charge of program, so I wrote these people all over, well known people, Noam Chomsky, others. Then Shiva Vandana was here who came from India, and she is a very well known person, you know she started the tree hugging, the women hugging the trees. Anyway, it was a great experience, and the point I wanted to share is that I hate economics, and I hate money and fooling around with stuff like that and I learned that you've got to understand it. I had to learn about structural readjustment and the World Bank, and free trade. I had to learn because I was out speaking and letting people know about the all new people's summit, and you all come. We took over the commons down there and it was fabulous, but the big thing that came out of it was that I learned about Neoliberalism and structural readjustment, what all this borrowing and lending is doing to these countries. It’s happening in Canada, not only in foreign countries, it's happening in Canada, and they are taking away our social programs and maybe everything is going down hill. Now compared to other places we have nothing to complain about, we are forever saying we have been declared by the united nations as the best country in the world to live in, we’re peace keepers and all this wonderful stuff, but that’s not the whole story. So, where should I go from there, I've been extremely interested, I subscribe to the guardian weekly and read every word, it's fascinating the way all of these things tie in and what's happening and where do we go from here.
So how many times have you gone to jail, how many demonstrations have you organized, how many petitions have you put out?
A great many near misses, but only twice in jail. I stayed away from it for a while, out of fear of deportation. And both times the charges were dropped after a while and I was not the only one, of course, but the only grandmother. There was always a big thing about my age, and the question why, why would anybody care enough to do anything like this?
Maybe this is a good time to break but, what do you do, why do you do it and what keeps you going are the three questions.
Well, I think I've been talking about why I do it, and also what I do. I just wanted to say that much to my shock, I was given an honorary degree by Mount St. Vincent University last spring, and I don't know how I feel about such things. Someone sent me a news article in the national post, which is a horrendous national paper, but they'd done a survey of the number of people across Canada that were going to get honorary degrees. They said you know, they're often given to people who have money who will give it, and obviously that's not me, or people who are on the cultural or academic forefront, which obviously isn't me, or big time personalities, obviously not me. Then it went on of all things to quote, Noam Chomsky, and they said he was getting a degree last spring, and said the experience is most unusual for anyone who is sort of on the cutting edge, who steps out of line or whatever to get an honorary degree. Then the article went on to say that 9% of all the honorary degrees are going to people who are active in their community. Organizing, public education, all this kind of stuff, there you go. So when I gave my talk, I mean I don't speak at the ceremonies, but I did at the dinner in 94. I said that people like me are used to being on the RCMP list for being subversive and so on.
Well one of my questions for the second half of this interview is, are you hopeful and why? What are the hopeful signs?
I knew you were going to say that!
I'm very predictable!
Sometimes I'm extremely honest and then I think, you cannot be extremely honest, you've got to give these young folks hope, because in the crowd I'm going around with, I don't have very many friends my own age. Hope, and let them know things are upbeat and I am! [Clap!] You cannot afford not to be, however, you get up some mornings and switch on the news, I'm a news junkie a political junkie, and it's tremendous. But there are hopeful times and the fact that you want me to talk, the fact that these non-violent demonstrations now and the careful training. That's the burden of my song everywhere I go, look do you folks realize the way things are interpreted by the news, you know, and what's really going on there is months of preparation, and months of training for key people. Of course, anyone who will come you can't very well keep out as we do at smaller ones, we say you cannot participate,
Unless you've been through the training,
That's right, but you can't do that with people coming from all over. But anyway, even the Guardian Weekly, which I dearly love, is praising these to the skies. I mean, this is the wave of the future. Noam Chomsky was saying it, but I mean some of the big papers are saying that, too. That was the whole of the future, if it can be sort of contained a bit so it doesn't go veering off and I'm sure they're worried stiff about that, and are determined that's not going to happen. So much in the guardian weekly is saying that these people going out on the line face to face in good spirit for the most part, are clearing away and forcing them to admit the ideals. Some of the more responsible people, now the suspicion is of course and the concern people have is that the NGO's not be coopted in some way. You know, we're inviting you whoever, big shot consultants and whoever, the first thing you know they're not suing, they're kind of softening. But you do have to compromise some,
It's the combination of protest and negotiation,
Yes, you need both. I'm still hearing younger people, not too many, because I'm quite active on the campus, who are saying you know, you cannot talk to government, they're already corrupted, they're never going to listen. That's ridiculous, that's the way you feel when you haven't met very much of success. On the other hand, a lot of older people are saying you've got to go completely the other way and be good boys and girls,
Which we don't really believe in, we don't think good boys and girls make a difference. Well, the second half questions are, what have you learned, what are some examples of success, are you hopeful, how do we advance the cause of change. Not this big strategy, but what are the barriers, what are the obstacles, what are the opportunities, how do we advance the next generation of activists. That's the cluster of questions that I'd like to talk to you about.
Well, I don't know what to say, I mean, it's not that I'm not hopeful. I come from and that's not true of a lot of younger people I work with obviously, I'm stating the obvious here, that I come from a spiritual background. Quaker, which is not the mainline church, which does turn an awful lot of the people off. We all know the Catholic church and what that served for over the years but you get to your liberation theology and some of the people I work with are some of the most far out sisters... nuns, are some of the most far out people I know. So, I am doing a lot of work with ecumenical groups. And because of the numbers difference, you know, the United Church of Canada is a combination of several churches from the States, and the Quakers are quite small. We have about 1000 Quakers in Canada, one of the largest countries in the world, only 1000 people, but for the most part I think we make ourselves, our thoughts, our ideas, etc., and our labors, work in the field. So, but there's still a number who are Quakers who don't like being so active. So I work ecumenically and I'm often the only Quaker who is involved and representing the Quakers here, in this area. I think that's a good way to go but it's gotta be more than that. I've been agitated for years that we cannot just talk about church oriented stuff; you're going to cut out all these wonderful people. So we have to broaden that to include all groups, and we are. I mean that's the great thing about these demonstrations, the diversity of the people who showed up, I mean labor unions are beginning to come in now, they're beginning to see it's not just labor, not a single issue, and so on. We've got to stick together on all things. So that's hopeful and we've gotta do more of that. And since the world is moving in the direction of economics, we have to get people educated on what's going on. I think that's happening. We had huge demonstrations here and learning sessions on the MAI and recently on the WTO and as a Raging Granny, I sang with about 12 women. I'm almost the oldest one in there. You're asked to come and entertain and sing. You're probably not familiar with that, they are coming down into Spokane and into Washington, there are chapters developing in the States now.
Can you tell me about it, were you involved with starting it, or?
No, that came out of Vancouver and we now have over 20 throughout Canada. The one in Ottawa is called the Parliament Hill Mob! And I think as that develops more and more it will be good because you come on, you take very familiar songs and write all kinds of words. You make them as saucy and outrageous and piercing as you can so that you're giving people a poke in the ribs and a kick in the pants and trying to make them sit up and take notice. And there's a fine line there because if you get too ridiculous people think, well oh, hee, hee, ho, ho, aren't they cute and aren't they funny. We try to be clever but there's a fine line there. SO anyway, you get asked to a number of things as entertainment but you can't let that carry you away and people say, well what'll we do on the platform, Oh, well let's ask the raging grannies', Some of us are getting sick of that, we want to be the ones that go into action, when they have a meeting that the bank has called to explain why they're removing a bank from small place, to just burst in on their program and say sorry, free speech and so on and we want to contribute to this meeting,
A free song!
And here we are, and bang!
But we have to be more daring and get our spoke in the wheel.
Can you think of some of the examples of the songs, I love songs, I love sharp edged songs.
I couldn't recall the words, but to the tune of the QuarterMaster’s song, [singing] "there are suits, suits, exploiting our grassroots in the world, in the world," so on and so on, I can't recall it, (see below for the whole song, and more)
You know, they're pretty sharp edged and they crack people up. Sometimes when you run them off like I did today with my thing with Ed McCurty's song, “Last Night I had the Strangest Dream”, which you know I'm sure, the song. He retired to Canada and died in Halifax last winter.
Really? I didn't know he was dead.
Yah, so you know, he was not as famous as Pete Seeger, but he was pretty famous. Quite conservative, too, but he did love that song and was not an anti-militarist or anything like that at all. However, he played his part all right, and that song has been translated into more languages than any other peace song I'm sure, except We Shall Overcome.
If you can put your hand on the worksheets from a couple of Raging Grannies' performances, I would love to get that.
I'm not on e-mail, I suppose I could get somebody to send it. But you don't have a permanent address, right?
I'll give you the address in Montreal where I'll be for the month of December and you can send it there, that would be great. I've found a lot of examples of songs as I've talked to different activists and organizers, in fact a couple people I've interviewed that's their main work, is music.
Oh, great! Oh, wonderful! Are you talking about the States, or,
No, up here. Up here.
Oh, we have marvelous stuff and you probably do in the States, but I mean, we really drag the government over the coals in a humorous way, it's not going to be so humorous until we get the election out of the way, but I mean absolutely hilariously funny. Maybe you've watched This Hour Has 22 Minutes, or better still, much better, the Air Farce.
Yah, Royal Canadian Air Farce.
And it's just, just marvelous.
And there's nothing like laughing at people to cut them down.
Oh, yah, and that's the point. Believe me, when I go out I always wear my Raging Granny hat, and I usually teach them a song at the end and have the words printed and everything. They love it of course, because it's not too serious and then in between try to get something across often in explaining these mass movements and our demonstration, our non-violent demonstration and why they have to be non violent and all this kind of stuff.
They often say, well why do you do it? Well of course there are younger people in it, they're not all Grannies, so we haven't had that experience, but we've been getting up and lecturing and explaining and educating and getting mad and doing all kinds of stuff, but the power of the joke and the song is marvelous!
You said that you are a spiritual person, you have a powerful spiritual base and then you went on to talk about the ecumenical organizations and the fact that you are a part of the organization of the Quaker church. I'd like to ask you about the rest of that, what role does your spiritual basis and your spirituality play in motivation and sustaining and in your work in social change.
Well it's absolutely basic for me. I mean, I'm certainly not laying claim to any powerful spiritual, I don't know, you know,
You know this is the basis of Quakers, I mean, it's a direct communication, communion, whatever, whatever. I believe strongly in, I used to say in being led, through taking time and that's what I'm referring to. I don't take enough time, and I'm hoping to get a sabbatical. Not just because I'm getting older and approaching the end of life or anything like that. But I need it. You get kind of tired. I was just spending a lot of time over lunch, talking with a couple of people here about issue burn out. I mean, you know, you just keep struggling along. And I'm not really, I don't know why, that concerned about myself, but I'm looking around and I'm seeing, take this meeting itself, fewer and fewer people coming. Now there are good reasons for it not. A couple of years ago when we were doing this we had 50, 60, 70 people coming and it was very exciting. I think the choice of things is starting to expand. But some of the retreats that we're having, and not retreats, weekend workshops. You're familiar with Jubilee 2000?
They had a weekend a couple weeks ago and I was involved with some other thing and couldn't go, and they only had 2 people sign up for it, so they had to cancel it and there were a series of things like that. We have a couple coming up and I was talking with some of the people about these things and they happen to be religiously oriented, people from the church. It’s about these ecumenical groups, we represent the church, what is our job, to go back and get church people very much involved. I mean, they're not the ones who get involved, the church people, and maybe it's because they have another side of religion, an organization, a bureaucracy if you will and so on. They think that's it and they don't need anything else, but it's very hard to do that and I think we have to go at it another way,
Look outside rather than inside,
Yah, yah. So, I should keep running, I mean, I should write down notes here before I go off on a tangent. What was your question?
I started off with the question what role your spiritual life and spirituality plays in your organizing and justice work.
Well, of course, that gives me hope, oh! When I said being led, I don't use that anymore because it turns people off. Certainly I don't talk about that a lot unless people ask and sometimes they do. But it's more, and especially since being so deeply in the native movement, native spirituality, it's more now opening myself to something beyond myself to some strength, some power, which I very much believe in because I've experienced it, which is Quakerism, experiential. So what do you mean by that, well, I can't really explain it, or really don't have to, some things you can't reason out. But I have felt that strength at being right at the living end and you don't know which way to go and just relaxing over it and by golly it may not come out the way you want it of course, but by golly something gives.
The sort of closing questions I have, and I'm hesitant to say that, here are my closing questions, because I would love to talk all day,
Oh, sure, well, gosh,
The two closing questions I always ask are: one, what did I forget to ask about, what have I missed, what is part of your story that needs to be told that I haven't touched on; and the other is, what questions do you have for other people or what observations for other organizers that are in this project? So either one of those.
Well I worry about, I hate to say this, about young people, because boy does that make you sound old, and you know, the affluence and stuff. On the other hand, I’m on the board of PIRG, which is the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group,
It's on campus?
Yah. At Dalhousie. This is my third year, and that gives me great hope. Wonderful young people there that really give a lot of time and in the midst of preparing for maintaining themselves against all these tremendous debts. But also it's discouraging that there are not the student groups here that there used to be. In the 80's when the cruise missiles and the nuclear was so scary and so on, we had students out organizing and doing marches and doing a whole bunch of stuff. Now, what students and the general population, even activists, even Quakers seem to be doing is having an interest group. It’s like the Friends’ General Conference, which is a very liberal gathering of Quakers. Within a week's time have maybe 78 interest groups to choose from and a large group. This is in the States so they have a lot of Quakers in the States compared to us. Anyway, I went through one year and the great majority are introspective, a lifestyle of simplifying your life, hardly any on hard-nosed things. Very, very few. When you would sign up for those, and I don't, I haven't been to a one of them, everybody was saying the same thing, this is practically the only thing, you would sign up for the same thing every day, so you got a good dose of it, I think you know what I'm talking about, and that's true on campus, too. Organic foods, vegetarianism, animal rights, you know, all these things, and people are not getting it. Now when you have an East Timor, you can get a bunch of people, when the news is so terrible you can get them for a brief time, and I guess that’s generally true of the population.
I think sometimes we don't take credit for things, we don't see things as a victory. For example one of the reasons we don't have as many demonstrations about nuclear war is we've retreated from nuclear war, we've won in some ways. Now there's still too many nukes out there, but the clock has been turned back, that death clock.
Sure, but nuclear war was in a sense about the super powers. We’ve still done an awful lot of work recently. About 2 years ago I went before the municipal council, which is big, much bigger than Halifax. It's a combined thing and I gave a talk and they all unanimously supported me, I mean those who saw it were stunned. They unanimously upheld the idea that Canada should withdraw from supporting nuclear weapons. Of course we don't manufacture them here, but we sent parts to the States and blah blah blah and help support and build up nuclear energy in Turkey and whatever. I spent an awful lot of time on that in Abolition 2000 and now on the New Agenda which is at the peak, right now, to write letters, and I'm not doing enough of those, they're too much. On getting Canada not simply to abstain, you bunch of cowards, and of course we don't say that in Canada. On land mines and on the international court, Canada is right up in the forefront, but it's very cowardly on this nuclear thing because they are subservient to the U.S., there is no question about it. So right now, for the third time, the New Agenda Coalition is bringing up, I can't quote the exact words but that we must begin right now to call together a convention on the abolition of nuclear weapons and seriously, honestly, determinedly get to work on it. And it's thwarted every time and the Untied States and Britain and France, you know, the Security Council, the three big ones are adamantly opposed. The thing that goes along with that is NATO and NATO's war. Don't ask me an alternative there, because you know this big thing about humanitarian interference and this kind of stuff, that's a very good thing, and war has to be outlawed, that was my big pitch this morning on this Remembrance Day thing.
Eastern Europe, Serbia and so on?
Because the peace movement I know is split right down the middle on this, people having different views on it.
Any other questions or issues to put on the table? You know, we're going to invite everyone who has been interviewed to Montreal in June and I hope to get everybody in the room and close the door and let these people talk to each other. In the meantime I'll be talking to other organizers in Canada and then in Australia. Do you have any questions for that?
Like what? Where do we go from here, or what do you mean?
That's a good question. It's sort of a way of saying here's what the continuing conversation about organizing needs to be about.
Nothing comes quickly to mind. I was talking last in front of the library where we're meeting with gkisedtanamoogk, and heaven knows when we'll ever get time to sit down and talk with each other, because I don't see him that much anymore, he's way north. In Burnt Church it’s the fishing, the communal rights and the individual rights and they're always talking about community and they go hunting and they bring the moose or the caribou back and they divide it up among the community and nothing is their own. When natives come visit me in Halifax, whether I know them or not, they go right to the refrigerator and open it up and share, you know, it's fine, but it does take you back just a teeny bit. So that's fine, but I mean there's this very strong communal sense. Now with the individual issuing of licenses, and this is not for wide open discussion I guess, but it's a big issue, because some people are coming in and advising them look, go for property rights, regard these licenses as property rights, and go for individual rights as opposed to communal rights. That's against their whole approach, so we can't get involved, that's their problem, they've got to figure that out for themselves.
This is a common issue in organizing, do you go to the benefit of the individual, or of the community, or of the whole group. Do you go for special benefits, or do you go for broad benefit. It plays itself out in the Burnt Church struggle in one way, but it plays itself out in neighborhood development. Do you go for 5 houses and 5 people get a house, or do you go for a new source of funding for low income housing and a larger number of people get help.
But it's more than philosophical or conscientious thinking; it's their whole culture, their whole worldview.
Yah, and it's real powerful.
Yah, I wish I could think of just the right questions, but I will in the middle of the night and I will send them along.
Maybe, but I have this out because I really can't think of something right this minute. There is one thing. We talked about this this morning when you weren't here. It has to do with computer and technology and the network, and that which I am without and I have no intention of getting it. Now to say that to 99.9%, they look at you like you're in the dark ages, and I am in the dark ages and you cannot get along today without it, and if I were younger I would have to retire from the world or jump on board. I can afford it, I'm not that kind of a person that I could force myself to, but, I pose the question today, which I do in every meeting now, I'm not just speaking for myself, I am feeling left out. It's kind of embarrassing to say to people, but I say it, look if you want me to be involved, if you want me for consultation, you have to not only do me the courtesy, but you have to take that time to lick a postage stamp or make a phone call. If you want me to come to something, okay. And so I'm missing out on a lot of stuff. Some people are devoted to letting me know, but I'm missing out on a lot, which is good, I'd like to take a sabbatical, and it's the right time, and I think to myself you've given yourself the perfect excuse right now.
I didn't get the e-mail! I can't come to the meeting!
Yah, right! As I said this morning, you are cutting out over one half of the population. If you are trying to do public education and everybody says, oh, send it out on the e-mail, so everybody would know. I mean, I have a choice, I could afford it, I could do it, but a lot of people don't and they're cut out and you're not going to have their support. If people want money, they send you in the mail, because they know they're not going to get you on e-mail. So what would be the question come out of that. You're going to have to wait for a lot of us to die off and for the people that come along like using the telephone, and by then, which I absolutely believe, it's going to be so push button that you won't have to master all this. Of course it gets more complicated all the time, so maybe,
But it's nothing,
But in organizing, in community organizing, and we came to an agreement, I mean somebody else said it, the best way to get people to sell people on an idea, on an issue, to get people involved, is person to person. How do you do that through hundreds of e-mails that pour through your machine? All I hear from people is how they come home from a weekend and they have 200 e-mails and they throw half of them in the basket. How do you get commitment from people, get them involved through e-mail. Maybe that's a good question. I love that word commitment. How do you get committed enthusiasts of whatever, workers, activists if you only go through e-mail?
And I'm sure that once you make that leap and you're on it, it doesn't occur to a lot of people.
It's so easy, you think you've communicated when you push a button.
And if nobody's on the other end, it doesn't get there, you haven't communicated anything.
Yah, and I'm the first to admit, you've got to be honest, but there's a problem there logistically for activists and for organizers. I mean I look at Chiapas. You know that Chiapas was the first big protest to go online, I guess that's the right expression, and let their cause be known and what they were going to do and get people organized and down there and helping them. It was magical, and also with this nuclear weapons abolition, the stuff coming through, it's really, I mean, the excitement mounts and so on and so on. So you know, I'm more aware of the power of it. But how are you going to?
We've cut out a whole world of possibilities.
Back up support. It's wonderful for the organizers, everybody wants everything yesterday, but how do you bring all those people.
Good question, thanks.
Another thing, how do I even phrase it? I'm concerned about how to work with big business or any big big whatever without being coopted. I guess I was talking to an environmentalist who worked for the department of the environment in Canada and wanted to ask him and he got away before I got to, whether the national round table on environmental something or another is working out. Because it is splitting many of the social justice groups on how closely you can work with people without being caught. I mean it's an age old question, but it's very crucial right now, especially with pollution control and everything because we're getting worse and so is the U.S. and big industry is giving in a few little things, but pretty surface.
And these round tables that have often times no power.
Well, I don't know, they have top people in industry and top people in government and top people from local groups. There are people that say, stay away, you can't have anything to do with business. I happen to believe, because I think eventually, if we are to go past thou shalt not to the industry which is not realistic, you have to talk talk talk, back and forth and see what you can do. But short of a revolution, which I firmly believe in and putting down a capitalistic system and bringing a socialist system about which I'm not about to see before I go, but anyway, is this working, do people feel it's working?
Good, good question. How close can you get?
Is it working in Canada? It’s more than theoretical, do you think this can work, is this working in Canada? It's not just the environment; there are many other,
The round table strategy, sort of getting everybody together,
And bringing people together I think has great value to see that it's not them and us, the enemy and the virtuous people, but because there are good people on both sides. It’s the same thing in the fishing dispute. There are people saying you cannot talk with those non-native fisherman. You've got to talk with them sometime, you've got to talk with them because there are some good white fisherman who realize, look, we do have to work together,
From the Raging Grannies Unconvention 2000 Songsheet tittled, “Friday Night Practice and for Sunday Action”
Moral Economy Song
By Halifax Raging Grannies
Written: 19 November 1997
Tune: Quartermaster Corps*
There are suits, suits, exploiting the grassroots, in the world, in
We have poor, poor, who have a sad fu-ture, in the world we live in now.
My eyes are not dim, I now can see
I know something about the e-con-o-my
I know some-thing about the e-con-o-my.
There are corporate forces, plundering resources in the world, in the
They invest, invest, and democracy divest in the world we live in now.
We want work, work, lots of full time work, in the world, in the world
Countries can’t get out of foreign debt, in the world we live in now.
We pay tax, tax, while the rich relax, in the world, in the world,
We have choice, choice, to change we have a voice, in the world we live in now
* (Ed.: I think this is The Quartermaster’s Store – see Folkways Record, Songs of the International Brigades by Pete Seeger. Their version is, “There are peas, peas, to bring you to your knees, in the store, in the store…)
(Betty marks this “My personal favourite”)
Cubans and Canadians
Melody: Yellow Rose of Texas”
The Cubans are annoying Washington, DC
They’re Red and they speak Spanish
Not like you and me
They all drink rum and cola and eat too many beans,
They’d rather dance the mambo than make friends with the Marines.
We Canadians are suspect, we import Cuban rum
We drink it in our igloos or go South for Cuban sun
We play our football funny
We don’t spell the American way,
And we cannot end a sentence unless we end with ‘eh’..ay
Helms Burton wants to strangle the Cuban economy
Canadians trade with Cuba, to do this we are free,
We still will trade with Cuba
That’s where we’re coming from
This year we’ll head for Cuba and we’ll boycott Florida sun!!!